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 pulp. He then cooked them following a recipe for making a “very beautiful and very oriental” colorant for writing and limning. The recipe he followed has survived as part of an extensive manuscript collection dated to the first half of the seventeenth century. Continue reading “The Manual as Artifact: On Artists’ Manuals and Craftsmen’s Handbooks”

How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe

When it comes to “how-to” books, alchemy poses particular problems. Medieval alchemical treatises claimed to offer detailed advice on a host of spectacular products and processes, ranging from the Philosophers’ Stone, a transmuting agent capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, to medicinal elixirs that offered cures for otherwise intractable diseases, as well as the prospect of renewed youth and an extended life span. Yet, at least to modern eyes, no amount of “know-how” could teach anyone how to make these things—they are impossible practices, which no alchemist can ever have successfully carried out, nor described in accurate, replicable instructions. What, then, is the function of a “manual” of alchemy? Continue reading “How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe”

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology—from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE. Continue reading “Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy”

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. Continue reading “Of Horses, Men, Books, and Things: Learning How to Ride in Early Modern Europe”

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

At first glance, the practical manual by Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) and the one by the inquisitor Bernard Gui (1261–1331) do not seem to have any specific features in common. Whereas the first treatise, De arte venandi cum avibus (1240s), deals with the art of falconry,[1] the latter work, Practica officii inquisitionis (1323–24), aims to provide useful knowledge for the inquisitor.[2] Each work has been repeatedly acknowledged as an outstanding example in its particular field of knowledge. Little attention, however, has been given to the specific strategies used in the texts to construct and demarcate expertise. Continue reading “Hunters, Inquisitors, and Scholars: The Construction and Demarcation of Expertise in the Manuals of Frederick II and Bernard Gui”

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] Continue reading “How to Conjure Spirits: The Logistics of the Necromancer’s Manual in Early Modern Switzerland”

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. Continue reading “Vicissitudes in Soldering: Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual”