Contextualizing Practical Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

by Annemie Leemans (Author)
©2020 Thesis 316 Pages
Open Access
Series: CITCEM, Volume 13


The topic of this book is practical knowledge in early modern Europe, interpreted widely as recipes containing art procedures or medical panaceas between 1400 and 1700. In this book, the 1) origin or creation, 2) transmission or dissemination, and 3) use or consumption are key subjects for understanding the place of practical knowledge in early modern European society. After a historiographical and theoretical approach, this book applies Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome metaphor to art technological literature. The first part ends with a study about medical practitioners and mediators who disseminate practical knowledge through the printing press. The second part of the book is entirely dedicated to the booklet A Very Proper Treatise (1573), using a microhistory approach to study it.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • Part I The study of texts: practical knowledge
  • Introduction
  • 1 The construction of practical knowledge
  • 1 The premise of knowledge: placing practical knowledge
  • 1.1 Shared bodies of knowledge and malleable categories
  • 1.2 Interdependent branches of knowledge
  • 2 Defining practical knowledge
  • 2.1 Practice-based knowledge
  • 2.1.1 Experience and experiment
  • 2.1.2 Theory and practice
  • 2.2 Secret knowledge
  • 2.2.1 Books of secrets: a frequent literary genre of practical knowledge
  • 2.2.2 A taxonomy of secrets
  • 2.2.3 Professional secrets
  • 2.3 Technical and technological knowledge
  • 2.4 Silent or tacit knowledge
  • 2.5 Useful knowledge
  • 2.6 Common knowledge
  • 3 Theorizing practical knowledge
  • 3.1 Knowledge (re) production
  • 3.1.1 Why write?
  • 3.1.2 Issues of authorship and practical writings
  • 3.2 Form and conventions of practical knowledge
  • 3.2.1 The form of the recipe
  • 3.2.2 Recipes and narrations: mechanisms of persuasion
  • 3.2.3 Conventions of measurements: quantifying time
  • 3.3 Functionality and raison d’être of recipes
  • 3.3.1 Implication of instruction
  • 3.3.2 Function and dysfunction of early modern recipes
  • 3.3.3 The promise of truth and control
  • 3.3.4 Truth and trust
  • 3.3.5 Claims of authority
  • 3.3.4 Practical knowledge and the spiritual dimension
  • 4 Conclusion
  • 2 The transmission of practical knowledge
  • 1 Transmission dynamics and the metaphor of rhizome
  • 2 The appearance of textual variations
  • 3 Contextualizing knowledge transmission: from origin to wider circulation
  • 3.1 Knowledge transmission in the professional environment of a painter’s workshop
  • 3.2 Practical knowledge, laboratories, and secret societies
  • 4 Conclusion
  • 3 The early modern users of practical knowledge: mediating the information flux
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Gatekeepers
  • 1.2 Mediators
  • 1.3 The Professori de’ Secreti
  • 2 Literary mediators
  • 2.1 The fortune of Isabella Cortese
  • 2.2 Entanglement between Alessio Piemontese and Girolamo Ruscelli
  • 3 Mediating practitioners
  • 3.1 At the border of quack medicine: the case of Leonardo Fioravanti
  • 3.2 The clear case of Sir Hugh Plat
  • 4 Conclusion
  • Part II A Very Proper Treatise (1573): the case study of an art technological printed book
  • Introduction
  • 1 A Very Proper Treatise (1573) as a literary product, reflecting art technological knowledge
  • 1 Introduction to a text
  • 2 The importance of the title: overview, public, and utility
  • 3 The intended audience of A Very Proper Treatise
  • 4 The textuality of material culture: colors
  • 5 Textual transmission involving A Very Proper Treatise
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 2 Selling secrets. The print business as a mediator in the dissemination of art technological knowledge
  • 1 The introduction to a book
  • 2 Tottel’s Trademark
  • 3 Editorial design of a printer’s compilation
  • 3.1 …neuer put into printe before this time
  • 3.2 Concept of two layers
  • 3.3 The allocated heraldic application
  • 3.4 The internal editing process
  • 4 The visual design of practical knowledge: the title page as a visual marketing tool
  • 5 Cheap Print?
  • 5.1 Popular print and preconceptions concerning typographical choices
  • 5.2 A paper story
  • 5.3 New editions, new ways
  • 6 Conclusion: creating opportunities
  • 3 Buying secrets. The audience and consumption of art technological literature
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Contextualizing the concepts and material of the current chapter
  • 2.1 The concept of consumption and consumers
  • 2.2 Measuring a universe of consumers
  • 3 The early modern world of books
  • 3.1 The early modern book: a survey of bookbindings and book realities
  • 3.2 Early modern book consumers: a survey of book owners
  • 4 Early modern book consumption: a survey of attitudes and interests
  • 4.1 Books as paper objects and the religious interest of early modern consumers
  • 4.2 How art, heraldry, a book collection, and a love story are connected in the case of Phebe Challoner and James Ussher
  • 4.2.1 The Ussher couple
  • 4.2.2 Phebe Challoner’s books
  • 4.2.3 A reader profile of Phebe Challoner
  • 4.2.4 Heraldic and artistic knowledge for James Ussher
  • 4.2.5 Consumption: artistic interest in heraldic books
  • 4.2.6 Artistic and practical interest in A Very Proper Treatise
  • 5 Conclusion
  • General conclusion
  • Conclusion: A story of practical knowledge
  • Appendix
  • Appendix 1 Various editions of A Very Proper Treatise
  • Appendix 2 Physical presence and reproductions of A Very Proper Treatise
  • Appendix 3 Collation of A Very Proper Treatise
  • Appendix 4 Phebe Challoner’s personal library
  • List of figures
  • List of tables
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Nemo artifex nascitur

