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.
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, the latter work, Practica officii inquisitionis (1323–24), aims to provide useful knowledge for the inquisitor. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.
Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.
Here are the photographs from which the current selection of randomized header images on this blog were drawn. All of these images are housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. What do these photographs have to do with the history of knowledge? What stories do they tell? What questions do they raise?
(Click on the individual images to enlarge and for their captions and credits.)