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, … Continue reading More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books

Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge (May–June 2018)

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 … Continue reading Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge (May–June 2018)

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, … 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

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

On November 4, 1646, Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655), first physician to Charles I and the English Aristocracy, decided to spend his day away from his demanding patients and to devote his attention to the vibrant world of colors. He took a good handful of bilberries and carefully inspected the color of their peel and … Continue reading The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks

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

In premodern China, the population was roughly divided according to professions into four groups: literati, farmers, artisans, and merchants. During this period, artisanal knowledge was mainly transmitted in person. Most Chinese artisans were not as literate as their European counterparts, if literate at all, and written texts played a minor role in the transmission of … Continue reading Popular and Specialist Artisanal Knowledge in China, Mid-Thirteenth to Early Twentieth Centuries

Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity

In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy … Continue reading Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity

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

In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with … Continue reading The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan

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

Learning how to ride a horse has always been a tricky business. Xenophon pondered it in the fifth century BCE. So did the famous Renaissance riding master Federico Grisone. Even today, book shops have plenty of titles on learning how to ride (Figure 1). To put it a bit bluntly, riding a horse is about … Continue reading Of Horses, Men, Books, and Things: Learning How to Ride in Early Modern Europe

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

In 1727, fourteen men and women stood trial before the court of Basel for alleged treasure hunting. There was a rumor that some of them had attempted to find hidden treasures by performing nocturnal ceremonies to conjure spirits that could uncover and release the concealed money. Jacob Schaffner, a shoemaker, stated on record that he had obtained his knowledge of how to conjure spirits from a book he had bought ... Continue reading

Customizing How-To in Early Modern England

The early modern household was a bustling site for a range of medical activities from self-diagnosis and medication to nursing and caring for the sick to drug production. To further their knowledge about medicine and the body, householders accessed a wide variety of sources. Many turned to their family and friends for health-related advice, consulted … Continue reading Customizing How-To in Early Modern England