Jacoba van Veen

The opening quote of the introduction, Nemo artifex nascitur, is borrowed from Jacoba van Veen (1635–1687/1694), a remarkable seventeenth century Dutch lady. Her manuscript with recipes is kept at the Royal Library in The Hague (reference 135 K 44). What Jacoba van Veen probably intended with this certainly-not-unique motto is that nobody is born an artist. The essence of this motto is that one becomes an artist through a métier that has been taught. This stands diametrically opposed to a still prevalent idea of the innate talent of the artist, which Vasari promoted in his Vite (1550).13 This thesis does not ignore the aspect of talent, but stresses the knowledge, experience and practices involved. Teachings or transfers of knowledge can occur in a variety of ways. The most common are explained in Fernando Bouza’s ‘communicative trinity’. The communication of information is like the three Trinitarian personalities: the oral, the visual and the written.14 These are three common ways or media by which information, here practical knowledge, finds its way from one person or group to another. The focus in this publication lies with the transfer of written knowledge, however the oral and visual or demonstrational aspects are not excluded from this work, since they are related to each other.

Models for the transmission of knowledge or information are plenty. This publication modifies a basic model for knowledge transmission proposed in Kusukawa and Maclean’s Transmitting Knowledge (2006), which is based on the model Roman Jakobson proposed in 1960:15

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We changed one of the parameters in order to better express the concept and the status of the recipient of the knowledge in question. The ‘receiver’ is being replaced by the word ‘user’. A receiver points to a passive function, while this book conceives of the user as active and open to new interpretations. The user can be the creator of the information or knowledge; the user can be both the writer and the reader.

