6.20 Conclusion: Into the Future

Vernacular textbooks of the sort we have described in this chapter have one important thing in common. They all embodied skills of urban citizens, whether elite, middling, or artisanal, for whom the ornament of traditional Latin learning was less important than knowledge that led to success in government, business, or the arts broadly understood. This was true even for music textbooks, for musicians were skilled professionals who sold their services to make a living. Increasingly they depended for patronage on urban aristocrats who also cultivated music as amateurs. The wealth of these patrons was business-based; they valued music mathematically just as they did such other mathematically based skills as accounting, surveying, and navigation. As Alfred W. Crosby has ably shown, the music and painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were supremely mathematical disciplines, perfectly suited to the quantifying spirit of the age. Each of the new skills was provided with a rhetoric -- largely independent of traditional Latin rhetoric -- that legitimized a new order of society in which fully moral success was possible in business. (108)

What is more, all these disciplines were in themselves businesslike, precisely because they partook of quantification and the accuracy it demanded:

The dictionary defines businesslike as efficient, concise, direct, systematic and thorough. Nothing about courageous or elegant or pious, terms the noble or priestly classes might claim for themselves. Businesslike means careful and meticulous and, in practice, is a matter of numbers. It was one of the trails that led to science and technology insofar as its practitioners were quantitative in their perception and manipulation of as much of experience as could be described in quanta. (109)

Crosby here is pointing to a fundamental shift in mentalité, one that would lead away from the worldview of Christian humanism. The authors of vernacular textbooks started down this path by claiming a moral and intellectual high ground that had once belonged only to the clergy and ennunciating a nobility of purpose that had once been aristocratic and humanistic. Slowly, arts and crafts, manufacturing and shipping, trade and banking came to be both honorable and virtuous callings with professional literatures of their own. Eventually this shift in mentality would lead to a new political and social order worldwide. The European imperial adventure was not merely another Latinizing imitation of the Roman Empire; it was also a conquest of the natural world and the triumph of Western, quantifying culture.

Vernacular learning was the future of education and of educational publishing. Competitive vernaculars, embodied in nation states, would require textbooks that were better suited to the new realities of European commerce and conquest than the universalizing Latin textbooks of the past. It would be centuries before the kinds of textbooks made for the Latin classroom would be obsolete, but already at the start of the sixteenth century the monopolistic grip of the Latin master was beginning to weaken. Vernacular high culture on the one hand and widely-available self-help and how-to literature on the other would slowly lessen the need for Latin learning. Of course, printers and publishers were more than willing to profit from the new learning even as they obediently created books that served the older order. They were businesslike too, after all.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (108) Crosby 1997, 139-197; see also Van Egmond 1986, 53-59; Carruthers and Nelson-Espeland 1991, 34-36, 60-64; Cormack and Mazzio 2005, 95-113.
  • (109) Crosby 1997, 200.
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