The emblem was an open-ended form, embodying as it did both themes specifically intended by the author and also others that the reader could bring to it from his or her own reading. Collected into books with numerous images, the individual emblems became even more open-ended, since they invited the reader to conceive of study as a series of discrete problems which added up to a moral philosophy, personally acquired and personally applied. Admittedly, the intent was establishmentarian. The individual puzzles almost always led to commonplace solutions that were dictated by obvious social standards. The themes were those of European society at large; and the most significant single lesson intended by most authors was the value of conforming to the commonplaces. Indeed, conformity was an increasingly urgent emblem theme as the Wars of Religion progressed. Still, emblems required an activist kind of reading that engaged the mind in problem solving. The emblem book did not allow of passive learning or rote memorization. It could elicit a variety of responses. The mental activism it demanded particularly appealed to teachers, just as the overall lessons of conformity to authority did. (12)


Because they were pictorial, emblems also assumed some kind of display, both of the complex, invented objects and of the author's learnedness which stood behind the images, mottoes, and poems. There were many everyday opportunities to display emblems, but the emblem book rather quickly became the usual way to transmit emblems to the public. It is easy to see how this kind of public/private, learned/popular, esoteric/on-display object came to symbolize Renaissance ideals of moral education and rhetorical/scientific invention. At their most pretentious, emblem authors imagined that long study and experience were distilled into a single, revelatory moment embodied in the emblem. The emblem would both explicate an author's insight and also stand permanently as witness to the genius of the inventor. In practice very few emblems "invented" in the modern sense of the word. Instead, they discovered morally persuasive themes in the literature of the past -- the classical, rhetorical sense of inventio -- and this was exactly the goal traditionally claimed for a good Latin education. It is in this important sense that emblem collections can be seen as a humanist response to the new realities of education through printed tools. Once collected into series, emblems in book form served for meditation and for teaching, but also for the processes of rhetorical invention and other sorts of design. They were how-to books for inventive thought, whether moral, graphic, or scientific. Because they were puzzles, emblems presupposed a leisurely, Latinate sort of reading and study, not the kinds of simple amusement, quick reference, or stepwise directive that was the method of the usual vernacular how-to book. (13)


The printed emblem book flourished as a high-culture phenomenon until about 1600. Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, however, and continuing throughout the seventeenth, the form was popularized. This developmental arc is important, because the form rather quickly became something its inventor never imagined. Already in the late sixteenth century, emblem-making was diffused into a variety of everyday life situations and popularized. Printing played a key role, both by multiplying the individual emblems and also by proposing the emblem book as tool for extended meditation. The emblem book elevated the activity of composing and puzzling out individual emblems from an occasional pastime to a literary genre with its own rules and conventions, its own critical literature, and a series of audiences defined by the market. Some emblems had always had moral meaning, but, increasingly in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, moral emblems in book form were offered to women and children as tools for learning how to conform to the expectations of society. The process began very early, with several translations of Alciati's 1531 collection intended for student readers that appeared in France in the 1540s. (14)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(12)   Harms 1973, 53-57; Pinkus 1996, 39-45; Elkins 1999, 201-203; Scholz 2002, 326-330; Manning 2002, 80-88; Coppens 2005, 37.
(13)  Gareffi 1981, 12-17; Ciardi 1992, 363-370; Pinkus 1996, 43-45; Waquet 2001, 36-40.
(14)   On periodization, Harms 1973, 49, 60-62; Scholz 1993, 154-157; Matthews 1991, 30-38; Matthews Grieco1997, 61-65; Manning 2002, 110-114; Wolkenhauer 2002, 46-53, 61-62, 78-83.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Chapter Seven

Total comments on this page: 14

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dianarobin on paragraph 3:

The connection between Latin
pedagogy and emblem reading
as playful puzzle solving is

March 17, 2009 4:12 am
Richard Mallette on paragraph 1:

Have I missed this, or do you find the Horatian formula “et pictura poesis” relevant here? More to the point, did the emblem-makers?

