Sales pitches were never far to seek in humanist books, and though the commonplaces employed were always high-sounding and usually derived from classical sources, the flood of competing books in the print market lent urgency to both packaging and advertising. The long sixteenth century (and the age of print) began amidst the full flowering of humanist rhetoric, whose practitioners followed Cicero in claiming that their discipline's greatest power was the ability to persuade. Much of pre-print humanism viewed the goal of such persuasion personally, as the moral improvement of the individual. Rhetoric of this sort, in the form of private study, tutoring, and small schools, conduced to a life well lived (that is, to a commonplace, morally conformist life) and to personal salvation in the afterlife. Humanists and other writers also assumed a communitarian ideal, in which the ability to persuade others in large groups led to the betterment of society as a whole. The myth of the origin of rhetoric that stands at the beginning of Cicero's De inventione was the commonplace most often cited for this rhetorical philosophy. Cicero's original sage was the orator who first persuaded his fellows to organize themselves politically and economically. (3)


These non-commercial ideals of persuasive rhetoric did not fail or even weaken when they entered the print market. On the contrary, they found a new and wider audience. Across the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, they increasingly displaced less rhetorical models of Christianity. (4) They remained the highest ideals of European civilization for centuries. In one way or another they are still with us.

Printing, however, slowly became the primary rhetorical medium, and the new medium imposed new norms. Philology, not just morality, became both a selling point and a goal in life. The case of Terence shows how productive the new print reality could be but also how constraining the classroom context was. In the first forty years of printing Terence, the market was almost exclusively for teaching editions that contained poorly edited texts. The value added by printers was largely in the form of old and new commentaries. These editions looked solemnly the same and were in fact largely unoriginal. But the philological work embodied in the many competing commentaries slowly built momentum for a real revision of the text. Finally, just around 1500, a vastly improved text could be offered, one that set a new standard and stimulated further editorial work that would continue into the eighteenth century.


The sixteenth century also saw many new packages for teaching Terence. These classroom formats determined competitiveness in the market. The text of Terence was so intimately connected with Latin-language learning that it never quite had a literary life of its own. The great moments of philological progress on the text (Poliziano's notes, Aldo's edition, and later Faerno's) caused a certain amount of scholarly excitement, it is true; but philological advances were quickly absorbed by the textbook market and the competition reverted to being one between publishers who touted new classroom formats or teacher-editors of note. However beloved  and imitated, Terence remained a school author.

The market for elementary Latin grammars displayed many of the same characteristics as that for intermediate school authors like Terence. Originality was rarely an issue, and what novelties there were usually concerned bringing old rules and proof-texts up to date by reference to ongoing philological research on the classics. Grammar textbooks were particularly unstable because they were almost never more than exercise pieces. Every teacher at every period felt free to modify them for his own classroom. Marketing for such textbooks relied heavily on the reputations of modern authors and editors. Guarino, Perotti, Mancinelli, De Spauter, Priscianese, and Bonciari each in turn became a brand name for a kind of textbook or a kind of pedagogy.

The rhetoric of selling textbooks changed relatively little before the mid-sixteenth century. Latin was marketed in print just as it had been by the earliest humanists, in threefold fashion: as a career-enhancing professional language, as the key to the treasures of ancient wisdom, and as a morally improving discipline. Different authors emphasized one or another of these themes, but they all appeared repeatedly. Authors and editors in the early sixteenth century did devise and sell new packages for the Latin course. Some emphasized the novelty of the textbooks themselves -- better type or design -- but most also claimed, like De Spauter and his followers, to be offering a more effective Latin pedagogy. Mostly these claims meant more and better-defined drills and, on the level of book design, clearer and better paradigms and other diagrammatic aids to memorization.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
3  Elkins 1999, 209-212.
4  Rummel 1995, 3-7, 193-195.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Conclusion

Total comments on this page: 5

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mikegoddard on paragraph 4:

Christopher S. Celenza’s 2004 work “The Lost Italian Renaissance” urges scholars to study the Latin writings of Renaissance Italians for a fuller understanding of the contested subject. He also stresses the dire need, especially in the United States, for more translations of Latin Renaissance texts. “Humanism for Sale” seems to fit in quite nicely with what Celenza wants, and where he thinks the interdisciplinary field of “Renaissance Studies” should go in the new millenium. How do you, as the scholar, feel about this assessment?

September 21, 2009 4:55 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

The interesting thing about the passage you cite in Celenza’s book (which I think overall is brilliant, by the way) is that he seems to have decided there is no chance we can train American scholars to read Latin well. So Americans need translations, while we can assume the philological training in Italy and Germany will continue to flourish, and those scholarly publics will not need translations. No doubt this opinion of Celenza’s derives from the practical experience of his own teaching. I guess, since I live in a research library world, I am more optimistic about Americans reading Latin. Still, these Latin works (not necessarily the schoolbooks I spend time with, but certainly the dialogues and poetry and treatises that constitute the original works of humanists) deserve to be better known. Fortunately, we have good translations (with Latin on facing pages) coming out regularly now from the Harvard I Tatti series, one of the most exciting initiatives or recent years

To punt the question back to you, Mike: Do you think we need more and better Latin training, or more and better translations? You (not I) are the future of Renaissance studies, so it is really the students in your class who must answer this question.

September 21, 2009 8:03 pm
liam db on paragraph 2:

Do you really think that these ideas “displaced” aspects of Christianity, or were they reinterpreted and adapted to serve a purpose within Christian society?

October 11, 2011 1:39 pm
Paul Gehl :

Good point, Liam. What I wanted to convey here is that what we now think of as mainstream Christianity is a highly rhetorical, language-centered faith, but that medieval Christianity –in the absence of widespread literacy, remember– was strongly visual and oral. One of the lasting effects of humanism was to reclaim the rhetorical tradition of classical culture and make it over into a central fact of Christianity. This could only happen because humanist rhetorical ideas were adopted and made universal through wider literacy and through the medium of commercial print.

October 11, 2011 7:43 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 4:

For the rhetoric of print, prefaces are among the most important sources, and the prefaces of Aldo Manuzio are among the most persuasive and elegant in enunciating a humanist publishing program. The entire corpus was published in 1975 by Carlo Dionisotti, Aldo Manuzio editore (Milan, Il Polifilo), but there is now a highly accessible and usable edition of selected prefaces in Italian translation: Mario Infelise and Tiziana Plebani (eds.), Aldo Manuzio , la voce dell’editore (Venice, Marsilio, 2015).

February 7, 2018 9:29 am

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