How to Do It shows us sixteenth-century Italy from an entirely new perspective: through manuals which were staples in the households of middlebrow Italians merely trying to lead better lives. Addressing challenges such as how to conceive a boy, the manuals offered suggestions such as tying a tourniquet around your husband's left testicle. Or should you want to goad female desires, throw 90 grubs in a liter of olive oil, let steep in the sun for a week and apply liberally on the male anatomy. Bell's journey through booklets long dismissed by scholars as being of little literary value gives us a refreshing and surprisingly fun social history.
"Lively and curious reading, particularly in its cascade of anecdote, offered in a breezy, cozy, journalistic style." —Lauro Martines, Times Literary Supplement
"[Bell's] fascinating book is a window on a lost world far nearer to our own than we might imagine. . . . How pleasant to read his delightful, informative and often hilarious book." —Kate Saunders, The Independent
"An extraordinary work which blends the learned with the frankly bizarre." —The Economist
"Professor Bell has a sly sense of humor and an enviably strong stomach. . . . He wants to know how people actually behaved, not how the Church or philosophers or earnest humanists thought they should behave. I loved this book." —Christopher Stace, Daily Telegraph
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How to Do It
Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians
By Rudolph M. Bell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1999 Rudolph M. Bell
All rights reserved.
Our parents may well have consulted an advice manual telling them how to conceive us, along with information on choosing the right moment for our conception. The same little book probably had a chapter about how to influence the likelihood that we would be a boy or a girl, followed by sections telling our mothers how to care for us in the womb, what to expect each month, and how to cope with a variety of physical discomforts and emotional swings. Once hospitals decided to allow fathers into the delivery room, guidebooks followed telling Dad how to be helpful. At our crib side surely there was a copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock, neatly indexed to find the solution to any problem. Parents and children gained relief in learning that everyone went through "the terrible twos." Further along, some of us may have been raised on the more fearsome teachings of Larry Christenson, J. Richard Fugate, and their fellow fundamentalists to use the hickory stick regularly and with vigor. Later came Dr. Seuss, and for the slower learners, books on how to teach Johnny to read.
Adolescence brought a new avalanche of printed wisdom. We were told how to combat acne, how to behave on a first date, how to be asked to the prom, when to kiss, what tongue kissing is, whether one can get pregnant from heavy petting, how to lose weight, and how to style our hair. There followed a range of books on which college to choose, which career to prepare for, how to find a rich husband, or perhaps a loving one, the traits of a good wife, and coping with exam stress, homework, loneliness, conflict with parents, sexual orientation, and just plain growing up.
As adults our dependence on advice manuals continues. They easily outsell every other sort of book by such a margin that best-seller lists often separate them to allow other works of nonfiction a place. Is any home without them? They tell us how to cook, how to repair our automobiles, how to fix a leaking faucet, how to paint the porch, how to travel on a low budget, how to heal our minor aches and pains, how to make a killing in the stock market, how to pay less tax, how to buy a home or a car, and how to commit suicide with minimum discomfort. Nor is the advice manual limited to purely practical, verifiable concerns. Indeed, the biggest sellers give us handy guidelines on how to be happy, how to get to heaven, how to achieve orgasm, how to be successful, how to get through menopause, how to cope with old age, and how to die with dignity.
When I sat down to write this paragraph (October 27, 1996), the number one best-seller according to the New York Times Book Review was a book titled he Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right (eight hundred thousand copies in print so far). Television personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno joked about The Rules, while some feminists feared that the book actually set back their efforts; but other people were paying $250 an hour for telephone consultations with the authors and forming self-help organizations to support sisters having trouble sticking to its precepts. Could it be that five centuries ago printed advice like this little best-seller shaped people's behavior in any way? The same Book Review showed that a close runner-up to The Rules had been on the best-seller list for 109 straight weeks: Chicken Soup for the Soul, a "collection of stories meant to open the heart and rekindle the spirit," according to the blurb. Also in this issue was a page-length ad from a respected university press devoted entirely to advice manuals, including a book on how to live and die with cancer, another on alopecia areata, and a third on HIV; the list closed with a book titled The Prostate: A Guide for Men and the Women Who Love Them. Another ad, occupying a full page, touted a three-volume video set that moves from guiding couples to "better" sex, on to "advanced" sex, and finally to "making sex fun"; it carried all the respectability of an "institute" mailing address and of course the fine name of the New York Times itself. Buyers were assured, nonetheless, that these goods, plus a giveaway on sexual creativity, would arrive in plain packaging. All in all, a pretty typical late-twentieth-century week for the advice-manual genre, except maybe for being a little sparse on how to get to heaven.
