0.05 Seen and Not Heard

Textbook history privileges the visual aspects of pedagogy over the oral/aural ones. Only rarely, mostly in drilling books, can we actually hear teachers lecture or students recite. Moreover, if there is a single, general movement across the chapters below, it is from the textual toward the visual both in pedagogical terms and in design and printing technique. This movement mirrors a development towards the increasing visualization of information in European culture more generally and the tendency to entrust information ever more to printing and design professionals. (32) However, early modern teachers did not attempt to separate textual from visual literacy. On the contrary, much that is interesting about the schoolbooks of the day derives from their insistence upon the visual nature of all learning and on visualization as a universal intellectual technique. Renaissance schoolmasters inherited the rhetorical, psychological, and pedagogical models for this insistence from medieval memory theorists and practitioners. (33) Printing intensified this aspect of education, because it allowed teachers to put carefully designed visual models into the hands of every school child and many adults, who thereafter owned those images personally in the form of books they would keep life long.

Printing also allowed for the display of texts in visually compelling packages. One example is Erasmus's On Eloquence (De Copia), a compilation of commonplace phrases for composition. Erasmus's book was transformed several times by teachers and printers who wandered far from the author's original intent. First it was enlarged and redesigned, then abbreviated, and still later put into tabular form. (34) Similarly, editorializing and typography altered some popular Latin grammars well beyond anything their ostensible authors could have recognized. In the case of emblems and almost contemporaneously in handwriting instruction manuals, printing as a design technology made possible entirely new genres of book. Like many other things in the history of the book, the design changes wrought by printing were immense in quantitative terms but developed qualitatively only gradually, sometimes through collaborations by authors and printers and sometimes independently of the efforts (and wishes) of teachers. Tracing design changes in some detail, therefore, has been a primary concern of mine.

Throughout this online book, I have also been concerned with marketing issues, because these are genuinely new considerations in the age of print. This bias again reflects my sense that early modern culture was profoundly visual. The invention of printing multiplied the number of books and prints in the world and thereby altered irrevocably the market for ideas. It created mass-produced printed objects for every phase of life, every social class, every age group. One of the more immediate results of the printing revolution was the appearance in multiples and ubiquitously of the word on public display, not just in churches, schools, and libraries where medieval people encountered public words, but also in homes, shops, taverns, theaters, city streets and squares, even at rural roadsides.

Images, of course, had always been labeled and often incorporated words in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. In learned circles the ekphrastic evocation of a work of art was a recognized literary genre. But the medieval public for images was immensely larger than the public for written words. Literacy rates were just too low for images to function widely with written accompaniment. Printing, it seems, not only made for increases in literacy (erratically, it is true, but inevitably); it also made it useful to pair almost every image with words -- words that explained or labeled objects, words that teased or intrigued viewers, and words that sold the ideas and images to which they were attached. (35) Textbook publishing could not but be directly involved in this change and was perhaps more susceptible to it than other fields of printing. For textbooks were the tools with which both elite and common folk learned to decipher the abundance of new words and images around them.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (32) Useful discusssions in McKenzie 1989, 104-106; Cahn 1994, 53-57; Crosby 1997, 129-137, 227-238; Coppens 2005, 34-37; Follak 2007, 155-157.
  • (33) Carruthers 1990, 229-257 and 1998, 135-142; B. Smith 1999.
  • (34) Erasmus 1963, 6-7; Jardine 1993, 129-132, 141-145.
  • (35) Elkins 1999, 211-212.
Switch to Dark Mode
Show Comments