0.01 Humanism in Crisis

In his first published work, the surreal comedy Il Candelaio (1582), Giordano Bruno introduced the pedant Manfurio to personify all that was wrong with Latin learning. Manfurio does not speak in the literary Italian of his day, nor even in the colorful Neapolitan of some other characters in the play. His every sentence is a macaronic mix of Latin and vernacular, indulging in philological niggling and meaningless etymological digression. In a single brief speech, he can display slavish imitation of classical authors, apply a textbook commonplace badly, and claim a false intellectual pedigree:

MANFURIO: Oh! Eliminate that nequam, for although the word is used in Scripture, it is in no way Ciceronian. "Living well, follow only the most learned men," says the Ninevite Giovanni Despauterio, followed in this by my praeceptor Aloisio Antonio Sidicino Sarmento Salano, successor to Lucio Giovanni Scoppa."

This kind of meaningless bluster, according to Bruno, was a common result of the standard humanist education of his day. Latinitas (Latin-ness) had been a cherished ideal of humanists for two centuries. But for Bruno it was no longer a goal; it was a fussy pretense. Humanism was all puffery and salesmanship. (1)

During the fifteenth century, Europeans witnessed the triumph of the studia humanitatis, the cultural program we call humanism. Soon thereafter, however, they saw this same educational philosophy decline in status from a cultural near-monopoly into a powerful but increasingly minority point of view, easily satirized by Bruno and many others. Humanism's slow rise took place in a manuscript world, but its rapid triumph and decline transpired almost entirely through the new medium of print. In this online book I relate a small but important part of the Italian adventure in humanism, the story of how humanists sold their program to the public through educational publishing across the long sixteenth century (that is, the period from about 1450 to 1650 or so). My subject is school books, or, to use a modern term that describes the end result of these two centuries of publishing history, textbooks. My study, however, is neither a history of education in the period nor properly a history of printing and bookselling. Both printing and pedagogy have their own extensive histories. (2) Instead, I have chosen to plough a sizeable but I hope manageable field in which these two vast and varied landscapes intersect, namely the specific methods and problems of textbook publishing in the first two centuries of printing. The project is important if only because schoolboys and their teachers were so important a segment of the book market in the first years of printing. (3)

From 1450 to 1650, the open intellectual inquiry that humanists promoted slowly led to the demise of their monopoly on learning. The period witnessed both the invention of new kinds of school books and the decline of the educational system that produced them. The protagonists of this history are teachers, printers, publishers, and booksellers. Students will appear as well, but their voices are relatively little attested. Textbook publishing worked from the top down, in hierarchical terms that seemed natural to educators of the period. Renaissance teachers, like their medieval predecessors, did most of the talking.

There were also many forces at work in the sixteenth-century classroom that came from outside the schools. The mass production of printed textbooks and the increasingly creative role of publishers and booksellers in marketing them introduced tensions into the supposedly "natural" relationship between master and student. These middlemen had a voice that was increasingly urgent. Often they insisted that authors speak in terms that advertised their books, for publishers could now measure the success of a given textbook baldly in sales figures. Marketing, then, is a major part of the history recounted here.

The teachers we can hear are largely humanists, men who taught in the Latin schools, though in chapters six and seven we will meet some others. At the start of our period in Italy, most teachers, certainly most of the authors of new textbooks, had had some education to humanist ideals. By the end, the educational theories of the humanists were almost universally accepted. But many medieval texts were in use in Italian schools in 1450. The force of tradition meant that some of these, especially at the most elementary level of Latin instruction, would remain in the hands of students right through the seventeenth century. It will be necessary, then, to consider both the conservative force of educational tradition and the ways in which authorship and pedagogy changed under market pressures. For the latter part of the period in question, we must also consider the effect of the Reformation on publishing and education alike. In this same period, general economic conditions -- both a long-term and large-scale decline in economic activity in Italy and short-term disruptions caused by political unrest, natural disaster, and war -- had negative effects on competition. Under these conditions, a few large firms flourished and dominated important sectors of the book market. But textbook publishing remained an exception in this regard; many small publishers jostled on the market with unoriginal and even shoddy products. (4)

Since bookselling had so much to do with the success of the humanist educational program, in schools as 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. Even today, as Robert Lopez put it in a classic essay, "The dirty boots of the economist are notoriously unwelcome on the polished floors of humanistic mansions." (5) In the sixteenth century, similar, commonplace prejudices were in effect. A highly-developed sense of honor led many humanists to insist on subsidizing their own books to keep them from becoming merely venal. The practice was so widespread as to distort markets entirely in some places. (6) Still, Humanism For Sale 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 competed for sales by advertising connections with humanist celebrities. Even conservatively chosen and framed works inherited from the Middle Ages and repackaged for sixteenth-century schools relied on associations with well-known educators. Classicizing fama increasingly turned into market-driven celebrity. (7)

My title also points toward the future of educational publishing. While humanist philology emphasized slow, critical work on ancient and traditional texts, the educational market (and other forms of popularization) pulled authors in the opposite direction, toward confecting entirely new texts that could be quickly delivered and frequently reprinted. (8) Latin-trained intellectuals constantly had to resell the elitist ideals of humanism to a public of politicians, churchmen, and influential businessmen. This was as true at the beginning of our period, when humanism was still a relatively new movement, as at the end, when Latin, even in its seeming moment of triumph, was beginning to lose ground, eventually to become the shibboleth of a superseded cultural ideal. (9) Marketing was increasingly a key to literary success in early modern Europe, and humanism was only as successful as its market was broad and deep.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (1) I, v; I have adapted the translation of Gino Moliterno, Bruno 2000, 80. De Spauter and Scoppa were real, authoritative writers (treated in chapters 3 and 4), but Manfurio's ostensible teacher is an amalgamation of two minor Neapolitan grammarians of the intervening generation. On the Candelaio, Siber 2005, 71-87; further on Bruno, Wyatt 2005, 241-247. The most famous precedent for Bruno's pedant was Macchiavelli's Callimaco in La Mandragola, for which see the edition of Stopelli, Machiavelli 2005, and Godman 1998, 259. For some useful pages on other all-too-true parodies of grammarians, Garin 1976, 99-104, 176-180; Sabbatino 1995, 76-86; Bommarito 2005, 34-38. On ideals of Latinitas, Bloomer 1997, 1-11; on humanist controversies over it, Blasio 1986, 485-490.
  • (2) In important monographs and collections, e.g.Garin 1976, Grafton and Jardine 1986, Grendler 1989 and 2002a, Toscani 1993, Ortalli 1993, Richardson 1994 and 1999, Trovato 1998; Houston 2002, McKenzie 2002, Nuovo 2003. On periodization, see Marino 1994, 331-355; Celenza 2004a, 147-150.
  • (3) Milway 2000, 114-115.
  • (4) Quondam 1977, 93-103; Di Filippo Bareggi 1988, 303-307.
  • (5) Lopez 1970, 3.
  • (6) Bertoli 2007, 89-90.
  • (7) Recent case studies are offered by Hamilton 2003, esp. 6-13; and Crane 2005, 28-39.
  • (8) Hamilton 1993, 10-11; West 2006, 246-253.
  • (9) On the vagueness and imprecision of popular perceptions of the humanist program ca. 1615, see Baltasar de Cespedes, ed. in Andres 1965, 203-204.
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