Reading, learning and teaching: best practices 500 years ago


Reading, learning and teaching: best practices 500 years ago

The margins and other blank spaces found in books are often full of traces of past readings, sometimes packed into the space available and at others more sporadic. The marks left by readers who needed to consult the book, to underline a passage or add a comment can tell us a lot about the people who have handed down their books to us.

A miscellaneous volume in the library at Santa Scolastica (III.B.12) contains two separate incunabula: Lucian’s Pharsalia (1492) and the Epitome by Marco Giuniano Giustino ([ca. 1494]). Lucian’s epic poem tells the history of the civil war which led to the end of republican Rome while the other work is a short summary, in just under 60 pages, of a universal history in 44 books, the Historiae Philippicae by Pompeius Trogus.

These works are not rare, even though the texts are ancient: each of the two editions is estimated to survive today in 80-90 copies. The Santa Scolastica copy is especially valuable, indeed unique, in giving us an insight into the daily life of a family in Rome in the 16th century – because of what’s written in the margins and other blank spaces in the book, even between the printed lines of text.

Here’s a picture of one of the first pages in the Epitome. There are annotations written by at least three different hands: a comment on the text, corrections to it (‘venatoris’ corrects the printed word ‘venationis’ which is struck through), a clumsy drawing of a pointing finger (known as a manicule) which draws attention to a particular passage, and many Latin words in small script written between the lines which give more familiar synonyms for the older Latin used in the text. It all more or less resembles the notes a student might make today in Italian on a text in old Italian and in Latin which they’re studying.


Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], comment to a part of the printed text


Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], interventions to make classical Latin more understandable (synonyms, insertion of verbs etc.).


Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], corrections to the printed text.

At the top and bottom of the page there are two additions which distract from the printed text: in the top left-hand corner a rather clumsy drawing of a flowering plant and in the bottom margin a couple of transcribed quotations. One is a proverb from the Old Testament which roughly translates as “The man who inflicts pain writes it in dust, but the man who submits to pain carves it in marble’. Just underneath this phrase, in a more flowing hand, there’s the final line of one of Martial’s epigrams (XIV, from De spectaculis libellus) which celebrates the wise but unpredictable workings of chance in human affairs, even when it’s taken most for granted.

The final page in the volume sheds light on the people who added these notes to the book. Once again the page is full of annotations and quotations but in the middle we find the name, in its Latin form, of a certain Giovanni Girolamo who writes that he arrived at about 11 in the evening on 9 December 1509 at the house of a Roman gentleman called Giacobazio to take up a job as a tutor – very probably for Giacobazio’s sons.

5_Giustino_i8r_nota del maestro

Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], i8r, tutor’s note.

So this is the reason for these two works of Latin history and poetry – they were intended for the private education of the offspring of a well-to-do Roman family.

But the copy also tells us how it was used: collectively. All these figures – the tutor and his young pupils – left their marks in the two recently purchased incunables. The tutor added corrections and comments; his pupils copied down his remarks and added their own comments, and also underlined and glossed hard words between the printed lines. They occasionally got distracted too, drawing flowers, a shining sun, a man being hanged…


Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], a3v, drawings.


Justinus, Epitomae [Venice: 1494], a4v, drawings.

 Last but not least, the book was not only used to school the boys in Latin but also to teach them how they could live. Reading the printed text they acquired notions of universal and Roman history, in prose and verse; the blank spaces on the pages were filled with short pithy quotations which could be learned by heart and put to use as guiding maxims in daily life.

So on the pages of this book we find the tutor and his pupils engaged in the parallel processes of reading, learning and teaching.