learning to be wise

It’s that time of year again: another semester and more learning and teaching to be done! In honor, once again, of all of us involved in those activities, here’s a look another book that will help us “learn to be wise.”

Last fall, the book with which I started off the semester was a copy of Lily’s Grammar, the standard Latin textbook of the period. I’m not sure if that book will exactly help you to be wise, although it was certainly used to help you master your early modern Latin. This time, the book I’m focusing on is Johann Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus, or, A World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures. Comenius’s book, first published in 1658 in Latin and German, is often described as the first children’s picture book. His intent was to teach children not only how to read, but how to be wise. That wasn’t an unusual aim for the time. What was new was his method: using pictures of worldly activities and objects to engage his young readers.

Last time I mentioned Comenius, I used his illustration of a scholar at his study to start off my post. Above is the illustration for writing: a table laid out with the implements for and examples of different kinds of writing. On the right side are the various instruments, keyed by numbers in the text to the details in the illustration:

The Ancients writ in Tables done over with Wax with a brasen Poitrel, 1. with the sharp end 2. whereof Letters were engraven, and rubbed out again with the broad end 3.
Afterwards they writ Letters with a small Reed. 4.

As you can see from the picture below, the book uses shifts between blackletter, roman, and italic fonts to differentiate between those things illustrated and between the different languages. (My italics are a small attempt to transcribe the shift between blackletter and roman.)

The text continues on the next page to describe how “we” write today:

We use a Goos-quill, 5. the Stem 6. of which we make with a Pen-kife; 7. then we dip the neb in an Ink-horn, 8. which is stopped with a Stopple, 9. and we put our Pens into a Pennar. 10.
We dry a writing with Blotting-paper, or Calis-sand, out of a Sand-box, 11.
And we indeed, write from the left hand, towards the right; 12. the Hebrews from the right-hand towards the left; 13. the Chinois, and other Indians, from the top downwards. 14.

One of the fun things about this book for me is the descriptions of activities related to book history–there are pages not only for the scholar and for writing, but for paper, printing, the book-seller’s shop, the book-binder, and even for a book. I don’t have images for all of those, but on Google Books you can find the 1887 edition of Orbis pictus, which reuses the 1658 illustrations.

Comenius’s impact on children’s education and book history is huge. His method for engaging children through pictures and narratives about the world around us not only made his book tremendously popular, it has shaped nearly all such books since. His method is wholly familiar to us today–it’s how we routinely teach our kids to read. In fact, what Orbis pictus reminds me most strongly of is Richard Scarry’s stories about Busytown. And let me tell you, as someone whose children love my old copies of Richard Scarry, wow is that a book that appeals to little kids! (You can see a few images from Busy, Busy Town and What Do People Do All Day? on Amazon.)

Comenius’s Orbis pictus starts off with a dialogue between The Master and a Boy which lays out concisely the purpose not only of his book, but of all subsequent children’s books:

M. Come Boy learn to be wise.
P. What doth this mean, To be wise.
M. To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly, all that are necessary.

Comenius’s book is organized not only around A World of Things Obvious to the Senses–or what people do all day–but in an order that makes sense of that world rightly. The book moves from God then the World through all the worldly activities and objects until we reach Gods Providence and the last Judgment.

Naming the world around us to children always means embedding that world in our moral structure, from where we begin and end our narrative to how we describe the activities that take place in the world. It’s one of the qualities that can make children’s books so rewarding to study. Richard Scarry’s steady popularity makes it possible to trace the ways in which children’s books like these reflect our societal worldview–see this great Flickr set for some images comparing the 1963 and 1991 editions of The Best Word Book Ever. Given that my kids read my childhood Richard Scarry, we still name the handsome pilot and pretty stewardess. But I’ve never noticed the screaming lady–something to look forward to the next time my little one drags it out!

Cranach Press Hamlet

On my last post about woodcuts, I promised some beautiful twentieth-century ones, so here you are:

This is the opening to a German book arts press edition of Hamlet, printed in 1928 by Count Harry Kessler’s Cranach Press in Weimar. The book consists of Gerhart Hauptman’s translation of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s play, surrounded by the relevant source texts of Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest. Throughout the book are beautiful woodcuts done specifically for this edition by Edward Gordon Craig. (A second version of this book, with the play in English, was printed in 1930.)


The Cranach Press Hamlet does a remarkable job of using the woodcuts not simply to illustrate but to interact with the text and to perform its meanings through shaping the look of page. Notice how the nervous guards huddle against the majuscule “W” in the opening scene, while the form of the Ghost lurks on the far right of the text. Or examine how the dumbshow preceding Hamlet’s play is set off from the text just as the performance language of the dumbshow sets off the play-within-the-play and the performance of Hamlet itself. Here, the beautiful and mysterious players stand on top of the red text of the dumbshow–the only use of red ink in the playtext.