Essential to this project is the use of the concept of ‘user’ instead of ‘receiver’ or ‘reader’.16 Another equivalent for user that will be applied in this book is ‘consumer’. Both ‘user’ and ‘consumer’ indicate that they interact in an active way with practical knowledge. The minimum action a reader would perform is the action of reading. The concept of ‘user’ can imply numerous actions such as reading, copying, adding, omitting, and putting it into practice. Practical knowledge is practice-based and thus users can be reproducers of their experiences. The term reader does not imply reproduction of knowledge. The experimenter is the creator of knowledge, but the receiver can also be actively involved in knowledge production and transmission by writing it down, by passing it on to others, and/or by experimenting and improving or adapting it. The act of writing one recipe (the nucleus of the transmission of practical knowledge) is commonly done by one person, although exceptions exist. The so-called author of a recipe book is a deceptive concept, as recipes books are compilations, either compiled by multiple authors or copied by one person, but are still a result of multiple sources at the root. In this research, texts were used to study practical knowledge, but users are central to the whole process of producing and reproducing.

The first chapter will function as an introductory chapter around how knowledge was created in early modern Europe. This chapter will give the state of the art or status quaestionis of the umbrella term ‘practical knowledge’ and the various knowledge types it covers. Classifying practical knowledge is thus a complex task and any taxonomy an open field for debate. This chapter will reflect on this complexity and will try to assert the basic taxonomy used in this publication. This chapter works towards a definition of practical knowledge. It relies on what ←30 | 31→has been said earlier about the subject and it provides evidence from the findings of our research. This chapter gives the premises of knowledge, it contextualizes practical knowledge and, finally, it theorizes recipes. Recipes are conceived here as the basic units to convey practical knowledge.

The second chapter gives insights into the transmission dynamics of practical knowledge. This chapter will argue that the transmission of practical knowledge proceeds along complex patterns. It will compare these dynamics to a subterranean root of irregular growth: the rhizome, which has been theorized by Deleuze and Guattari.17 The rhizome offers a suitable metaphor for addressing the complexity of practical knowledge transfers, because rhizomes are a multiple ramification system that can acquire multiple forms and have irregular growing intervals. Practical knowledge in early modern Europe travelled like rhizomes. This second chapter of Part I is a continuation of the first chapter, and often potentially overlaps it, because the creation of knowledge is intrinsically connected with the transmission of knowledge.

The third chapter also has a strong connection to the first chapter. It discusses the profile of the users or interactors with practical knowledge. Furthermore, this chapter builds on the previous one, because knowledge transmission occurs through actions of the human species. Textual transmission is taken into account in the second chapter, but in the third chapter, human interaction creates the context for the transmission. Books are written by groups, or by individuals. This chapter concentrates on individuals with a mediating function in the process of knowledge transmission.

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13 Hicks 2015.

14 Bouza 2004, p. 11.

15 Kusukawa and Maclean 2006, p.5.

16 A further elaboration of the terminologies ‘users’ versus ‘readers’ takes place in Part II of this publication.

17 I thank both Martin Procházka and Carlo Ginzburg for this suggestion; following my conference paper ‘Adapting Common Knowledge: A Case Study of the Art of Limning’, presented at the 2014 TEEME conference Between Words and Worlds: Texts and Contexts in the Early Modern Period in Prague. Cf. Leemans 2014a.

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1The construction of practical knowledge

Abstract: This chapter counts as a general introductive chapter about knowledge theory. The main questions that take the lead in this opening chapter are: What is practical knowledge? How does it exist and how is it created? Various early modern practices are seen in the light of terminology.

Keywords: Practical knowledge, creation, theory, terminology, secrecy, technology

The Breviarie of Health […] Now newly corrected and amended, with some approved medicines that never were in print before this impression, & are aptly placed in their proper chapters, by men skillfull in phisicke and chirurgerie

Andrew Boorde, 1587

1The premise of knowledge: placing practical knowledge

The title of this book defines ‘practical knowledge’ as its main topic, moreover, practical knowledge in recipes books. As mentioned above in the introduction, knowledge is located in the brain. Practical knowledge is knowing how to do something, or how to obtain something. This type of knowledge dealt with practical daily things in the early modern European setting. Typical subjects were the treating of worms in children, or the making of ink, for instance. When this knowledge is transmitted from one person to another, the text takes the instructive form, whether in a conversation, a class, a letter, or a recipe book. This book takes recipe books as a means of getting to the instructive literature or recipes.