July 17, 2009 6:22 am
Sean Franzel on paragraph 1:

I find your notion of the emblem as a machine for activist kinds of reading really helpful and interesting. I assume that this encouragement of activist interpretive practices is– to greater and lesser extents, depending on their ideological functions– at work in other aesthetic forms (signs, paintings, decorative arts, etc) that likewise play on the kind of analogical thinking you describe as characteristic of the period… Is it that emblematics deepen, expand upon a mode of allegorical/analogical hermeneutics, or that the convergence of print, popularization and new pedagogies change the playing field somehow?

November 26, 2011 11:10 am
Sean Franzel on paragraph 1:

actually, your discussion in the next section basically answers my question…

November 26, 2011 11:13 am
Lauren Bartshe on paragraph 1:

I also find your discussion of the emblem creating an active reader to be quite interesting, especially in relation to the concerns described in 7.01, that many educators feared mass-printed books would cause “permanent harm in a more natural oral / aural classroom.” It appears, then, that emblems perhaps encouraged more discussion, due to their often ambiguous meaning. This idea of activist reading ties in nicely with the image of the emblem as a bridge “between textbook making and teaching.”

November 26, 2011 12:23 pm
Paul Gehl :

Lauren: Both you and Sean are here pointing to a kind of reading that was applied to texts as well as pictorial works during the Middle Ages. In that period the number of readers was small and they concentrated in communities that could easily be policed. The issue for the authorities in the first age of print was exactly the one that moralizing (or politically controlling) public figures today use to suggest we should censor the internet –that people cannot be trusted to use the media.

November 26, 2011 6:05 pm
kkessler on paragraph 3:

The pedagogical use of emblems for women and children is interesting. Were these emblems ever disseminated (or re-purposed) with vernacular mottos/poems in woodcuts catering to a more rural audience? Or did these remain more or less exclusive to the urban bourgeoisie and landed aristocrats?

November 27, 2011 11:22 pm
Paul Gehl :

Good question, Ky, in the sense that the existing literature does not address these issues at all well. Wooden printing blocks are very durable and many got re-purposed in later centuries, in general for less and less pretentious kinds of book, eventually finding their way into chapbooks of the most popular sort. Bbut I know of no study that tries to trace this reuse systematically, and my impression is that emblem blocks were not resused this way very often.

November 28, 2011 7:11 am
nicholastotten on paragraph 1:

After not only encouraging “activist” thinking but also translating to regional vernaculars, to what extent did these expand the open-mind syndrome of readers experiencing the importance of personal opinion, interpretation, and perhaps then critical analysis of systems beyond that of the emblem? Or is it just that the emblems really were providing affective lessons of newly revisited morals that effectively left the reader with a new sense of reverence for the system as it was? Mostly, I am curious as to whether there were any popular exceptions?

November 27, 2011 11:26 pm
Chen Chen on paragraph 1:

This section answers my question on 7.02. And I think the idea Emblem books is very interesting. And I agree that it requires “an activist kind of reading that engaged the mind in problem solving”. I remember, in class when we read the book “Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch”, we had lots of discussion about the emblem on the front page. It’s really requires an active learning. We tried to figure out what the pictures represented and there was no clear answer.

November 28, 2011 12:17 am
Emma Tolkin on paragraph 2:

Was this “leisurely, Latinate sort of reading and study” viewed with more respect by scholars than quick reference books? If so, did this have to do with new conceptions about time, or has the value of lengthy study been around since antiquity?

March 10, 2013 11:37 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Good question, Emma. In fact the meditative style of reading was inherited from the ancient world, and was probably applied to works of art as well as texts. It certainly applied to texts that described works of art (the way emblems do). A good book on the subject is Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory.

March 11, 2013 10:44 am
Courtney K. on paragraph 1:

It’s interesting to see here an appreciation for conformity, especially from teachers, when in the context of standard textbook (and, more broadly, humanism) it was individuality that they were embracing. I imagine this speaks to the unique usage of emblem books?

March 11, 2013 2:32 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Well, in general before the twentieth century, students were invited to conform to communitarian ideals, just because notions of individual freedom were not so well developed then. But I bet if you look at your textbooks today –think back to high school– you would find that you were more often being encouraged to “be good” than to do wholly original thinking.

March 11, 2013 2:48 pm

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