How a French Boy Illustrated his Manuscript Arithmetic Work Book (1833)

A splendid cahier d’arithmetic made for a pupil by his teacher recently on the market.

Workbooks of arithmetical problems sound like the least likely of any elementary educational work to use illustrations as relief from the columns of figures.  That is a perfectly reasonable assumption if you learned basic arithmetical operations from the average twentieth-century textbook, which need not  appeal to the eye or imagination (there are exceptions, of course)..  While this may be true of printed workbooks, it is not really true in the case of the modern print genre of playful, colorful counting books or manuscript workbooks made before 1850. These manuscripts are frequently highly visual, decorated in a wide variety of styles, and their design and illustration offer intriguing evidence about how children acquired basic numeracy 1660-1850, that also raise questions with no easy answers.

Cotsen has added another example of a manuscript arithmetic workbook to its collection.  Le petit livret d’arithmetique was made by Jacques Gounon, a student  of M. Michel Francois “instruteur elementaire” in Moussac, a commune near Uzès in the department of Gard in southern France. The title page is dated 1833, but it is unclear if the year indicates the date of the beginning or the completion  (sometimes the student recorded the dates exercises were completed, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule).  Jacques used a very black ink that showed through the pages, making some of them appear to be covered with patches of scribbles that are more or less indecipherable.  The exercises on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division look as if they embody the traditional rule-driven arithmetic pedagogy dating back to the eighteenth century, but a historian of numeracy might able to identify the printed source Jacques’ teacher assigned or detect changes in the pedagogy after studying the manuscript.

Jacques, who seems to have had some artistic talent, drew headpieces throughout his workbook, none of them with any connection to the lessons below. His subjects are ones which would interest a boy—harlequins, horses, and soldiers.

The choice of some subjects, such as headpieces of the rooster perched on a trumpet, the dragon clutching a man in its claws, and the camel and reindeer bearing  flags, are opaque without some explanation.  My preliminary research indicates that Jacques’ illustrations and decorations had contemporary political overtones.

The two quadrupeds are expressing their solidarity with the current regime by flying the tricolore, whose use had been suspended at the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration in 1815 and recently restored after the July Revolution of 1830.  The rooster has long been an emblem of the French nation based on the play on words between gallus, a cockerel, and gallus, a resident of Gaul.  Somewhat eclipsed by Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic’s chief values of liberté, égalité et fraternité, it may have been a token of Jacques’ loyalty to Louis Philippe, Duke of Chartres, who ascended the throne after his cousin Charles IX was forced to abdicate by the July Revolutionaries.

The meaning and source of the dragon is somewhat mysterious.  Perhaps the beast  was inspired by cheap French popular print, like this block on the cover of a Valentine and Orson chapbook.  Its victim is wearing a hat.  Might it be a clumsy rendering of the Phrygian bonnet or liberty cap worn by French revolutionaries?

Was he directed by his teacher to illustrate some of the arithmetic assignments? If it were mandatory, was it a way of practicing other skills the teacher wanted him to learn? Or was the option of decorating  the workbook been offered as an inducement to plough through the material?  Was he free to chose the subjects without approval?  To answer these questions, we would have to know more about the school’s master and the curriculum he taught.  Was M. Michel Francois a writing master?   Was he trained by a professional calligrapher, who would have been more likely to have his pupils lay out the pages elegantly with embellishments?  Or was he a master who advertised his ability to teach his pupils the essential skills of writing and ciphering that would serve them well in trade and commerce?

Manuscript arithmetic workbooks are not just attractive because of their illustrations, but because they also present complicated puzzles for historians of education to crack.

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