Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe

An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian. Continue reading “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe”

‘You,’ ‘Us,’ and ‘Them’: Glass and Procedural Knowledge in Cuneiform Cultures

You

When you want to make a kiln for glassmaking, you search continuously for a propitious day during a favorable month. You lay the foundations of a kiln with four chambers. You make constant offerings and set up purifying divinities so that no impurities may enter: you make lapis lazuli.

These instructions summarize the contents of a corpus of Akkadian glassmaking recipes from more than two and half millennia ago.[1] It was then, in the seventh century BCE, that the king himself claimed to have dedicated clay tablets containing instructions “for your making stones” (colored glasses and frits) to the temple of Nabu and Tašmetu, the patron gods of knowledge: Continue reading “‘You,’ ‘Us,’ and ‘Them’: Glass and Procedural Knowledge in Cuneiform Cultures”

Knowledge and the Appropriation of Technology

It is striking how profoundly we have come to integrate technological artifacts into our lives and how commonplace these devices appear to us now. There were times when they were entirely new. Just think of indoor water taps replacing public wells, or electric light bulbs supplanting kerosine lamps and gas fixtures. Here I consider how new technologies associated with engineered water supplies became a part of standard household practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Specifically, I explore the role that knowledge played in the process in Los Angeles. This city offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the “appropriation of technology” around 1900. Continue reading “Knowledge and the Appropriation of Technology”

More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books

In Elizabethan London, one of the more surprising things a wealthy owner of a beautifully illustrated folio volume could do was to take a sharp knife and cut it to pieces. John Blagrave’s 1585 Mathematical Jewel, in fact, demands nothing less.[1] This work, which introduced an elaborate instrument of Blagrave’s design for performing astronomical calculations, included woodcuts that were specifically provided in order to be cut out and used as surrogates for the brass original:

get very fine pastboord made of purpose, and then spred your paste very fine thereon, & quickly laying on this picture & clappe it streight into a presse before it bee thorowe wette with the paste (fol. ¶6v)

Continue reading “More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books”

The Politics of the Handbook

Readers of this blog may have asked themselves what the image identifying the Learning by the Book contributions shows. At first glance, the photo simply contains a row of worn, bound, heavy handbooks on a library shelf. The books are arguably very European and modern; however, they convey an aspect of “bookish” materiality that many of the contributions to this blog, regardless of time period or region, deal with in quite diverse ways. Continue reading “The Politics of the Handbook”

The Limits of Book Learning

In 1737, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus bitterly complained about the haphazard naming practices of his contemporaries. “The names bestowed on plants by the ancient Greeks and Romans I commend,” he wrote, “but I shudder at the sight of most of those given by modern authorities: for those are for the most part a mere chaos of confusion, whose mother is barbarity, whose father dogmatism, and whose nurse prejudice.”[1] But even after the many editions of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae ostensibly brought order to the chaos of naming things in the natural world and structuring Western scientific understanding of it, the problem of accurately describing new natural phenomena persisted. Continue reading “The Limits of Book Learning”

Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries

The earliest extant Chinese mathematical writings include two types of components of particular interest for our discussion on manuals and handbooks. On the one hand, there are mathematical problems that often evoke tasks carried out by officials working in the imperial bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are mathematical “procedures,” or “algorithms” in today’s parlance, to solve such problems. This description fits most of the mathematical books composed in China until the seventh century. Continue reading “Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries”