6.02 Alternative Educations

In the course of the early sixteenth century, the growing availability of vernacular study texts in print tended to blur traditional genre distinctions. Latin textbooks, both before and for a century and more after the invention of printing, were designed to fit neatly into an existing Latin course that was much the same everywhere. The typical author of such a textbook was himself a teacher who wrote in the first instance for his own classroom. If he was proposing something innovative and wanted to sell his book widely, he would still work within established norms and label his book for a specific portion of the curriculum familiar to other teachers. In the first decades of printing, then, teachers were effectively in charge; they set the tone for what publishers produced. Latin textbooks followed teaching practice rather than leading it.

Vernacular instructional books, on the other hand, had few precedents and no set style of presentation; they did not conform to a fixed curriculum. Their authors were virtually on their own. If they could find parallels in the Latin teaching tradition as guides, they could follow them. But vernacular authors were not beholden to an established corps of teachers. They had more freedom to develop new teaching methods, set the tone of their work to fit the temperament of the audience they envisioned, and even to invent new genres of textbook. One result of this fluid market is that many vernacular treatments of specific subjects read more like manuals for reference than instructional materials; it is often difficult to know how they were used. This interpretive problem is particularly acute in the case of books on technological or artisanal subjects since an elementary manual may have served to introduce a subject to interested individuals who never intended to master the art in question. (7)

Language arts offer an example of this genre problem. The only possible manuscript-textbook precedent for elementary language study in Italian was the syllabary or "Babuino," which may have existed in the early fifteenth century in the form of a handwritten classroom poster. The earliest surviving syllabary was printed in Venice or Treviso about 1478. Aldo Manuzio included a similar one in his Latin grammar of 1498, taking it over from the usage of vernacular classrooms. The first surviving copy clearly intended for Italian-language reading instruction dates from 1505. However, as Piero Lucchi has shown, syllabaries of the sort had been part of a vernacular, commercial arithmetic course (called abaco, English "reckoning") before printed versions appeared. The Babuino was a marginal phenomenon in Latin-school terms but it had a clear place in the reckoning curriculum. By contrast, the vernacular language-skills textbooks that came into print in the fifteen twenties were entirely new creations. They had no set place in the schools and so they addressed a great variety of learners in their potential market. (8)

The authors of elementary mathematics textbooks had more models to contemplate but they too had to be inventive in creating print products. No full-dress arithmetic textbooks survive from before the age of printing, presumably because students in the commercial arithmetic schools did not possess them. They would instead have learned methods and rules by memory and by working out problems on slates or in paper notebooks. (9) Teachers may have had course books or outlines, but those materials do not survive. Still, we know some instructional texts existed because fragments of them can be found in merchants' notebooks. One of the earliest, a chapter on multiplying fractions copied about 1416, is specifically recommended as useful for merchants who may have forgotten the rules they learned in school. Printing would allow arithmetic students to repeat a pattern we have already seen in Latin classrooms. Not only would each pupil own his own book, but the mature merchant would also keep his textbook on hand to refresh his memory when out-of-the-ordinary computation needs arose. (10)

While the publishers of Latin-school textbooks vied for a market of boys all educated more or less to the same pattern, publishers for vernacular-only students had a far less predictable audience. The vernacular textbooks these publishers put out concerned reading, writing, and arithmetic, especially commercial mathematics and record-keeping. At somewhat more advanced levels they offered works on geography, music, surveying, and other skills, some of which will occupy us later in sections 6.16 to 6.19. Perhaps just because the elementary guides in Italian did not follow an established school course, new manuals and textbooks did not appear in print in pedagogical order. Indeed, new forms did not appear at all in the first few decades of printing. Then, shortly before and after the turn of the sixteenth century, new vernacular textbooks came into print in exactly the reverse order from that of their pedagogical logic. Only the commercial mathematics books had real medieval precedents, and these appeared first in print in a form that suggests they exactly reproduce existing course materials. The first attested reckoning book in print, a substantial teacher's manual, dates from 1478. Commercial math books clearly intended to be put in the hands of students were becoming common by 1510 or so. The first printed handwriting manual appeared in 1514. And the first vernacular reading book to survive is the Teaching Book (Libro maistrevole) of Tagliente, cited in section 6.01. It was published in 1524.

Giovanni Antonio Tagliente himself was a key figure in Italian textbook history; he authored early works in all three of these fields of study. Most of his textbooks had several revisions during his lifetime. Tagliente's books reflect his highly calligraphic sense of design. Some are among the prettiest textbooks of the period. They represent thoughtful attempts on the part of their author to capture a still ill-defined market. (11) The sections which follow on reading, writing, and arithmetic textbooks will each begin with a product from the pen of Tagliente and go on to discuss other examples.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (7) On the problematic notion of textbook authorship in the period, Maccagni 1993, 646-654; Houston 2002, 220-222.
  • (8) Abbaco 1995; Lucchi 2000, 209-215; cf. Schutte 1986, 8-9 and Lucchi 1978, 608-610.
  • (9) On classroom materials of the sort, Owens 1997, 74-82, 101-107.
  • (10) Borlandi 1963, 47-52, 151-157; Maccagni 1993, 640-648.
  • (11) Schutte 1986, 5-7, 14-16. For a self-composed description of the family enterprise, see their 1524 application for a privilege, Fulin 1882a, 204.
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