An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian.
Citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who moved to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the 1980s later incorporated their migration experience into their biographies as success stories. When they relocated, they were between thirty and forty years old and had families. They migrated at a point in their lives when they had already acquired a lot of practical knowledge, if through experience in a different context. Their relocation was about much more than a change of residence, however. GDR citizens also had to come to terms with a new political system, bureaucracy, and society. What practical knowledge could they use to master their new situation? How did they experience their initial encounters with the new system, their search for employment, and their children’s education?
- Call for papers: “8th Gewina Woudschoten Conference—Towards a History of Knowledge,” in Zeist near Utrecht, June 21–22, 2019 (application deadline: January 15, 2019), via Marieke Hendriksen (@Ms_History)
- Call for submissions: “Women in the History of Science: A Liberating the Curriculum Sourcebook” (deadline: January 10, 2019)
- Conference report: Migrant Knowledges: Concepts, Voices, Spaces by Andrea Westermann
- Conference report: “Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge” by Alrun Schmidtke (@schreiber_in)
- Blog post: “Copyrighting Cartography with Fictional Places” by Bess Lovejoy at Atlas Obscura
- Blog post: “Reconsidering Mechanization in the Industrial Revolution: The Dye Book of William Butt” by Lidia Plaza (@_p_liddy) at JHIBLOG
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)
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 whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world.
Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.” Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home.
How does an expert transmit expertise? What genres of scientific writing are available for doing so? Does the choice of genre matter in the long run? In this essay, I approach these questions by comparing two monographs published in the mid 1940s in the field of microbiology. While the works shared a concern with life at its smallest, they were written in different genres. One, entitled L’évolution physiologique: étude des pertes de fonctions chez les microorganismes, was a general survey of research on microbial nutrition.1 The other, called Pure Cultures of Algae: Their Preparation and Maintenance, was a manual of techniques for cultivating microscopic algae in test tubes.2
The Encuvati was the quintessential Tamil multiplication table book, used in precolonial South Indian schools. Nowadays they are available as palm leaf manuscripts, collected from different geographical locations of the Tamil-speaking region of South India and stored in various manuscript libraries there as well as in other collections inside and outside the country. But why is something as innocuous as a multiplication table book important for us? Their contents look nothing like modern tables, with lines and columns, but the numbers are arranged the same way. Their importance emerges from the simple fact that countless children participated in their making from about the seventeenth century, if not earlier.
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.
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. 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.