Humanism For Sale describes many kinds of selling, some of them commercial, some professional, others merely rhetorical. Humanists sold an educational program to parents and a philological one to the scholarly world. They sold their services as thinkers, writers, and public speakers to patrons both public and private. Of course, intellectuals had done these things for centuries, on a small scale at least; but the humanists of the long sixteenth-century had another, much larger opportunity for public relations created by the new market for print. They used print to discuss their ideas with each other and to elaborate their program for a more general public. They sold their services to the printers; and they helped printers sell books to the public. In the cases most extensively discussed in Humanism For Sale they authored textbooks on commission for publishers, or organized editorial work for a publishing enterprise, or acted as publishers themselves. Some few even printed and sold their own books.

Beyond the textbook market, and even sometimes within it, humanists were buyers too. A large portion of the literary discourse of the sixteenth century appeared in books and pamphlets that were subsidized by their authors so thoroughly that they were in fact simply buying publishing services from a local press. For some publishers and in some cities, this kind of vanity publishing was the norm, representing the largest single part of their finances. (1) In such cases it is not strictly correct to speak of a marketplace, except insofar as the subsidies created products that then went onto the market without substantial risk to the printer. By contrast, most textbooks were published for a truly competitive, even cutthroat market. The rare exceptions -- largely Latin grammars for a single schools subsidized by teachers who either did not approve of older, standard texts or wanted to make a career with something under their own name -- can be spotted easily. They had no imitators and no afterlife. (2)


In a much larger sense, however, humanists sold ideas retail, piece by piece, because a hallmark of humanist thought was the creation and adaptive re-use of commonplaces. Commonplaces took many commercial forms. Oratory had always been a well-rewarded art, and sermons in particular were confected out of commonplaces from ancient times forward. In the later Middle Ages they were collected and sold in manuscript form; and sermon collections would become a staple of the new print culture precisely because they sold well. Humanist sermons in Latin were a small sub-genre, but they were perhaps more venal than other sermons in that they were most often delivered in college or court chapels for wealthy and powerful patrons, not directed to the general public. The humanist sermon was an elitist performance, intended (among other things) to advance the career of its author. Another highly visible form of oratorical commonplace was the secular humanist speech, often a panegyric delivered at court, in a civic setting, or in the schools. Orations of this sort paid well too, whether in honoraria, patronage, or prestige.


The commonest and most obviously commercial humanist commonplaces were sold in print. Every kind of humanist literature proceeded by commonplace, and so every humanist-inspired book retailed commonplace thoughts. Some genres were more thoroughly commonplace than others, and textbooks were prominent among them because they were by their nature introductory treatments, composed in small, well-labeled sections designed to be easily digestible by young or inexperienced readers. Textbooks in turn helped create habits of mind that informed all humanist writing. Even Erasmus' Adagia or Alciati's Emblemata, the grandest of all commonplace books, partook of this digestive, ruminative character.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(1)  See the important recent study of the Florentine publisher Marescotti by Bertoli 2007, esp. 87-92.
(2)  One exception, discussed in section 7.10, was Girolamo Cafaro. The first edition of his grammar bears all the hallmarks of a vanity press publication, but his gamble for fame succeeded, since the book went on, in revised form, to have a long life on the competitive market.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Conclusion

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zsschiff on paragraph 4:

The idea of “retailing commonplace thoughts” gives a whole new slant to the notion of “intellectual property,” since things bought and sold (even ineffable things) do amount to property. (Indeed, when such things go into print, they cease being ineffable.) What’s interesting in this Renaissance context, though, is that private ownership of the property is not prized. Commonplaces are “common” property whose value lies precisely in their commonness, and the student/teacher/orator establishes his (or her) worth by demonstrating command of the common stock of wisdom (which might be “ownership” of a different sort). This whole attitude toward a commonly-held “intellectual property” obviously speaks to a different conception of selfhood in the Renaissance, to different conceptions of ownership (one wonders how this might be reflected in legal documents), and (obviously) to different conceptions of the author/artist. I think the whole notion of the wholesaling/retailing of classical culture is very fruitful and provocative.

March 13, 2009 8:19 am
dianarobin on whole page :

Re .03. I think it is much too sweeping a generalization to say that a hallmark of
humanist thought was the use of
commonplaces. A hallmark of
humanist pedagogy yes. But of
humanist thought, no. To say this
would be to suggest that humanism
(the rediscovery, cultivation, and
preservation of the once lost thought
and literature of Greece and Rome)
itself consisted in, or could be
boiled down into, slogans.

March 17, 2009 4:44 am
dianarobin on paragraph 3:

Re.03. The identification of humanism
and the humanist movement in early
modern Europe with elementary
Latin pedagogy in its commercial
forms trivializes humanism. Yes, there
is always a connection between
education and its commercial uses
and value. But, again, a distinction
needs to be made between the
philosophy of humanism as a world
view, on the one hand, and one of its
most rudimentary components:
i.e. the teaching of Latin grammar
and its transmission via little sayings supposely culled from Latin authors.
Yes, elementary Latin grammar was
sold — and sold successfully — as
you have shown. But I find
it confusing and reductive to identify
humanism with the teaching of the
mechanics of one language.

March 17, 2009 5:13 am
Ken Gouwens on paragraph 1:

The issue of teachers publishing their own books certainly has resonance today. Some scholars are pilloried (in my view, rightly so) for requiring students to purchase privately published course readers at exorbitant prices. On the other hand, I myself did a primary source reader for Italian Renaissance courses (Blackwell, 2004) because I got so frustrated with finding one that suited my own teaching needs. I have made precious little money off it, but that was not the reason I published it.
“Humanism for Sale” is surely parallel to numerous other self-published (non-text-) books, some of which have had impressive circulation over time. Having just taught it to a class of ten graduate students, I can say that it provoked lively discussion on numerous levels, including of course the contrast between printed texts and online texts. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I was struck by how easy it was for the students to gain access to this text: whereas several other excellent monographs from the past decade now cost well over $100 and, if not purchased, must be obtained via interlibrary loan, “Humanism for Sale” popped right up on students’ computer screens. Perhaps, as “Google Books” becomes more comprehensive (see Tony Grafton’s recent essay on the subject, online in the New Yorker, I believe), the contrast in access will be less stark; but for now, surely, it is highly significant. This mode of publication fills a need that I suspect is rapidly increasing.

September 27, 2009 12:43 pm

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