7.11 Emblem Books in the Classroom

Did children encounter emblem collections as well as single emblems in early modern classrooms? Absent more substantial evidence, we should allow for the possibility that painted emblems in series existed in some classrooms and that schoolboys would be encouraged to read series of emblematic devices sculpted or painted in churches and other public places. We know that educated people in the late Middle Ages could read publicly displayed images in highly sophisticated ways. (37)

Still, the fully developed emblem was an invention of the age of printing and we can assume that its regular and widespread use in classrooms cannot have predated the production of printed emblem books. Alciati's pioneering emblem book appeared in print in 1531 and was reprinted frequently from the start. Within twenty years it had been published throughout Europe and translated several times. But none of the early Latin editions of Alciati can be said with certainty to have been intended for classroom use, and I have never seen a copy with notes by students or teachers. (38) By comparison to textbooks we have examined in earlier chapters, moreover, emblem books were relatively expensive and probably out of reach of many students.

It is Alciati's translators who provide us with the earliest evidence that emblem books were put to classroom use. (39) The earliest translators were humanist teachers. Both Wolfgang Hunger (1511-1555), the law professor who made the first translation into German, and Bartolomé Aneau (d. 1561), a rhetorician who published a French translation in 1549, had studied in Bourges, where Alciati spent a large part of his early career. It is not certain that either of them ever met the great Italian jurist, but both trained with disciples of Alciati and both acquired an intense admiration for the classroom potential of the emblem book form. In the preface to his 1542 German translation, Hunger repeatedly stressed that his purpose is didactic, not recreational or belletristic. He hoped that "students and teachers will find this golden little book attractive and commendable" and that through studying it "they will be able to distinguish the splendor of virtues and the wretchedness of vices, just as in the primer." (40)

Hunger's preface is unusually lengthy and fulsome. He listed almost all the themes future emblem book authors, editors, and translators would sound in describing the educational value of emblems. Hunger named the audience he had in mind as the "sons of noblemen, the children of other wealthy persons, and youth more generally." Such a claim reproduced the social hierarchy of the period, and it did so in a way that advertised the book to a very broad public. Any youth could benefit, but the noble born, presumably future leaders, needed this kind of education most. Others, if they were ambitious, might imitate their betters. This kind of socially layered audience was implicit in almost all emblem books. Even those authors who named a narrower target readership than Hunger assumed that the larger society was hierarchical and that their particular readers would use the emblems to find and keep their proper social place. (41)

Hunger situated his interest in Alciati in the context of his own humanist education to languages. Translating these emblems into French or German not only made them more accessible, it also enriched the general store of morally useful poetry. He specifically compared the utility of emblems to fables and proverbs and suggested that, like music, they would make studying easier and more pleasant for children. (42) These humanist commonplaces signified that, whatever other pretensions emblems had, they were also specifically applicable in the humanist classroom at a relatively elementary stage.


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  • (37) Carruthers 1990, 221-228.
  • (38) Köhler 1986, 109 note 4 mentions two copies now at Wolfenbüttel of the Augsburg 1531 first edition that show signs of school use, but he does not describe them.
  • (39) What follow depends heavily on the important work of Johannes Köhler 1986, esp. 56-64.
  • (40) Alciati 1542, 10-11: pueris quoque nostratibus, & paedagogis, aureus hic libelllus futurus sut carhior forte, & comendiatior... virtutum splendorem & vitiorum foeditatem non aliter quam in tabella perspiciant. See Köhler 1986, 59.
  • (41) Gareffi 1981, 55-61; Matthews Grieco 1991, 34-38.
  • (42) Alciati 1542, 4-7.
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