The quote above from Boorde briefly contextualizes recipe books and their worlds. The quote is taken from the title page of a later edition of The Breviarie of Health (1587). One of the general truths about recipes books here is that recipe books were assembled. The Breviarie of Health (1587) recognizes this status in its title. The book was written by Andrew Boorde, who recognized that he took recipes from other sources (‘men skillfull in phisicke and chirurgerie’). Another truth about printed recipe books is that the knowledge often previously circulated in manuscript form (‘medicines that never were in print before this impression’). Another truth is that there is a relationship between practical knowledge and the exercising of this knowledge (‘approved medicines’). Even in writing this book, knowledge is subjected to an editing process. Practical knowledge can be ←33 | 34→known through the study of recipe books, and these are the main focus of this publication.

1.1Shared bodies of knowledge and malleable categories

The range of subjects that could fall into the category of practical knowledge is extensive. Practical knowledge is a very broad category. Practical knowledge can be incorporated in all kinds of bodies of knowledge: medicine, cosmetics, the arts, alchemy, cuisine, gardening, husbandry, and many more. However, this way of categorical thinking is very specific to contemporary reasoning. This publication argues that in an early modern context there was more coherence between various disciplines and bodies of knowledge. The coherence between various disciplines and subjects will be seen as shared bodies of knowledge. The concept of shared bodies of knowledge indicates that certain information, procedures or materials are relevant for different disciplines. Daniel Garber referred to this as the ‘interconnectedness of knowledge’.18 Here the idea of interconnectivity will be seen as something shared. The simple reason for this shift in terminology is because of the origin of the observations arising from the current study, which is different from Garber’s. Garber investigated the origins of the understanding of the physical world in the early modern period; the current observations are connected to the study of recipe books. For instance, cooking books often contain medical, artistic and general-purpose recipes. The concept of shared knowledge is that one part is apportioned to various recipients or branches of knowledge.

The following two examples will shed light on the concrete living conditions of practical knowledge. The first will demonstrate how one particular ingredient can have multiple uses, crossing various disciplines. The second will show that practical knowledge co-existed with other branches of knowledge. For the first case, a small introduction to the tree resin dragonsblood is required. This helps to demonstrate how the different branches of knowledge in early modern Europe were connected. Dragonsblood is a raw material that contains a red pigment or coloring substance. Pigments are used to give color to paint, ink, dyes, and cosmetics. In the case of dragonsblood, the red pigment was also used to color medicines. It was freely available at the apothecary, but not just used for its pigment. Dragonsblood can be seen in recipes for oral hygiene for royalty and also in-home obstetrics.19 Ingredients with mythical origins are often dismissed ←34 | 35→as quack cures. The legend goes that dragonsblood was formed out of a battle between an elephant and a dragon.20 But here we see that what was a pigment for the painter, was a medicinal component for an apothecary or doctor. In line with early modern thinking about the substance, current research still confirms the possible curative character of dragonsblood.21 Knowledge about a procedure or a material was applicable in various disciplines in the early modern context.

The second case will show two things. First, it will show that instructions from various disciplines can appear in a single recipe book and second, that practical knowledge can co-exist with other types of knowledge in the same book or manuscript. As an example, Wellcome MS 425 is examined; a manuscript which gives a slightly more complex, but certainly realistic idea about the living conditions of practical knowledge in manuscripts. It contains two identified texts and three collections of secrets and recipes. The first identified text is a copy of Pronosticatio of Johan Lichtenberger. Lichtenberger was a ‘certain learned mathematician’22 who started to write horoscopes for several noblemen in the 1470s. Pronosticatio gives long-term predictions, up to the year 1567.23 The importance of this work is the combining of two traditions: astrology and prophecy.24 It was first published in 1488 in Heidelberg both in Latin and German. The Italian vernacular version followed soon after in 1490, and was printed in Modena.25

