Writing Down Experience: How-To Books and Artisanal Epistemology (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2012 faculty weekend seminar led by Pamela H. Smith.

From about 1400, many European artisans and practitioners began to write down their working procedures. With the advent of the printing press, this trickle of technical writing became a flood: all sorts of practical knowledge—recipe collections, Kunstbücher, household management texts, writing manuals—began to appear. Who were the writers and readers of this literature? What did the authors and publishers wish to convey? What did the readers hope to acquire? What were the roles of illustration, paratexts, printed marginalia, or indices? Many scholars have assumed these books possessed a didactic function, but can this be sustained on close examination of the procedures contained in them? What kind of evidence do these texts offer to the historian who wishes to understand the intellectual and material world of the past? On the basis of both primary texts and recent historical and literary scholarship, this weekend seminar considered such questions, focusing on the period 1400-1700. Faculty with advanced research projects that usefully illuminate these topics were encouraged to apply; they had the opportunity to discuss their projects within the seminar’s intellectual framework.

Director: Pamela H. Smith is Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of books on alchemy, artisans, and the making of knowledge; most recently, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (2004) and Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Objects, and Texts, 1400-1800 (with Benjamin Schmidt, 2008). Her present research reconstructs the vernacular knowledge of early modern European metalworkers. In 2001, she co-directed an NEH Summer Institute on Experience and Experiment in Early Modern Europe.