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Humanism For Sale
Making and Marketing Schoolbooks in Italy, 1450-1650

Paul F. Gehl



During the fifteenth century, Europeans witnessed the triumph of the cultural movement we call humanism. Very soon thereafter, however, the educational program of the humanists began to decline in status from a cultural near-monopoly into a strongly held but increasingly minority point of view. These events transpired almost entirely in print; they represent a struggle that played out in publishing houses and bookstores as well as in classrooms. This book relates a small but important part of the humanist adventure, the story of how the humanists sold their program to the public through educational publishing in Italy across the long sixteenth century (ca.1450 to ca.1650).

Since publishers and booksellers had so much to do with the success of the humanist educational program in schools and in cultural life more generally, I call my study Humanism For Sale. I realize that this title directly challenges one of the most cherished and persistent of humanist commonplaces, that learning cannot be bought and sold. Still, it seems a particularly appropriate way to describe the market for Latin textbooks. Throughout late-Renaissance Europe, largely similar products packaged for use in highly standardized curricula jostled for sales by advertising connections, real or imagined, with the greatest humanist celebrities. My title also points in the direction of the future of educational publishing. Latin-trained intellectuals constantly had to resell the elitist ideals of humanism to a broad public of politicians, churchmen, and businessmen. Marketing was increasingly a key to literary success.

The book proceeds topically, discussing a few textbooks and writers in some depth and treating many others briefly because they were typical of certain kinds of pedagogical needs and market considerations. An introduction describes the methodological issues and exemplifies the kinds of voices that offer evidence for textbook making and use. Chapters one and two exemplify the fate of classical and medieval school authors as they evolved into print textbooks. Chapter three follows the career of a single humanist teacher and author of textbooks. There follow two chapters devoted to specific portions of the market for textbooks by non-Italian authors. They tell the complex story of a generalized resistance in the Italian market to Northern authors even as Italian publishers took advantage of the fame of these same humanists to advertise Italian textbooks. The two final chapters concern the future of textbook publishing in the sixteenth century. They treat the growth of vernacular teaching texts and the new genre of the emblem book. Books of these sorts took their start from the moral and intellectual ideals of humanism but quickly evolved into harbingers of a European culture that was nationalistic, expansionistic, and less elitist than Latin education had ever been. (A detailed table of contents with section heads appears on every screen of the on-line text.)

As a whole then, Humanism for Sale moves from the "translation" of traditional manuscript schoolbooks into print toward their replacement in some fields by books with other goals and concerned with subjects the humanists did not stress. I have confined my study to educational publishing and so have not written a history either of publishing or of education. But the field in which these two histories intesect has broad implications for our understanding of the Renaissance -- not in its origins, but in its future, that is, in the way it evolved into a European cultural norm.