The second identified text of MS 425 is Le Régime du corps by Aldrobrandino da Siena. Aldrobrandino (died before 1287) was a court doctor and writer at the court of Beatrice of Savoie (thirteenth century), for whom he made the compilation of Le Régime du corps. This French medical text has four parts: the first treatise deals with hygiene, the second with different parts of the body, the third with alimentation and the fourth with physiognomy. This fourth and last part is missing from MS 425. The original text finds its importance mainly in the linguistic area, because it is the first known medieval medical text in French vernacular. The current manuscript contains an Italian copy of this text.26

The third part of MS 425 consists of three collections of recipes, secrets, and formulas. The first collection contains medical and kitchen recipes, the second contains art technological recipes, and finally the third collection gathers more ←35 | 36→magical formulas. This collection of art technological recipes is pervaded with all kinds of other branches of knowledge. Prominently present are medical recipes that at times carry a strong religious character. Furthermore, recipes about beauty and hygiene also appear.

Wellcome MS 425 contains writings of different kinds. A prophetical text appears next to a medical text and they are followed by prescribed practical knowledge of different interests. A clear separation appears between the three parts of the book where the two authored texts are followed by recipes. But the separation of the recipes is not clear-cut: there is a strong overlap in the areas of interest. In this case the separation of knowledge is not strictly divided into well-defined categories. Wellcome MS 425 offers an example of the co-existence of practical knowledge with other writings, and it also shows the co-existence of practical knowledge of different kinds.

The early modern sense of practical knowledge transcends our understanding of categories and goes beyond our sense of categorical thinking. Categories existed in early modern Europe, but in the case of practical knowledge they were more related to the genre of writing than with the content or topic. Instructive writings, such as recipes, provide fertile soil for practical knowledge. Recipes are grouped and form collections, despite their topic. Even if recipes appear sporadically in the margins or in a letter, the category of practical knowledge can still be applied. The coherence of secrets for salves and savouries for early modern people might have lain in the fact that they took the literary form of a recipe. This publication argues that practical knowledge is a suitable category for discussing the wide range of knowledge disciplines that find their place in instructive writings. This argument posits practical knowledge as a category on its own.

1.2Interdependent branches of knowledge

The connectivity, interdependency, and interconnectivity of various branches of knowledge was a fact in early modern culture. In the 2011 a conference on the transmission of artists’ knowledge took place in Brussels, where Pietro Roccasecca brought a study of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, which taught mathematics because of the study of perspective. At the Italian universities mathematics was used as a tool for astrology, which, in turn served medicine.27 Connections between the arts, the medical world and the pharmaceutical world have already been brought to light in today’s scholarship. The second chapter will demonstrate transmission dynamics, which reveal the coexistence ←36 | 37→of various subjects in recipe books. How this coexistence was part of the early modern mind will be discussed below.

The application of various interdependent disciplines was a topic of discussion in early modern society. Leonardo Fioravanti (ca. 1517 – post 1583), a popular writer and medical doctor, said that surgeons had to know the art of woodcutting because they needed to be capable of making sticks for broken bones and crutches. They had to know the art of carpentry, because they needed to know how to make chirurgical instruments. They also needed to know the art of perfumery because they needed to make salves. And finally, they needed to know the art of alchemy because they needed to distil medicines.28

Another testimony can be found in De re metallica of Georgius Agricola (1494–1555).29 Agricola was a German-born literary personage with a wide range of interests who enjoyed education in philosophical, medical, and natural sciences in various cities in Italy. Agricola begins his massive work with the reflection that he considers the ‘metallic arts a whole’, just as he considers the human body as a whole. He continues the analogy saying that the various parts of the subject are like the various members of the body. This statement shows the coherence of the discipline itself.30 Later on he goes on to say that there are many misconceptions about miners as low-skilled workers. Agricola defends the miners and the mining industry with a knowledge-based argument. He sheds light on the various knowledge-related aspects of the work of a miner. The miner must be familiar with the geographical setting of a place, he must understand the rocks, soils, stones, veins, metals, underground, etc. Furthermore, he must have knowledge of assaying (experimenting) and smelting. Finally, there are ‘many arts and sciences of which a miner should not be ignorant’. These arts and sciences are medicine, astronomy, arithmetical sciences, architecture, and law. Agricola describes the miner as a well-rounded person who is at ←37 | 38→ease with various disciplines.31 A further contextualization about daily work is offered: Agricola says that in daily practice you will find that each miner has his or her specialization.32

