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

Paul F. Gehl


Quick Summary

Humanism For Sale was originally written as a specialized scholarly book, but I decided to present it to a broader audience in the form of a website plus blog. It retains its original structure in traditional chapters, listed in the Table of Contents. You can also link to a variety of special themes. Here are the major ones:

Humanism developed as an educational program for the Italian elites. It was based on the revival of good Latin grammar, style, and literature. Soon after printing was invented (around 1450), humanists adopted the new technology as the best way to teach, to present scholarly research, and to publicize their program. It is hard to hear the voices of students in the surviving textbooks (some are very rare) and archival sources, but we can hear the teachers speak at length and sometimes movingly about their work.

Humanists and their publishers took all kinds of earlier book forms, experimented with how to use them in the classroom, and eventually created the modern textbook. They tried various innovations with the design of the page, with types, and with color. They also experimented with different kinds of print marketing, finding readers for their new textbooks and competing with each other for an international market. For this they worked on title page layout and advertising prose, on prefaces, and on other kinds of teaching aids.

Educational conservatism was strong, however, and many medieval school texts continued to be used, especially with younger students. Traditional texts like these were often presented by printers in very traditional designs that mimicked medieval school books. Conservatism also meant that many textbook markets remained local or regional, with opportunities for a prominent teacher to author and sell books to several generations of his own students. Starting in the 1570s, the Jesuits reformed education at all levels and created their own textbooks for use in schools throughout Europe and even in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. These were the first truly international textbooks.

As humanism declined across the following centuries, it became a minority point of view, but other thinkers and educators used the design and marketing innovations of Latin school teachers. Schoolbooks in the vernacular languages became common only in the 1530s, at a time when many skills once reserved to the Latin-educated were popularized for others. Elementary math books were the earliest to appear in Italian, already before 1500. Reading and writing books appeared first in the 1510s and 1520s. How-to books and emblem books also became popular in the early sixteenth century. Music and geography had specialized textbooks and separate markets.

Before long, I hope to link to other general-interest subjects, listed below. Keep in mind they will usually be discussed in the context of a detailed research study, but you may find useful hints for further reading in the footnotes and bibliography.

Celebrity authors
Manuscript Books
Moral Education