Among the many forms of literature that surround us, the advice manual seems to be of little historical importance. We look always for the latest and freshest, with the new twist or the new secret revealed. Keeping up with the most recent fad is everything. Today's miracle drug is Prozac, the au courant illness is anorexia nervosa (or was that last year's rage?), the latest panacea is safe sex, or perhaps it is a Mediterranean diet, low cholesterol, Viagra, trekking, or loving Jesus. Name the problem and there is a book telling you how to solve it; the goal, and there is a book on how to reach it; the desire, and there is a book on how to fulfill it.
The ephemeral quality of the advice manual, along with its notorious intellectual shallowness, may account for the relative lack of scholarly interest in this genre. The advice our grandparents took seriously may seem quaintly antiquarian to us, at best a humorous compote of misinformation laced with harmless backwardness. Serious works meant to guide our lives, and we may count everything from Plato to the Bible among these, have a lasting quality, a philosophical underpinning that separates them from recyclable how-to-do-it manuals.
Classic books are bound in cloth, printed with care on high-quality paper, purchased by serious libraries, and assigned for reading by college students in inexpensive editions. If we lend one to a friend, we want it back to be displayed on our coffee table, passed on to our children, inventoried, and admired. The advice manual leads a very different existence. A cookbook may stay around for a few years, but it is likely to get burned on a hot stove or suffer gravy stains; a medical "encyclopedia" may last a lifetime, but you would not pass along such outdated misinformation to your children's household. The rest lead an even more transitory existence: cheap acidic paper that turns yellow-brown, brittle spines, no library willing to accept them as a donation, no neighbor interested in buying them at a yard sale. The very eagerness with which we devour an advice manual on first read, or insistently share it with our partner, is matched only by our total indifference to it soon after. Even the most popular books on how to get to heaven lose their inspirational power on rereading. And how many of us actually reconsult a sex manual if we fail to achieve the promised results on our first or second try?
Under the category of "popular-advice manual" I intend to include books that vary considerably among themselves in content, style, and purpose. Let me provide a few examples from contemporary American bookstore shelves before turning to sixteenth-century Italy. As I revise this paragraph on October 12, 1997, The Rules no longer appears on the New York Times Book Review best-seller list, and if you're looking for Christmas stocking stuffers as joke gifts, you'll find dozens of copies on the bargain-book table at your local shopping mall. In my judgment The Rules fits nicely at the ephemeral, shallow end of the advice-manual spectrum. At the opposite extreme, I would place Dr. Spock's recommendations on baby care; they have had a much better shelf life, and their author brought impeccable scholarly credentials to his endeavor. Still, one may wonder why the advice has needed revision six times ("FULLY REVISED and updated for the 1990s" is the blurb on the 1992 edition) since it was first published in 1946 as The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Moreover, "common sense" no longer appears in the latest edition's title, just one of many puzzles I leave to your judgment. Apart from a new edition's value as a marketing technique, have the times changed so much—the babies, the parents, psychology, medical knowledge, everything?
Without answering that one, let's complicate things by thinking as well about why Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, a thirty-million-copy best-seller (running behind Spock's fifty million but still a clear winner among advice manuals), has been translated into thirty languages and reprinted hundreds of times but never revised since its original appearance in 1936. A look at the Carnegie Internet site shows that the book continues to hold a central place in the experiences of millions of graduates worldwide of Dale Carnegie courses in effective speaking, stress management, business success, and human relations. It is an advice manual many people invest in seriously, one we might place somewhere between ephemera like The Rules and quality advice from Dr. Spock. As a quick refresher, here are Carnegie's "seven rules for making your home life happier."
Rule 1: Don't nag.
Rule 2: Don't try to make your partner over.
Rule 3: Don't criticize.
Rule 4: Give honest appreciation.
Rule 5: Pay little attentions.
Rule 6: Be courteous.
Rule 7: Read a good book on the sexual side of marriage.
Some may snicker at the homeyness of this advice, while others may see nuggets of eternal wisdom. So be it. Our provisional advice-manual spectrum shall extend from the short-lived and shallow to the classic and erudite, so long as these books manifest a conscious effort to reach out to the self-help, how-to needs of sixteenth-century Italian families. My preference, when in doubt about definitions and boundaries, will be to err on the side of inclusiveness since you, the reader, can more easily pass over my discussion of a work you find extraneous than you can recover something I exclude entirely.
Now, with our flexible sense of what an advice manual might contain, I invite you to leave the present behind and join me in an excursion through several dozen self-help books from sixteenth-century Italy, including some with rules for making your home life happier expressed with an aplomb to match Dale Carnegie's folksy maxims. My focus will be on advice concerning how to be a manly man or a womanly woman. Excluded entirely from our literary journey will be dozens of interesting sixteenth-century cookbooks and farmers' almanacs, as well as most advice manuals having no bearing on questions of relations between the sexes. Someday I would like to try a few of Bartolomeo Scappi's recipes; after all, he was chef to Pope Pius V, so the culinary delights must have been exquisite. The life of the gentleman farmer also beckons, perhaps when I retire. However, by limiting ourselves to a narrower range of advice manuals—those dealing with interactions among men, women, and their children—I hope to make the present work a coherent whole.