What Agricola communicates is that one needs various disciplines, and knowledge of various subjects, in order to perform one single art. In Agricola’s analogy, a single art is a complete body, and every related or subordinated discipline is a part of the same body. A valid conclusion here is that in the early modern society there was a high degree of coherence between various knowledge branches.

2Defining practical knowledge

The precise terminology ‘practical knowledge’ carries a specific meaning. There are several other terminologies covering knowledge of a practical nature such as: secret knowledge, technical knowledge, practice-based knowledge, silent or tacit knowledge, useful knowledge and common knowledge. What these have in common is that this kind of knowledge has a prescriptive or instructive nature. Different in nature to instruction and prescription is description.33 Descriptive texts have a different scope to that of instructive and prescriptive texts. Description is more theoretical and therefore descriptive texts are not the target of this publication. For example, manuals used in universities describe a topic; recipe books give instructions on how to do something. An example is the treatment of plants. In a descriptive work like a herbarium, the habitat and characteristics of a plant will be described and an illustrative picture will be given. A plant in a recipe book is just an ingredient that will be used in order to make something else. Prescriptive texts prescribe how things should ideally be in order to obtain the desired result. The common form for prescriptive or instructive texts is recipes and secrets, which will be discussed later in this chapter in more detail. In what follows, equivalent terminologies and subgenres of practical knowledge will be developed, while exploring the possibilities and limits of the indicated fields.

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2.1Practice-based knowledge

2.1.1Experience and experiment

Steven Shapin stated that ‘knowledge […] does not stand outside of practical activity: it is made and sustained through situated practical activity’.34 In this publication practical knowledge is seen as practice-based knowledge, which touches the basics of scientific knowledge. Practical knowledge is built or constructed through practice and experience. Experience is defined in the OED as: 1) ‘The action of putting to the test; trial’ and ‘a tentative procedure; an operation performed in order to ascertain or illustrate some truth; an experiment’. 2) ‘Proof by actual trial; practical demonstration. to put in experience: to fulfil in practice’. 3) ‘The actual observation of facts or events, considered as a source of knowledge’.35

Closely related to ‘experience’ is ‘experiment’. It is generally accepted by contemporary research that ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’ are interchangeably used in early modern texts.36 The OED says that an experiment is a tentative procedure, or an operation performed in order to ascertain or illustrate some truth. According to the OED the etymology of ‘experiment’ can be traced back through the Old French ‘experiment’ to the Latin ‘experimentum’, coming from ‘experiri’, which means ‘to try’. Peter Dear suggests that both categories are related to the Latin ‘peritus’, which stands for ‘skilled’ or ‘experienced’. Dear adds that ‘peritus’ in its turn would be related to ‘periculum’, which carries the meaning of ‘trial’ or ‘test’. This would have been a practice in the mathematical sciences, which began to be used at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was meant to indicate that an experiment was going to be carried out.37


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (November)
Recipe books Medical practitioners Food history Book history Rhizomatic transmission Art technology
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 316 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Annemie Leemans (Author)

Annemie D.G. Leemans is an art historian from the University of Bologna. She obtained her PhD in interdisciplinary history at the University of Kent and University of Porto through the Erasmus Mundus Joint Degree known as TEEME. Currently, she is a researcher in the Transdisciplinary Research Centre "Culture, Space and Memory" (CITCEM) at the University of Porto.


Title: Contextualizing Practical Knowledge in Early Modern Europe