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Woodcut image depicting Thomas Murner as a robed cat.
Karsthans. Basel : Adam Petri, 1521. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Gamification: Thomas Murner Makes Learning Fun

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The Franciscan preacher and satirist, Thomas Murner (1475-1537), earned his distinctive feline caricature (image below) by engaging in sixteenth-century public controversy. Murner’s extensive education, his prowess in effective ridicule, and his native command of the German language made him especially equipped to be one of Martin Luther’s most forceful opponents during the Reformation. A dedicated humanist and educator, Murner even wrote catchy, popularized satirical songs in opposition to those created by some of Luther’s ardent supporters. 

As a result of his spirited public discourse, Thomas Murner earned himself a reputation for being a bit of a yowler, and his political opponents depicted him as a robed tomcat, which in German is a word play on “murr-narr,” meaning “cat fool” or “grumbling fool.” 

Image showing four figures, one with a head of a cat wearing a monastic robe.
Thomas Murner shown with a cat’s head and dressed in a friar’s robe in Karsthans. Basel : Adam Petri, 1521. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

However peppery in temperament, Murner knew how to engage an audience, and his subject matter was anything but foolish. And as a teacher, specifically a teacher of logic, engaging his student audience became an important part of his pedagogical strategy. Contemporary educators will likely sympathize with Murner’s professorial instincts. What is an effective means of engaging students in the classroom? Turn learning into a game. 

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has a copy of Thomas Murner’s Logica Memorativa: Chartiludium logicae, a book printed in Strasbourg in 1509 that uses 51 images as visual tools for remembering aspects of a formal logic course as it was taught at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Title page with printer's mark.
Thomas Murner. Logica memorativa: Chartiludium logicae. 1509. Rosenwald 612. 

In effect, the 51 woodcut images resemble flash cards, which can be flipped over to show the reader the numbered explanatory sentences if the symbolic elements of the image are not immediately apparent. The text contains sixteen treatises, and each treatise begins with an image that served as an epitome of the content contained within. Individual aspects of the image are numbered, as shown in the image below, and the numbers correspond to sentences in the book that briefly describe the significance of the imagery.

Card showing a man with a hat on a horse.
Thomas Murner. Logica memorativa: Chartiludium logicae. 1509. Rosenwald 612. 

At first glance, the scene for Treatise 1 Card 4 (image below) looks like nonsense. The card depicts a woman with horse hooves for appendages standing below the sun, above the moon, and between sets of crowns and wreaths. Curious, right?

Does it catch your attention? Do you want to know to what it refers?

Woodcut image of a woman with horse hooves holding two suns in her hand and standing on two half moons.
Thomas Murner. Logica memorativa: Chartiludium logicae. 1509. Rosenwald 612.

Strangeness was a mnemonic technique intended to spark curiosity. Surprisingly odd images were thought to pique a viewer’s interest and activate an attentive investigation. The viewer’s natural curiosity over visual incongruity was thought to help with the retention of the information represented within the architecture of the scene. 

Interestingly enough, Card 4 with the hooved lady represents a well-known figure in classical formal logic referred to as “The Square of Opposition.” This diagram (image below) details the logical relationships between certain propositions.

A diagram in the shape of a square inscribed with an X. Circles at each corner and in the center.
Detail of the square of opposition. Thomas Murner. Logica memorativa: Chartiludium logicae. 1509. Rosenwald 612.

Borrowing from Aristotle, who refers to humans as ‘rational animals,’ the four circles in the square of opposition represent four basic statements. Top left: all humans are animals. Top right: no humans are animals. Bottom left: some humans are animals. Bottom right: some humans are not animals.

The top left of the diagram is a universal affirmation; the top right is a universal negation. Both cannot be true. The bottom left is a particular affirmation, and the bottom right is a particular negation. Both statements cannot be false.

Are your eyes glazing over? Has your attention wandered? Does the picture below help?

Image of the full-page depicting card 4 with the woman with the horse hooves.
Thomas Murner. Logica memorativa: Chartiludium logicae. 1509. Rosenwald 612.

Card 4 in the Chartiludium logicae uses the sun to represent the universal affirmation, the moon to represent universal negation, the crowns to represent truth, the wreaths to represent falsity. The woman with the hooves (the “rational animal”) is peculiar, and that’s what makes her an effective tool for encouraging user engagement.

Were grumpy-cat Murner a teacher today, he might be a proponent of gamification, the use of game design elements in a non-game setting for the purpose of encouraging participation toward a particular end. He might be tempted to say, especially with regards to the image on Card 4, that there’s nothing new under the sun and that late medieval pedagogical techniques could be impressively engaging even by contemporary standards.

 

FURTHER READING

Campos Benítez, Juan Manuel (2019). “Analogy and Visual Content: The Logica memorativa of Thomas Murner” Philosophies 4, no. 1: 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies4010002

Classen, Albrecht (2019). “The Baby and the Bath Water: Satirical Laughter by Thomas Murner and Herman Bote as Catalysts for a Paradigm Shift in the Age Prior to the Protestant Reformation. Literary Comedy as a Medium to Undermine the Authorities and to Create a Power Vacuum” in Paradigm Shifts During the Global Middle Ages and Renaissance. Albrecht Classen, ed. Turnhout, Belgium : Brepols. pp. 123-149. https://lccn.loc.gov/2020303069

Greiner, Lily (1990). “Thomas Murner (1475-1537), Humaniste et Thélogien Alsacien” in Congrès national des sociétés savantes (113th : 1988 : Strasbourg, France) Les pays de l’entre-deux au Moyen Age : questions d’histoire des territoires d’Empire entre Meuse, Rhône et Rhin. Paris : Editions du C.T.H.S.. pp. 279-288. https://lccn.loc.gov/91124300

Murner, Thomas (1967). Logica memorativa. Chartiludium logice, sive totius dialectice memoria, Strasburg, 1509. Facsimile. Nieuwkoop, Miland. https://lccn.loc.gov/67031294

Oettinger, Rebecca (2003).Thomas Murner, Michael Stifel, and Songs as Polemic in the Early Reformation,” Journal of Musicological Research, 22:1-2, 45-100, DOI: 10.1080/01411890305919

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