Occasionally the authors we encounter will be familiar names, such as the theologian Desiderius Erasmus and the Greek biographer Plutarch (both appearing in vernacular translations), and a few titles, such as The Courtier, still evoke considerable interest among literary critics. But our main concern with these "elite" items will be with how publishers transformed them into popular-advice manuals to be sold in less expensive editions with indexes, tables of contents, and capsule summaries added to facilitate quick consultation. The print medium tended to transgress presumed boundaries between high and low culture. Moreover, as we shall see, not everything written by classic theologians and biographers was particularly classic. Most authors and titles we shall engage, on the other hand, have been ignored or forgotten for centuries, although quite a few went through multiple editions in their day. We shall uncover almanacs telling farmers how to govern their wives, books telling priests how to use the confessional to guide their parishioners toward proper behavior, vernacular medical advice, herbals, books of secrets, and even literary spoofs done in the style of a how-to book.
Historians quite rightly have emphasized the critical importance of the printed word in the spread of Protestantism and in the development of enlightened scientific method. Much also has been made of Rome's censorship of the printing press, this being after all the moment when the Index of Prohibited Books was introduced, when printers were condemned to prison and their presses smashed. These truths notwithstanding, I shall treat Roman Catholic advice manuals as competitors for display space and sales against books presenting different views. This approach is in keeping with how Catholic Reformation leaders understood themselves. They knew they could not entirely suppress the spread of pernicious ideas through the printed book, although they certainly tried. So, influential prelates actively adopted the enemy's tactics and published with a vengeance. At the high end, the well-known Jesuit Antonio Possevino provided a list of ideologically correct books, the Bibliotheca selecta qua agitur de ratione studiorum in historia, in disciplinis, in salute omnium procuranda, first printed in 1593, which encompasses a total cultural program for the young scholar. But even this work underwent transformations typical of the advice manual, including major editorial changes clearly aimed at making it more accessible. Subsequent editions featured a more manageable quarto or octavo format, included extensive Italian translations for readers who did not know Latin, and added condensations (crib notes, we would call them) of the recommended books. Possevino's selections are very studious indeed, nothing like the lowbrow popular manuals for parish priests and their flock that I shall be exploring, but rest assured that the same Catholic authorities supported both ways of influencing the faithful.
The church specifically courted female readers. Recent findings from a team of scholars led by Gabriella Zarri documented persuasively the conscious, massive efforts of Catholic reformers to control, shape, prescribe, reward, and inspire good Christian behavior among virgins, matrons, and widows of all conditions through books. The trusted traditions of convent discipline found their way into vernacular plays, poems, elementary readers, household guides, confessionals, pastorals, inspirational biographies, and hagiographies meant to be read by ladies, whether they resided in a convent or a secular home. Zarri's team recovered and individually listed 2,626 vernacular books/pamphlets addressed to female concerns and printed in Italy between 1471 and 1700. Among these, over 1,000 works had appeared by 1600, the cutoff date for my own study. Indeed, publication of prescriptive Christian literature for women actually peaked in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, both in absolute number of titles and in the percentage of them addressed primarily to laywomen. The advice manual, then, was just one genre in an array of Italian books for women.
Several of the texts we shall examine first circulated in handwritten copies during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, products of what historian Elizabeth Eisenstein called a scribal culture.4 Indeed, the later Middle Ages saw a great interest in giving advice on proper ways to raise a family. Churchmen led the way in writing explicitly didactic works, for example, the twelfth-century epistle by St. Bernard on governing the family (Bernardus de cura rei famuliaris), and lay humanists were not far behind. Among the most elegant and detailed secular works in this genre was Leon Battista Alberti's I libri della famiglia, a book that today is still widely read and quoted. Many of these handwritten manuscripts kindled the interest of early publishers who chose to make copies or translations of them more widely available in the new medium of the printed book, as happened with St. Bernard's epistle, although it apparently was not a best-seller. But other handwritten works, including Alberti's I libri, remained on the shelves of monastic libraries or in the studies of elite scholars.
Excerpted from How to Do It by Rudolph M. Bell. Copyright © 1999 Rudolph M. Bell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Boy or Girl
Frequency of Intercourse
Positions during Intercourse
Infertility in Women
Are You Pregnant?
3. Pregnancy and Childbirth
Boy or Girl?
Diet and Daily Activity
4. Raising Your Child
Nursing: Who Should Do It?
Nursing: How to Do It
Child Rearing: Physical Health
Child Rearing: Good Character
Who Was an Adolescent?
The Sins of Adolescence
Choosing a Spouse
6. Marital Relations
From the Humanists
From the Church
From the Gentlemen
7. Then and Now
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