1.04 Printing and the Canon

We may gauge the way in which printing was only a secondary factor in the history of this ancient author by comparing the pedagogical and editorial history of Terence to that of Ovid. Both poets were regularly praised by medieval and Renaissance teachers for the quality of their verse. Both were models for learners from linguistic and literary points of view. But Ovid at most periods was considered a marginal or optional author in schools because of the frankly sexual content of his poems. In medieval schools, the Remedia amoris -- because it was read as a caution against sex -- was more likely to be read with students than even the Metamorphoses with its wealth of useful stories. (13) In Italy there is good evidence that Ovid was studied throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance; but the Heroides, not the other works, particularly appealed to Italian teachers. In the fifteenth century, the less amorous works of Ovid continued to appear in schools, but they were to some degree displaced by revived interest in other poets like Persius and Juvenal. (14)

Terence, like Ovid, dealt with secular life and sexual innuendo but did not suffer quite the stigma that the frank and explicit Ovid did. Since he wrote verse plays and not lyric poetry, Terence was not a direct rival to Ovid in instructional terms. In Italian schools there is some evidence that Terence was used regularly until the late twelfth century but then fell out of favor. He was read and studied by scholars and used by writers from the time of Dante to the end of the fourteenth century; but the plays were apparently not much used for nearly two hundred years. Regional traditions of advanced study and detailed commentary grew up around important teachers, but there was no commonly used text or commentary throughout Italy. (15)

Around 1400 and in a sustained fashion through the rest of the fifteenth century, all this changed. Terence became one of the most frequently used school authors. This revival must be attributed to the humanist interest in dramatic texts generally and in the long critical tradition that treated Terence as the greatest master of Latin comedy. Humanists praised the varied vocabulary of Terence, his wit, and his supposed appeal to students for well-drawn characters and amusing plots. He was regularly linked in humanist literary opinion to Virgil, apparently in imitation of the judgement expressed in the commentary of Aelius Donatus that these two represent the greatest Latin poetry. Donatus had even opined that Terence was the better and more persuasive writer. Above all, the humanists proposed Terence as the best possible text for students who wished to acquire Latinitas, by which they meant authentic Latin speech patterns. (16) Given the relative frequency with which Terence and Ovid were used in the schools and the humanists' strong teaching interest in Terence, we might expect to find that Terence was the more quickly and widely printed of the two. This was in fact the case, but not by as much as the earlier manuscript tradition might have suggested; and after the very first years of printing the two poets had very different fates, Ovid being the more popular. Furthermore, Ovid was the subject of intense editorial work from the start; while Terence was printed and reprinted in texts so bad that they provoked protest from prominent humanists against printing itself. (17)

The earliest printing in Italy was dominated by the patronage and interests of humanist-trained churchmen. It was not driven by the needs of school masters. In the very first years (up to 1470), most of the texts published in Italy were religious; the only classical author to be printed immediately was Cicero. The elite humanist groups, however, were involved in a virtual frenzy of Ovidianism by the time printing technology became common around 1470. From a school author occasionally read, Ovid was being transformed into the subject of intense scholarly and literary study. Professional humanists mined the Metamorphoses especially for vocabulary and for mythological references. Writers of all sorts sought out Ovid as a model of refined style both in Latin and Italian, and his mythological characters became principals in the dramatic plots of vernacular plays. (18) Terence by contrast was kid's stuff, literally -- an accepted part of the curriculum for schoolboys but not much imitated by literary writers until the very end of the century.

It is perhaps no surprise then that in the first full decade of printing in Italy (1470-1479) Ovid received no fewer than eighteen editions with texts curated by humanists of great distinction. There seems to have been a race of sorts in Italy to bring a good, critical Opera omnia into print. In the single year 1471 two rival editions appeared; we do not even now know which was the real first. (19) Moreover, Ovid appeared with increasing frequency in Italy in all sorts of formats as the century went on. In the fourteen eighties twenty-four editions of various works appeared, and in the nineties an astounding thirty eight, so that fully eighty editions appeared before 1500. (20) Contrast this with the French case, where no edition of any Ovidian work appeared until 1495. (21) Clearly, the interest in Ovid was an Italian fashion that created a new market for poetry. The public was hungry.

Meanwhile, Terence got a broader immediate reception in print, but a slower critical start and less sustained interest, no doubt because the market was largely educational. The first printed editions (we do not know which was first since they are undated) were made at Strasbourg and Venice about 1470. Other editions followed quickly at Venice, Naples, and Rome. The real burst of activity was in this first decade, when thirty editions appeared in Italy. Already by 1480, a shop in Padua could offer three different Venetian editions, one with commentary labeled "of the first printing," a less expensive one "of the latest printing," and a third, apparently without commentary but "well printed" and cheaper still. (22) Later, the pace of reprinting slowed, perhaps because the school market became saturated. There were twenty-two new editions in the fourteen eighties and eighteen in the nineties. (23) As in the case of Ovid, this trend contrasts with that in Northern Europe, where Terence was only rarely printed in the early years of printing but gained in momentum from about 1485 onward. In Italy, while editions with commentaries (and the commentaries themselves) multiplied through the first thirty years, the text of Terence had to wait until the very end of the century for substantial revision.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (13) The Remedia was also far more common than the other minor Ovidian works, Hexter 1986, 18-23.
  • (14) Black 2001, 250-253.
  • (15) Villa 1984, 217-236; Black 2001, 209, 254-56.
  • (16) Villa 1984, 262-276; compare Celenza 2004b, 59. Terence's reputation in this regard went back to his own day; see Bloomer 1997, 15.
  • (17) Monfasani 1988b; Farenga 1994, 61-67; Avellani 1994, 114-123; Davies 1996, 55-58; Rossini 1997, 104-109; Jones 2004, 200-206.
  • (18) Moog-GrĂ newad 1979, 15-20.
  • (19) Quaquarelli 1994, 42-47.
  • (20) These figures based on IGI; compare Jones 2004, 31-100.
  • (21) Lamarque 1981, 17-19.
  • (22) Fulin 1882b, 396, 399.
  • (23) Cupaiuolo 1984; Rhodes 1988, 292-296; Jones 2004, 30-102.
Switch to Dark Mode
Show Comments