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 books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals.

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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 more than just sitting on a creature that moves. Unlike walking a dog or hunting with a hawk, horse riding is not only an activity shared by a human and an animal actor but entails actual co-movement. Whereas a dog or a falcon is instrumentally conditioned to fulfill a specific function according to human commands, horse riding is a physically shared co-activity based on (ideally) harmonious movement.

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

The scholar Faust and the demon Mephistopheles, woodcut from the title page of The Tragicall Historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (London, 1620), via Wikimedia Commons.

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 from a Saxon some time ago. Said man supposedly received the book from a Venetian. Another man stated that he had come into possession of this book and copied various parts of it with his friends. This is just one of the many stories that can be found in early modern court documents about treasure hunters trying to conjure spirits. Such handbooks became the center of attention at such trials as the authorities were eager to track them down and place them in safe custody.[1]

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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 medical practitioners of various sorts, and avidly read the abundance of printed medical books offered by contemporary book producers. By the mid-seventeenth century, the bookshops near St. Paul’s in London were stocking an astonishing array of English medical books. Readers could pick and choose from an assortment of herbals, pharmacopoeias, general medical guides, surgical handbooks, midwifery manuals, regimens, medical recipe books, and more.[1] These texts were eagerly consulted by householders, who utilized the knowledge contained therein not only for their home-based medical activities but also as a way to inform their decisions as actors in medical encounters with practitioners of all sorts.

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

When the alchemist-priest Antonio Neri published his L’Arte Vetraria in 1612, the universe of codified knowledge could finally include a major work entirely devoted to glassmaking.[1] Although the Florentine friar was by no means the first to provide instructions on how to make glass (recipe texts are known from the second millennium BCE), never before had the effort been so comprehensive and successful.

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Vicissitudes in Soldering: Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual

In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674–1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.”[1] Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.

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

In the summer of 1809, the imperial kinsman Jincang (?–1828) was appointed the general of Ili (Yili jiangjun) to supervise the entire Xinjiang.[1] Jinchang had mixed feelings about the promotion. Only distantly related to the ruling house, it was a great honor to assume such an important position, but he felt overwhelmed by the onerous duties it entailed. As head of the military government on the Qing empire’s Inner Asian frontier, the general of Ili was not only responsible for troop deployment and provisions but also had to address day-to-day administrative affairs such as the collection of taxes, budget-making, and land reclamation. Jincang’s anxiety about the new post was not alleviated until he received the Comprehensive Survey of Affairs in Ili (Yili zongtong shilue) from the current general Sungyūn (1754–1835) on his way to Ili. Finishing the twelve-volume text in his carriage, Jincang felt that he had become better informed about “mountains and rivers, cities, local customs, non-Han tribes, stationed troops, and agriculture reclamation,” and he had learned the strategies of “pacifying non-Han peoples and stabilizing the borderland.”[2]

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Visual Epistemology and a Short History of the Monstrous Races

As nations brace to firm up their borders in 2017, a short history of people who inhabited the periphery reminds us of the role boundaries played in an earlier era of globalization. The early woodcuts that helped define this periphery offer a window into the history of knowledge about the Other and also tell us something about the early stages of visual epistemology.

Throughout antiquity and the middle ages, a lively band of monsters lived along the edge of the known world. While discrediting the humanity of certain specimens of mankind has a venerable tradition in the history of othering, at some point, the monstrous assumed human form. In the sixteenth century, temporary visas were issued to these monstrous races and they became human. We have something to learn from the scrutiny generated by this close-up view, a relativism almost forgotten in contemporary treatment of outsiders. The visualization of the Other helped to stabilize subjects for investigation and gave rise to new knowledge structures.

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‘Why Write a Book? From Lived Experience to the Written Word…’

Pamela H. Smith, “Why Write a Book? From Lived Experience to the Written Word in Early Modern Europe,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute  47 (Fall 2010): 25–50.

In this article, Pamela Smith links the tacit and explicit knowledge of artisans in an innovative way. See also Jonathan Sheehan’s interesting review of Smith’s related book, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).