Beyond such advertising prose, it is important to look for other evidence in surviving textbooks -- layout and design, paper and type choices, ownership marks and annotations. While the basic teaching texts in these books are sources for the history of pedagogy, the front matter, apparatus, and design elements are primary documents for marketing strategy. This is an area where examining as many books, as many editions, and as many copies as possible is a distinct asset. The ways in which a given text is arranged and printed during the lifetime of an author may tell us about his intentions for the text, especially if the resulting layout is unusual or innovative and we can also surmise that the work was done under his supervision. If a text of the sort changes after the apparent involvement of its author ends, we can be even more certain of his involvement in the original case. (44) I have included some clear examples of both these phenomena (Pomponio Leto and Giovanni Cantalicio in chapter two; Antonio Mancinelli in chapter three; Josse Bade and Jan de Spauter in chapter four). In other cases, it seems equally clear that design and marketing innovations were the work of printers or publishers, not of the authors (Tacuino, Rusconi, and Vegio in chapter three; the publishers of Gian Alberto Bossi in chapters two and five). The unique case of Aldo Manuzio (1449 or 50-1515) who was both author and publisher of textbooks, turns out to be less informative than most, since it is not possible to separate his pedagogical and printerly motives. (45)


Annotations in surviving textbooks offer a particular set of interpretive problems, but they can be as valuable for understanding textbooks as for other kinds of authorship and readership. (46) I have employed them sparingly in this book, primarily to explicate how the marketing of some books seems to have been reflected in actual classroom usage. In other words, the annotations of students and teachers can be a test of the effectiveness of the often extravagant claims made on title pages or in prefaces. As Kristian Jensen has noted, most annotated schoolbooks that survive bear marks made by teachers not students, no doubt because teachers and institutions were more likely than individual pupils to reuse books from year to year, to have them bound, and to save them. Annotated schoolbooks, then, tend to witness the opinions and practices of a professional class of humanists struggling to make do with the textbooks they found on the market. (47)


Boys will be boys

Boys will be boys (click to enlarge - 465 KB jpeg file)

The biggest problem with notes in schoolbooks, however, is that they can be about anything. A student's textbooks became reference books in the years after formal schooling ended. It often happened that a book acquired many layers of notes that do not tell us much about its classroom use. (48) Again, a single example will stand for the problems of the class. A copy of Niccolò Perotti's highly successful Rudimenta grammatices printed at Venice in 1478 and now at the Newberry Library is not particularly heavily annotated, but the contemporary and near-contemporary notes it does bear are of the most varied sort. Alas, they do not add up to anything much. The back cover of the book has many childish scribbles of a grammar-school sort, but they could as easily be pen trials by adult readers.

Conventional marginalia (click to enlarge - 537 KB jpeg file)

Conventional marginalia (click to enlarge - 537 KB jpeg file)

On early leaves, an attentive student or teacher has added notes that index some of the subjects treated. The same hand made some underlining and other conventional pointers that confirm something we know from many other copies, that Perotti's work was mined for vocabulary study. A similar hand, though probably not the same person, gave a very few Italian equivalents for some of the less familiar entries in Perotti's long word lists.

The scholar’s hand (click to enlarge - 550 KB jpeg file)

The scholar’s hand (click to enlarge - 550 KB jpeg file)

A distinctive formal hand, probably of the early sixteenth century, added a single long note in the margin to Perotti's discussion of comparatives and superlatives. As this annotator indicated punctiliously, he copied here a passage on the superlative taken not from another grammarian but from a standard university-level philosophy text, a commentary on Duns Scotus' Quaestiones super universae Porphyrii.

Ownership mark (click to enlarge - 156 KB jpeg file)

Ownership mark (click to enlarge - 156 KB jpeg file)

On the last page of text, there is a note by a different sort of reader altogether. It is the scribbled ownership mark of "Maestro Barnaba son of Maestro Fabiano, barber," who notes that the book was acquired in exchange for a bushel of beans (or perhaps as security for a loan in the form of beans). These various notes take us from the grammar school classroom to a private study, then to a university setting, and on to a tradesman's shop. They offer a lot of information about places where the book was to be found, but they do not reveal much about how this copy of Perotti was used in the classroom. (49)

