‘Tis the season

For teachers, this is the season of grading; for students, this is the season of exam-taking and paper-writing. For some of you, both students and teachers, you get slammed on both sides (no matter how much you enjoy writing or grading, it’s hard to do a ton of it at once). So for your amusement today, some pictures along the theme of schooling, with an emphasis on looking rather than reading!

Children often learned to read by studying the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. The trick for children, of course, is learning to read without destroying the paper that the words are printed on—hence the joy of board books, as many parents and teachers have discovered. In the early modern period, the flimsiness of paper is solved with the use of a horn book: the paper is glued to a wooden board and covered with a thin sheet of transparent horn. What was fragile is no longer!

a 1630 horn book

For older students, the delicateness of paper is no longer as pressing of an issue, and the need for greater amounts of text  outweighs the utility of paper glued to wood boards. But you can still see how educational practice informs school books by looking at Johann Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus, a Latin vocabulary textbook originally published in Latin and German in 1658 and soon spreading to other countries, including England in 1659. The book’s English title gives some sense of its organization: The Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein. A work newly written by the author in Latine, and High-Dutch (being one of his last essays, and the most suitable to childrens capacities of any that he hath hitherto made) and translated into English, by Charles Hoole, M.A. for the use of young Latine scholars. This picture of the opening discussing writing makes it even clearer:

Comenius's Orbis sensualium pictus

You learn what the Latin words are not only by comparing them to the English words, but to the picture, helpfully labeled with numbers corresponding to each vocabulary item. What I really like about this book, however, is the glimpse it gives into the early modern world: the book names physical items, describes work activities, and ends with descriptions of the major religions and the Last Judgement. It might not seem like an astoundingly innovative way of teaching children to read to us, who are used to Richard Scarry’s Busytown, but the familiarity of that method of education is thanks to the influence of Johann Comenius.

One trait that is true of all early schoolbooks is that they live hard lives. Students use them, pass them on to other students, write in them, doodle in them, and, generally speaking, use them up. It’s a truism of book history that the more popular a book was, the less likely it is to survive for us to study today. It’s one of the reasons I love this copy of William Lily’s Latin grammar: it’s survived some pretty heavy usage!

a 1557 edition of Lily's grammar

If you look at the inscription just above the printer’s device, you’ll see that John Scott has marked this book as his own: “Jhone Scott with my hand at the pene.” What you can’t see in this image is that there are also inscriptions from Thomas Scott and William Scott on the endleaf. It’s a book that must have passed from one brother to the next. Lily’s A short introduction of grammar generallie to be vsed was the standard Latin text book of the period, so it’s not surprising that it would have been used and reused. The Folger has other copies of other editions as well, including this fully digitized one from 1568.

I leave you with this final thought from Edmund Coote’s work, The English school-master. It’s not necessarily the teaching of foreign languages that is the hardest, but the act of reading and writing English. The aim of his work, as his lengthy title puts forth, is Teaching all his scholars, of what age soever, the most easie, short, and perfect order of distinct reading, and true writing our English-tongue, that hath ever yet been known or published by any. And further also, teacheth a direct course, how any unskilful person may easily both understand any hard English words, which they shall in Scriptures, sermons, or else-where, hear or read, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves; and generally whatsoever is necessary to be known for the English speech: so that he which hath this book only, needeth to buy no other to make him fit from his letters to the grammer-school, for an apprentice, or any other private use, so far as concerneth English. And therefore it is made not only for children, though the first book be meer childish for them, but also for all other; especially for those that are ignorant in the Latine tongue. In the next page the school-master hangeth forth his table to the view of all beholders, setting forth some of the chief commodities of his profession. Devised for thy sake that wantest any part of this skill, by Edward Coote, master of the free-school in St. Edmondsbury. But ultimately, as we see, even the best of us sometimes must crave the help of others.

So here’s to hoping that all of you, and your students, not only remember to observe your points, but that you know who to ask for help and that your rewards will be reaped soon after!

you must remember your points (detail from Edmund Coote's The English school-master)