6.13 Whither How-To?

Vernacular printing opened new markets for instructional books and allowed both authors and publishers to imagine new kinds of teachers, new kinds of learners, even learning without classrooms. As we have already seen, many vernacular textbooks took on the character of how-to books. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were, at this elementary level, skills to be mastered with minimal formal tuition. The formulaic methods of the humanist Latin school assumed years of study aimed at life-long learning. These lengthy courses could be significantly abbreviated and watered down for learners who did not want to master a second language and whose needs (and skills) were elementary.

As this audience of literate-but-not-learned readers expanded during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, publishers ever more often assumed the role of "culture brokers" (the term is William Eamon's) or "translators" (as we described them in sections 4.01, 4.14, and 4.19). They digested and abstracted Latin literary and scientific culture for the use of a large, urban public. One Italian publisher described his ideal audience as "thoughtful and modest youths." A German author of the same period said he published "for the simple, respectable, and devout little people." Such readers might look to books for amusement and edification, but beyond literature and religious texts, they also wanted straightforward prose with lots of useful information and practical advice. The how-to model could be extended to many skills. Simple manuals multiplied, especially on the model of arithmetic books that offered a series of discrete problems to pose and solve. Gardening, agronomy, cookery, housekeeping, sewing, lace making, embroidery, sign painting, metallurgy, glassblowing, dyeing and many other craft disciplines soon occupied cheap little how-to books. (76)

In some cases these booklets were authored by the same supposed experts who wrote handwriting or arithmetic texts. In others the authors were clerics who saw these practical books as ways to inculcate Christian morals along with the practical skills that recommended the books in the first place. Almost always, authors of manuals stressed the moral dimensions of social life. Habits of thrift, choosing the right tools, practicing techniques to perfection, being careful and vigilant, and keeping good records were not just good economics, they were also essential to the humble citizen's salvation. Books of this moralizing sort made it increasingly possible, even socially acceptable, to learn entirely outside the confines of a school. For ambitious individuals not born into social elites, the normal course of learning was self-directed and entirely outside the confines of formal schooling. Childhood schooling remained the preserve of a privileged minority, so for most people functional literacy was achieved only in adulthood. Their classrooms could be anywhere --shops, streets, and churches, but most of all at home. Their teachers were friends or relatives or even just the books they could find. (77)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (76)  For the quotations here: Girolamo Tagliente 1557; Walther Hermann Ryff, quoted and trans. Eamon 1994, 99. Eamon is expansive on this subject of the growth of the how-to model. For the Italian phenomenon and the relative importance of Latin and vernacular in technical literature, Marazzini 1993, 29-41; for language study as a kind of courtesy literature, Wyatt 2005, 180-185.
  • (77)  Casali 1982, 35-52; Houston 1991, 948-952 and 2002, 99-123.
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