In the productive hands of teachers and editors, however, schoolbook annotations could be more pregnant, leading to entirely new textbooks. Schoolmasters frequently decided to publish their own classroom materials, often, it would seem, with little ambition beyond the guaranteed local market of their own students. These strictly local products embody the same tricks of the teacher's trade that we find repeatedly in the margins of widely used books. They are evidence for the reading and teaching habits of their authors, and also for their dissatisfaction with received textbooks. As the sixteenth century progressed, moreover, a whole new genre of Latin textbook came into existence based on the kind of annotations we find in schoolbooks. This was the vocabulary drill book based on a specific classical author whose works were used in intermediate grammar school courses. Cicero was the author most often treated in this way. Apparently these drill books were intended in part to relieve the basic grammar course of the elaborate vocabulary study that had come to burden it in the late fifteenth century. Teachers could defer study of specialized vocabulary until the intermediate course when students would encounter these words while reading the standard authors.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(44) On methodological issues, McKenzie 1989, 104-106; McKenzie 2002, 123-136; 206-223.
(45) See chapter two for a brief discusion of this point.
(46) Jardine 1993, 137-141; Milde 1998, 7-9; Hellinga 1998, 135-138; Jackson 2001, 9-15, 244-258; G?ombiowski 2002, 45-60; McKenzie 2002, 144-146; Ruffini 2002, 156-157.
(47) Jensen 1991.
(48) Hellinga 1988, 137-138.
(49) Perotti 1478, copy at the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Posted by admin on September 16, 2008
Tags: Introduction

Total comments on this page: 11

How to read/write comments

Comments on specific paragraphs:

Click the icon to the right of a paragraph

  • If there are no prior comments there, a comment entry form will appear automatically
  • If there are already comments, you will see them and the form will be at the bottom of the thread

Comments on the page as a whole:

Click the icon to the right of the page title (works the same as paragraphs)


No comments yet.

Susan Barron on paragraph 3:

very touching and beautiful piece of work

January 17, 2009 2:19 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Susan: Your notes at 2.11 suggest that you are loving this piece as a composition by a single child reader covering a temptingly empty page. In fact there are at least three hands here, probably more. What shows up as a sort of smudge toward the top is probably the earliest mark, an ownership mark by a youth named Liberio. Most if not all the boxes contain an anagram poem, probably repeated by the same reader over and over. I would guess he is also responsible for the two roughly drawn penises, because the ink is very similar. The long, loose lines in greyish ink quoting a bit of doggerel in Italian, “Chi vuol saver…” are by yet another reader. And the marks in reddish brown ink –including a comic profile head– are surely yet another young owner. The all-over effect is, therefore, the result of accumulation, not the work of a single scribbler.

April 19, 2009 6:42 pm
gscarano :

It’s so interesting to see that there were doodles like this! You make a great point in the following paragraph about not knowing what hand written notes were truly about or who actually wrote them… but I guess it’s your job to try to figure that out!

March 11, 2013 1:18 am
Susan Barron on paragraph 3:

Well, it does work as a single piece now, but it was clearly done by the different students who handled the book.

September 17, 2009 7:55 pm
Paul F. Gehl on whole page :

The brief discussion of annotation in this section is not intended to minimize the importance of such evidence for many kinds of book history, merely to suggest that there are particular cautions to be observed in the case of textbooks. The best synthetic study of marks in books, confined to English examples but useful methodologically for all, is William Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

December 27, 2009 10:12 am
Paul F. Gehl on whole page :

Some important observations on annotation in school books may be found in Susan Forscher Weiss, ”Vandals, Students, or Scholars? Handwritten Clues in Renaissance Music Textbooks,” in Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Indiana University Press, 2010, pp.207-246, esp.213-236.

January 4, 2011 10:59 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

Well, yes, it is “my job” I suppose, but at a certain point you have to admit that you don’t have enough evidence to give a solid answer and then give it up! Or else you speculate — and label it as such.

March 11, 2013 10:52 am
Esme Faneuff on paragraph 2:

I am surprised to learn that even in the very beginning of the history of books the owners would mark them and draw in them. I am surprised because I would assume that people of this era would be more respectful towards this new technology, and want to preserve their new purchase. Perhaps doodling has always been and always will be a common pastime of the student in class.

March 11, 2013 1:33 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Actually, early modern people saw books as instruments or tools and that meant they felt very free to mark them up –both for their personal use and for the use of other people who would use them. One by-product of the relative scarcity of books was that many individuals would often use a single book, either together or across time. My personal favorites are brothers and sisters, parents and children who put their names in a single books, sometimes across several generations.

March 11, 2013 2:44 pm
Nancy OConnell on paragraph 1:

Would you expand on Aldo Manuzio’s pedagogical motives regarding the graphics and design of his textbooks? Did he commission fonts designed to enhance readability and therefore marketability?

April 29, 2013 12:21 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 1:

I expand on Aldo as teacher in section 2.05, paragraph 4 below, where I give the specific example of how he used red and black to aid students in comprehension. Your question is a little broader than that, Nancy, in that you ask about type faces. In fact Aldo did commission several types for his press, and it is usually said that the famous Aldine italic (there are examples in section 1.09 below) was invented for the sake of economy and legibility. But none of Aldus’s faces was designed specifically for textbooks. The significance of his teaching career really lies in the fact that he could control the entire process –from authorship, through design and printing, to marketing.

May 1, 2013 2:05 am

You must be login to comment.
Create an account or login