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Woodcut image of a school child reaching for a hornbook inscribed with the alphabet. A women extends the hornbook to the child while extending a key into the doorway.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Step-by-Step: The Tower of Learning

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The initial woodcut image in Gregor Reisch’s encyclopedic textbook Margarita Philosophica (Philosophical Pearl) shows that a liberal arts education is a necessarily gradual process. Gregor Reisch (c. 1470–1525) wrote the Margarita at the end of the fifteenth century, and the first edition was published in Freiburg, Germany in 1503. Devoted to the seven liberal arts, the textbook begins with trivium (grammar/dialectic, logic, and rhetoric) and proceeds step-by-step through the subjects in the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). The remaining chapters are dedicated to philosophy. The disciplines are each represented within the tower image in a graduated order.

Woodcut image of a school child reaching for a hornbook inscribed with the alphabet. A women extends the hornbook to the child while extending a key into the doorway of a tower with five floors.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Gradus is the Latin word for “step” (and the etymological source of the English educational term “grade”). The sixteenth-century students who would have been using Reisch’s popular textbook would likely have recognized that, to reach the top of the tower by way of the arches beneath, the little scholar in the bottom corner of the image would have to ascend a presumed interior spiraled staircase in a step-by-step manner.

The concept of a step is integral to the once-common medieval genre of tower diagrams. The underlying architecture of the visual metaphor implies that the stability of top of the building is dependent upon the structural integrity of the lower levels. Within the logic of the diagram, the height of human understanding (metaphysics) is dependent, structurally, upon early education. In summary: the alphabet is shown to be the key to future success.

How does the metaphor work? Let’s look at it step-by-step.

The figure of Nicostrata first captures the viewer’s attention. She holds a key to the tower in her left hand. Her right extends a hornbook, inscribed with the alphabet, toward the little school child. Also known as Carmenta, the goddess Nicostrata is a legendary Arcadian deity whom the poet Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his Concerning Famous Women (De claris mulieribus) credited with having provided the Latin alphabet to the Italians.

Woodcut image of a school child reaching for a hornbook inscribed with the alphabet. A women extends the hornbook to the child while extending a key into the doorway.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The goddess of language, invention, prophecy, and childbirth, Nicostrata in this image serves as the personification of primary learning through the alphabet tablet, suggesting that grammatical fundamentals and are the basis of abstract thought. She holds the key to door labeled “argument” (argumentum), and she stands at the entry point to the foundational area of the tower that is labeled “banquet hall of philosophy” (triclinium philosophiae).

Upon opening the door of argument, the viewer finds a community of learning that spans centuries. On the ground floor sits the fourth-century grammarian, Donatus, the famed teacher of Saint Jerome, engaging with his younger pupils. Donatus embodies the discipline of grammar, the first subject treated in Reisch’s textbook.

Woodcut image of the first two floors of the tower, each filled with students and an instructor.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In the room above, Priscian, the sixth-century author of the famous textbook Institutiones Grammaticae, dialogues with more advanced students. He exemplifies the discipline of dialectic, the second subject of the textbook. These foundational rooms are the largest portions of the tower, the base upon which the more specialized subject rests.

In the smaller arches Aristotle represents logic, Cicero exemplifies rhetoric, Boethius illustrates arithmetic, Pythagoras symbolizes music, Euclid characterizes Geometry, Ptolemy personifies Astronomy, Pliny denotes Natural Philosophy, Seneca typifies Moral Philosophy, and, finally, Peter Lombard sits at pinnacle of the tower signifying the height of human understanding in the discipline of metaphysics.

Woodcut of the top three floors of the tower, each filled with a little face, and a man sitting at the top with a red cap.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Reisch’s students, learning from this textbook in the sixteenth century, may have understood that the visual metaphor of the woodcut extends beyond the illustration on the page to the reader. While the tower is external to the young student in the woodcut image who is reaching for Nicostrata’s hornbook, the rhetorical purpose of the image speaks beyond its borders to the interior life of the sixteenth-century student who is about to journey through the Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica in its entirety.

Woodcut image of a school child reaching for a hornbook inscribed with the alphabet.
Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The image suggests that through participation in the external structures of the systematic education for which this textbook was an intended aid, the sixteenth-century student develops an internal architecture of knowledge within their own person that mirrors the structure and characteristics of the tower diagram in the woodcut. A bulwark that withstands siege, a look-out point that creates an advantage, the tower becomes a metaphor for an educated mind.

Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg, 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

 

 

FURTHER READING

Attar, Karen. “Gregor Reisch’s Pearl of Wisdom.” Senate House Library Blog 2021. https://www.london.ac.uk/senate-house-library/blog/GregorReisch-MargaritaPhilosophica

Cunningham, Andrew and Sachiko Kusukawa, Natural philosophy epitomised: a translation of books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch’s Philosophical pearl (1503). Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. https://lccn.loc.gov/2009912397

“grade, n., Etymology”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, September 2023.

“Margarita philosophica, 1517.” Exhibit co-curated by Annie Brogan and Robert D. Hicks; adapted for the web by Joseph Anderson and Sarah Schwab. Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (2021). https://cppdigitallibrary.org/exhibits/show/astrology/reisch

 

 

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