8.02 The Rhetoric of Print

Sales pitches were never far to seek in humanist books, and though the commonplaces employed were always high-sounding and usually derived from classical sources, the flood of competing books in the print market lent urgency to both packaging and advertising. The long sixteenth century (and the age of print) began amidst the full flowering of humanist rhetoric, whose practitioners followed Cicero in claiming that their discipline's greatest power was the ability to persuade. Much of pre-print humanism viewed the goal of such persuasion personally, as the moral improvement of the individual. Rhetoric of this sort, in the form of private study, tutoring, and small schools, conduced to a life well lived (that is, to a commonplace, morally conformist life) and to personal salvation in the afterlife. Humanists and other writers also assumed a communitarian ideal, in which the ability to persuade others in large groups led to the betterment of society as a whole. The myth of the origin of rhetoric that stands at the beginning of Cicero's De inventione was the commonplace most often cited for this rhetorical philosophy. Cicero's original sage was the orator who first persuaded his fellows to organize themselves politically and economically. (3)

These non-commercial ideals of persuasive rhetoric did not fail or even weaken when they entered the print market. On the contrary, they found a new and wider audience. Across the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, they increasingly displaced less rhetorical models of Christianity. (4) They remained the highest ideals of European civilization for centuries. In one way or another they are still with us.

Printing, however, slowly became the primary rhetorical medium, and the new medium imposed new norms. Philology, not just morality, became both a selling point and a goal in life. The case of Terence shows how productive the new print reality could be but also how constraining the classroom context was. In the first forty years of printing Terence, the market was almost exclusively for teaching editions that contained poorly edited texts. The value added by printers was largely in the form of old and new commentaries. These editions looked solemnly the same and were in fact largely unoriginal. But the philological work embodied in the many competing commentaries slowly built momentum for a real revision of the text. Finally, just around 1500, a vastly improved text could be offered, one that set a new standard and stimulated further editorial work that would continue into the eighteenth century.

The sixteenth century also saw many new packages for teaching Terence. These classroom formats determined competitiveness in the market. The text of Terence was so intimately connected with Latin-language learning that it never quite had a literary life of its own. The great moments of philological progress on the text (Poliziano's notes, Aldo's edition, and later Faerno's) caused a certain amount of scholarly excitement, it is true; but philological advances were quickly absorbed by the textbook market and the competition reverted to being one between publishers who touted new classroom formats or teacher-editors of note. However beloved and imitated, Terence remained a school author.

The market for elementary Latin grammars displayed many of the same characteristics as that for intermediate school authors like Terence. Originality was rarely an issue, and what novelties there were usually concerned bringing old rules and proof-texts up to date by reference to ongoing philological research on the classics. Grammar textbooks were particularly unstable because they were almost never more than exercise pieces. Every teacher at every period felt free to modify them for his own classroom. Marketing for such textbooks relied heavily on the reputations of modern authors and editors. Guarino, Perotti, Mancinelli, De Spauter, Priscianese, and Bonciari each in turn became a brand name for a kind of textbook or a kind of pedagogy.

The rhetoric of selling textbooks changed relatively little before the mid-sixteenth century. Latin was marketed in print just as it had been by the earliest humanists, in threefold fashion: as a career-enhancing professional language, as the key to the treasures of ancient wisdom, and as a morally improving discipline. Different authors emphasized one or another of these themes, but they all appeared repeatedly. Authors and editors in the early sixteenth century did devise and sell new packages for the Latin course. Some emphasized the novelty of the textbooks themselves -- better type or design -- but most also claimed, like De Spauter and his followers, to be offering a more effective Latin pedagogy. Mostly these claims meant more and better-defined drills and, on the level of book design, clearer and better paradigms and other diagrammatic aids to memorization.


3 Elkins 1999, 209-212. 4 Rummel 1995, 3-7, 193-195.

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