Unicorns: Knowledge of the Environment and the Hispanic Mediterratlantic

Unicorns, although they are non-existent, are ubiquitous today as symbols. For example, they remain the national animal of Scotland, first added to the Scottish coat of arms in the 1500s to represent the untamable, proud nature of Scotland. Unicorns also intrigued ancient, medieval, and early modern authors who wrote about these imaginary animals and how they interacted with their environments. Long before the Scottish adoption of the unicorn, these writers infused the animal with spiritual meanings similar to those that later appealed to the Scots: the unicorn was proud, fierce, and pure. Continue reading “Unicorns: Knowledge of the Environment and the Hispanic Mediterratlantic”

Why Should You Trust Geometry? The Mathematics of Mining in Early Modern Germany

My book Underground Mathematics tells the story of a discipline that has been forgotten today, subterranean geometry. Known as “the art of setting limits” (Markscheidekunst) in German and geometria subterranea in Latin, it developed in the silver mines of early modern Europe. From the Ore Mountains of Saxony to the Harz, in many mining cities in the Holy Roman Empire and beyond, an original culture of accuracy and measurement developed, paving the way for many technical and scientific innovations.

Continue reading “Why Should You Trust Geometry? The Mathematics of Mining in Early Modern Germany”

Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity

Foreword to the special issue of the European Journal of Jewish Studies 16, no. 1 (2022)

Editors’ Note: As the History of Knowledge blog aims to facilitate scholarly exchange related to the field, the editors wish to highlight this recent special issue about “Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity” by reproducing the editors’ foreword here with the permission of Brill, the journal’s publisher. The foreword explains the history of knowledge perspective that the contributors applied to the translations, revisions, and appropriations of kabbalistic texts from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and provides a brief introduction to the nine articles in the issue. Parts of the special issue are available in “free access” here.

Continue reading “Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfers in Early Modernity”

Bounded Rationality and the History of Knowledge

A Frontier in the History of Knowledge

In September 2021, Peter Burke gave a talk at Lund University in which he spoke about the challenges that historians of knowledge face as we attempt to understand not only what was known in the past, but what people did with their knowledge. One approach to this puzzle, he suggested, lies in studying decision-making. If we assume that people have at least some control over their actions, then decisions are among the most significant, and common, situations in which what we know interacts with what we do. Decision-making is, thus, not only a proper subject for political or economic historians but also for historians of knowledge. If we are to pursue this insight, we must either develop tools of our own for studying decision-making, or borrow existing tools from adjacent disciplines. Considering the tools available for investigating these subjects, Burke said, he was most attracted to bounded rationality. But what is bounded rationality, and how can we apply it to our research?

Continue reading “Bounded Rationality and the History of Knowledge”

Explain Yourself: Visual Communication in Early Modern Printed Calendars

Bottom rows of the calendar showing the symbols and the user's handwriting.

There is a curious subgenre of printed calendars in early modern Europe called Bauernkalender. Bauer in German refers to a farmer or peasant, so we might literally translate the name of this genre as “farmers’ calendars” or “peasant calendars.” That is not to say they are in any way simple. You know one when you see it because they are all highly iconographic, largely replacing text with image. In fact, the submission of text to image is so severe as to render an individual edition nearly incomprehensible to any reader without a specific kind of tacit cultural knowledge. Therefore, Bauernkalender demonstrate the potentially unsteady relationship between a material text and its ostensibly intended audience. Bauernkalender are not unique in this manner—among almanac calendars, or among any printed editions for that matter—but they are unusual.

Continue reading “Explain Yourself: Visual Communication in Early Modern Printed Calendars”

Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1

Continue reading “Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19”

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”

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”