The most striking moment in the book, however, comes at Ophelia’s death.

The crowd of spectators (those watchers who are omnipresent in the play) push against the solid walls that hold within them a rectangle of blue ink. Just barely visible in that blue is the white outline of Ophelia, walking away from the crowd.

It’s a devastating scene that hits home because of its skillful mise-en-page.

In many ways, the Cranach Press Hamlet pays tribute to the power and beauty of early printed books. The typefont was designed by Edward Johnston after the fonts used by the German printers Fust and Schaeffer. And the layout of text surrounded by commentary mirrors that of early printings of classical and religious works. The use of woodcuts, too, is part of the reforming of early printed typography. And they are a powerful reminder of how much the layout of the printed page can effect our response to the work.

more woodcuts


Last time I posted a picture of the big, full-page woodcut facing the first page of Genesis from the 1527 Latin Bible. There is another full-page woodcut in the Bible, facing the first page of the New Testament. But there are also lots of small woodcuts that appear at the heads of books and initial woodcuts that appear (sometimes) at the start of chapters.

Here is an example of both of those. The one on top–God with kneeling angels on either side–appears at the top of the page, on the left-hand column of text, just before the summary of the chapter. Below it is a smaller, square woodcut illustrating another moment of God’s creation of the world. (According to Baudrier’s Bibliographie Lyonnaise, these woodcuts were not designed by the master who did the full-page one, but by G. Leroy.)

I mentioned last time that woodcuts were investments that were often reused in the same or in different books. One way that the use of woodcuts was spread out was to have reusable borders that could decorate a woodcut. Look closely at the woodcut of God and the angels. There is the central picture itself, surrounded by a decorative border along the top, a different decorative border along the bottom, and two columns–one on the left and one on the right–depicting little putti standing on plinths. Now look even closer. See the white space between each border? And between the border and the picture? Each of those elements are separate physical pieces. That illustration is made up of five woodcuts. Swap out the central picture, swap in a different scene, and you have the makings for a different book illustration. Need a longer border? Add in more border sections, and you can get a bigger frame for the picture. Pretty resourceful.

Woodcuts were the most common type of illustration in the early years of making books. An image was drawn onto a block of wood, the white areas of the picture were cut away, leaving behind the raised lines that would then be inked, and transferred to the paper as black lines. Because woodcuts could be set along the type in a printing press, and inked and pulled along with the type, they were a preferred type of illustration during the early years of printing. Later, engravings became more in demand, as they could convey finer lines and more detailed illustrations; on the downside, they were much harder to incorporate into books, as they required a separate printing process and often had to be sent to a different printing house. (The image of the bookworm from earlier this month is an example of a copperplate engraving.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an essay about woodcuts and some nice examples online, including the woodcut used to print Albrecht Durer’s Samson Reading the Lion.

Stay tuned for some examples of modern woodcuts in a beautifully made twentieth-century edition of Hamlet . . .


It’s been a while since I turned to the 1527 Bible, but we’re not done exploring yet. We still have to look at one of its most striking features: the full-page woodcut. Go back and look at previous blogs on the book if you want to see it in context of the page opening. It’s opposite the beginning of Genesis–a fitting choice for a depiction of God creating the world. Above is the woodcut itself, ready to be admired. It’s a beautiful picture.

According to the Bibliographie Lyonnaise (a monumental bibliography and key reference source on early modern books printed in Lyon), the woodcut was made by an artist it refers to only as “the master of the Ars moriendi of Jean Siber.” If you look further in the Bibliographie Lyonnaise and then follow that with research on the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, you’ll discover that Jean Siber was a Lyonnaise printer associated with an edition of an Ars moriendi that was printed in the early 1490s (there’s some disagreement about whether he was the printer or someone else). If you then go to Gallica, the online digital collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, you can find not only a record of this Ars moriendi (which they attribute to the other printer), but you’ll also be able to access a pdf of the book! There are twelve illustrations in the book made from nine different woodcuts. First, here is one of those woodcuts:

Is there a connection to our woodcut of the creation of the world? To my (admittedly untrained) eye, there are similarities in style.

And now, I’ll return to that number–in the Ars moriendi one woodcut was used in three different locations, so that there are twelve illustrations made from nine woodcuts. That practice is not unusual for the period. Far from it–woodcuts were often used more than once in a single book and they reappeared in other text as well. It’s helpful to remember that woodcuts were hand crafted, that they were an investment of time, labor, and money. Why use it once when you can use it multiple times and spread out the cost? That beautiful illustration of the creation of the world we’ve been looking at? Jacques Mareschal used it repeatedly in Bibles he printed between 1523 and 1541.

Oh, and what’s an Ars moriendi? It’s a work that teaches you how to die well: the art of dying. Perhaps there will be more occasions to think about the connections between dying and printing.