Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge

Often overlooked, handbooks, protocols, and manuals are key in the making, preserving, and sharing of knowledge.


Before meeting in Princeton, NJ, for a four-day conference, participants published short pieces on this blog. The idea behind the conference and the blog series was to “bring together three vibrant fields—history of books and media, science and technology studies, and history of knowledge—to consider how practices relate to text, and how bodies of technical knowledge are shaped and maintained over time.”

The conference and blog posts addressed other how-to topics as well, including artisinal knowledge, religious knowledge, occult knowledge, architecture, botony collecting, commercial do-it-yourself products, and more. The knowledge in question was sometimes also forgotten, or encoded for a small group already in the know, sometimes to prevent its further dissemination. The list goes on—always with a focus on the nexus between text and practice.

The blog posts are presented below in a mixed chronological–thematic order, but there are other ways to apprehend them. Take, for instance, the organization of the conference. There was a different theme for each day of the event and individual panels that revolved around particular types of knowledge and related processes. The series-specific taxonomy at right reproduces that structure, with the daily themes in all caps and the panel topics lowercase.

Or one could follow this blog’s other taxonomies: themes (“categories” in blogspeak), tags, and dates of publication.


Why Manuals and Handbooks? Why Now? by Mathias Grote

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy by Matteo Martelli
Crosspost ↣ The Recipes Project

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

Hunters, Inquisitors, and Scholars: The Construction and Demarcation of Expertise in the Manuals of Frederick II and Bernard Gui by Marcel Bubert

How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe by Jennifer M. Rampling

Crosspost ↣ The Recipes Project

Early Modern Period

Of Horses, Men, Books, and Things: Learning How to Ride in Early Modern Europe by Isabelle Schürch

Vicissitudes in Soldering: Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual by Thijs Hagendijk & Tonny Beentjes

Crosspost ↣ The Recipes Project

Rewriting the Book: Archaeology and Experimental Glass from the First British Colony in America by Umberto Veronesi

The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks by Jenny Boulboullé

More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books by Boris Jardine

Customizing How-To in Early Modern England by Elaine Leong

How to Conjure Spirits: The Logistics of the Necromancer’s Manual in Early Modern Switzerland by Eveline Szarka

Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity by Simon Brown

Knowing My Jurisdiction: Compendiums and Frontier Administration in Early Modern China by Xue Zhang

Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries by Wilson Chan

The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan by Federico Marcon

Nineteenth Century

The Book Will Kill the Edifice? Mechanics Manuals and Learning to Draw in the Early and Mid-Nineteenth Century by Liat Spiro

The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge by Kerstin von der Krone

‘A Lady’ in the Museum by Marianne Brooker

‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire by Elaine Ayers

Handbooks of the Mind into Ready Reckoners in Print: The Story of the ‘Encuvati’ in the Nineteenth Century by D. Senthil Babu

Timing the Textbook: Capitalism, Development, and Western Knowledge in the Nineteenth-Century by Hansun Hsiung

‘Handbuch der Architektur’ (1880–1943): A German Design Manual for the Building Professionby Susanne Jany

Medical Knowledge and the Manual Production of Casebook-Based Handbooks by Axel C. Hüntelmann

Twentieth Century

Punnett Squares and Hybrid Crosses: How Mendelians Learned Their Trade by the Book by Staffan Müller-Wille & Giuditta Parolini

Formatting Modern Man on Paper: Ernst Neufert’s ‘Lehren’ by Anna-Maria Meister

Maurice H. Dobb’s ‘Wages’: A Journey Ahead of the Standardization of Labor Economics by François Allisson & Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

The Theorist’s Doctrine and the Collector’s Technique: On The Historicity of Expertise in Microbiology by Charles A. Kollmer

Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science by Mathias Grote

Mental Disorders, Collective Observation, and the International Classification of Diseases by David Robertson

Taking Human Genetics Digital: ‘Mendelian Inheritance in Man’ and the Genealogy of Electronic Publishing in Biomedicine by Michael McGovern

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of ‘Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual’ by Angela N. H. Creager

Crosspost ↣ The Recipes Project

The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing by Alrun Schmidtke

Selling by the Book: Instructions and the Commercialization of DIY Practices in Twentieth-Century Germany by Reinhild Kreis

Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook by Evangelos Kotsioris


The Politics of the Handbook by Mathias Grote

Image credit: Mathias Grote; further details: The Politics of the Handbook.