Reading Practice: The Pursuit of Natural Knowledge from Manuscript to Print (Forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, 2024)
Reading Practice: The Pursuit of Natural Knowledge from Manuscript to Print tells the story of how ordinary English people grew comfortable acting as adjudicators of natural knowledge through interactions with hundreds of manuscripts and printed books: almanacs, medical recipe collections, herbals, and prognostications. These were the books English people read from around the turn of the fifteenth century to the close of the sixteenth century when they wanted to attend to their health, manage the unpredictability of illness, or understand their place in the divinely-created universe. Before 1375 or so, this corpus of natural knowledge had largely been confined to monks or university clerics who could read the Latin in which most medieval medicine and science was written. To be sure, ordinary people outside the church tended wounds and watched the stars just as often as did learned monks, but their knowledge (though we would call it experiential or observational) was afforded very little status within medieval culture.Around the year 1400, however, manuscripts steadily got less expensive just as valued medical and scientific texts became available in Middle English. What resulted was a wholesale transformation in how the English laity accessed and experienced knowledge about the natural world. Over the course of the fifteenth century, the English created hundreds of manuscripts filled with texts that guided them through the practices of healing, tending crops, making medicines, or forecasting the weather. These “practical manuscripts,” as I call them, invited English readers into a very old and learned conversation. In these books, Hippocrates and Galen weren’t distant authorities whose word was law; they were trusted guides, whose advice could be excerpted, rearranged, recombined, and even altered when it suited a manuscript compiler or printer’s needs. English readers grew confident assessing and critiquing this ancient knowledge in the margins of fifteenth-century manuscript remedy collections.
After William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, English printers eagerly mined fifteenth-century manuscript collections for popular medical recipes or herbal remedies that they would publish, over and over again, throughout the sixteenth century. Whereas printers in France or Germany or Italy published more Latin books than vernacular ones in the early decades of print, the opposite was the case in England. English printers’ preference for the vernacular—to include vernacular medicine and science—kept England on the periphery of learned European medical culture, but at the same time, it put non-elite readers at the center of debates about the body, health, and the natural world within England. In the sixteenth-century bookshops around St. Paul’s Cathedral, English readers made choices about which of the dozens of almanacs, recipe books, herbals, or prognostications to purchase and read. Here, too, they were assessing and evaluating knowledge claims: some of them ancient, some of them newly invented by savvy publishers hoping to sell more books.
Reading Practice argues that English readers learned to be discerning and selective consumers of knowledge, gradually, in everyday interactions with run-of-the-mill books. When truly innovative, world-changing natural knowledge did begin to appear in Elizabethan bookshops—in books that revealed the remarkable diversity of plant species across the globe, in diagrams that offered a glimpse of the interior of the human body, or in simple illustrations that altered the shape of the universe—English readers were primed to train their analytical acumen on those practical books, too. In the everyday practices of reading, editing, amending, and even censoring practical books, ordinary English people grew into capable and confident judges of natural knowledge
To learn more about the book, visit the Digital Appendices to view the biblographic and codicological data that undergirds its argument.
“The Sururgia of Nicholas Neesbett: Writing Medical Authority in Later Medieval England,”
Social History of Medicine, 35, no. 1 (February 2022): 144–169.
* Winner, 2023 J. Worth Estes Prize, American Association for the History of Medicine
“‘Here is a good boke to lerne’: Practical books, the coming of the press,
and the search for knowledge, ca. 1400–1560,” Journal of British Studies 58, no. 2
(April 2019): 259–288.
* Honorable mention, 2020 Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography Essay Prize
Editions and Translations
Pamela Smith et al., eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France: A Digital Critical Edition and English
Translation of Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Fr. 640, edition640.makingandknowing.org
(as four-year member of the translation and transcription team)
* Winner, Eugene S. Ferguson Prize, Society for the History of Technology
“How to Cure a Horse, or the Difference between the Knowledge of Experience and the Experience of Knowledge,” Journal of the History of the Natural Sciences, 52, no. 4 (2022): 547-553.
Selected Book Reviews
Sharon Strocchia and Sara Ritchey, eds., Gender, Health, and Healing, 1250–1550 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), forthcoming in Renaissance Quarterly.
Peter Lake and Michael Questier, All Hail to the Archpriest: Confessional Conflict, Toleration, and the Politics of Publicity in Post-Reformation England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), The English Historical Review 136, no. 577 (January 2021).
Works in Progress
Co-editor (with Hannah Frydman, University of Washington) of a prospective forum of articles on “Reproductive Rights Beyond Roe” for the journal Gender & History (under review)
“Old Books, New Science,” an initiative to publish a digital edition of Bodleian MS Ashmole Add. B.246, a fifteenth-century manuscript owned by a sixteenth-century collector, Henry Dyngley, who later authored his own recipe collection. This project seeks to understand the generational transfer of medical and scientific knowledge through the collection, ammendation, and authorship of manuscript recipe books by digitizing the library of one prolific early modern collector. The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of a grant, “Crafting an Open Source Digital Publication Tool for the History of Science,” headed by Pamela Smith (Columbia University). The multiple collaborators on this grant will test and implement EditionCrafter, an open source program for creating digital editions in the classroom.
“Communication failures in a pandemic can be catastrophic,” The Washington Post, March 18, 2020.
“The key to lowering America’s high rates of maternal mortality,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2019.
“On the Absurdity of Deeply Rooted Tradition,” The Daily Princetonian, May 10, 2022
Scholarly Blog Posts
“Perpetual Prognostications: Medieval Recipes for Living,” The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Magic, and Medicine, October 1, 2020
“A Recipe for Reproductive Healthcare,” The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Magic, and Medicine, June 27, 2019
“But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose,” The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Magic, and Medicine, January 24, 2019
“A Late Medieval ‘How To’ Book,” recorded for 90Second Narratives, March 15, 2021.
“Communications Failures from the Fifteenth Century are Still Happening Today,” recorded for Policy Punchline, April 21, 2020.
You can also find me tweeting on behalf of The Recipes Project at @historecipes.