6.12 Catechism and Condescension

The thoughtful beauty of Tagliente's design makes for a striking contrast to the elementary reading books that followed. Almost without exception they are crowded, ugly little productions. Attempts to prettify them with ornamental cuts, red-and-black printing, or large initials usually just made them cluttered and homely. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that their design was, consciously or not, a condescension. Children who learned to read only in the vernacular were second-class students by comparison with those boys who were intended for a Latin education. Condescension was the most common mindset of the educators of the early sixteenth century towards their vernacular-only students. In school books it was expressed in texts and formatting alike.

At mid-century, the Council of Trent and the general reform of Catholic institutions which followed had a salutary effect on primary education, not least in transforming this attitude of condescension into one of Christian compassion. There was no question of breaking down distinctions of social class. Education would continue to have a separate track for privileged, Latin-school students. But contextualizing reading instruction within the teaching of Christian doctrine meant that basic literacy became a logical (if not quite essential) part of everyday Christian life. By the end of the third quarter of the century, most cities in Italy had organized catechism classes called Schools of Christian Doctrine. These schools prompted the production of enormous numbers of small catechisms and other devotional works at an elementary level for reading by their students. (71)

Marketing considerations were never completely absent from the making of Christian Doctrine school books, of course. But printers and publishers were not leading the market but rather following the dictates of religious educators. Confusion and differences of opinion among educators, not competition among printers, resulted in considerable variety in the booklets made available to students in the catechism schools. (72) For printers, the manufacture in quantity of Christian Doctrine textbooks was an opportunity to benefit from a large, guaranteed market. And to the degree that such schools created readers of devotional literature for the future, the printers could anticipate an ever-larger market for simple religious books. In the second third of the sixteenth century, catechisms and other small religious textbooks joined Latin school books and popular secular literature among the bread-and-butter titles of any urban printing house. Small printing of the sort kept the presses busy between larger and more lucrative projects and provided a steady if small-scale flow of income. It could also represent a significant investment in materials in that many such books were adorned with woodblocks that had to be kept in stock to ensure a large and continuous supply of booklets. One 1570 printing house inventory, for example, listed blocks for the seven deadly sins, the twelve apostles, and twelve scenes of Christ's passion, all intended for small devotionals, in addition to the blocks needed for various offices of the Virgin and saint's-day booklets. (73) This wealth of illustrative material demonstrates that even modest printers in the second half of the century had ambitions to create pretty books for the use of the lowest classes of readers. (74)

Illustrated catechisms picked up on Giovanni Antonio Tagliente's theme of learning in a family context. One edition of Giovanni Battista Eliano's Dottrina Christiana (a Jesuit catechism) even printed a promissory note that emphasized the economy of grace involved in teaching and learning the catechism in a family setting. Apparently intended for the father or mother of a family, the booklet contained a blank form that read: "This Christian Doctrine was given to me by [blank] so that I and my entire family will learn the facts of the holy faith. With God's help I will earnestly try to learn it and to teach it to all in my house, and I will be obliged to pray to Our Lord for [blank] " Such illustrated catechisms allowed lay people to teach each other. They were part of a concerted effort by Catholic preachers to encourage reading of approved devotional literature (by contrast to the Protestants' reading of Scripture in the vernaculars). (75)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (71) Turrini 1982, esp. 417-423; Palumbo 1990, 33-37; De Blasi 1993, 392-393; Stevens 1995, 645-650.
  • (72) Turrini 1982, 417-419.
  • (73) Stevens 1995, 659; on the genres of small printing and perennially popular texts, Lucchi 1992, 126-130.
  • (74) Malaguzzi 2004, 7-33, 67-82, and 95-108 offeres interesting cases studies of how woodcuts were used in this market.
  • (75 Palumbo 1990, 36-46; for the ownership note and a facsimile, ibid., 70-73.
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