Organized Session

Hidden Labor in the Practices of Early Modern Science

Organizer

Alix Cooper

Stony Brook University

Chair

Alix Cooper

Stony Brook University

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Session Abstract

Over the past several decades, and in particular since Steven Shapin's pivotal article "The Invisible Technician", historians of science have begun to pay much more attention to the kinds of labor, often performed by previously uncredited assistants or household members, that made the investigations into natural knowledge possible. This session aims to explore the current state of research on the people whom Ann Blair has called "hidden helpers", and the practices they were involved in that helped to enable the practice of multiple forms of inquiry into nature during a crucial period in the formation of early modernity. Blair, for example, plans to discuss the activities of people she calls "textual technicians", amanuenses who during the age of print did far more than simply record the words of their employers, playing a key role in the generation of natural knowledge-and the receipt of blame when mistakes got made. Vera Keller's paper, meanwhile, focuses on the role of those individuals often terms "charlatans" and/or "mountebanks" in supplying key skills to individuals at court. Finally, Alix Cooper's paper looks at yet another aspect of hidden labor, exploring the role of family members like in-laws in helping to ensure the transmission of ideas and personal contacts (and in some cases, of collections of specimens, instruments, and books) to the next generation.

Presenter 1

The Visibility and Invisibility of Textual Technicians in Early Modern Europe

Ann Blair

Harvard University

Abstract

In early modern Europe the learned, including natural philosophers, expended a great deal of effort in the processing of texts--from reading and note-taking to composing and revising, then seeing a text through publication. In doing so they often relied on helpers, including servants, students, and family members. As Steven Shapin emphasized in his seminal article of 1989, these helpers were routinely omitted from the textual and iconographic representations of the learned at work. I will argue that we can nonetheless catch glimpses of helpers under certain circumstances thanks to the power of print. On the one hand a few authors used their printed book as an opportunity to bestow recognition on a helper whom the author wished to advance by naming them-usually because the helper was a relative or a favorite student. On the other hand authors of printed books were also anxious about the potential for a negative reception and sought to allay that anxiety by pinning on helpers (who remained unnamed) the blame for errors or other infelicities. I argue that helpers became somewhat less invisible in the handpress era than they had been in earlier periods, thanks to this double effect of printing.

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Presenter 2

Peep-Show: Hiding and Showing the Work of Charlatans in Experimental Philosophy

Vera Keller

University of Oregon

Abstract

For some 17th-century experimental philosophers, describing the use of charlatans' knowledge became a mark of open-mindedness. By showing off their valorization of the knowledge of figures they characterized as mountebanks, experimental philosophers indicated a willingness to hunt in all domains for resources that might advance knowledge. Charlatans were singled out as excellent sources for legerdemain, useful for sharpening the ingenuity of children or for training manual skill for the purposes of experiment. This paper focuses on one charlatan, John Muffaz, a wandering perfumer from Liège who criss-crossed Europe with his son, carrying with them a collection displaying their artistic techniques and medicaments. At various German courts, they contrived artworks for grottos and Kunstkammern, working for figures such as Anna de' Medici in Tirol. Muffaz published one work, the Liber Suavitatum, on perfumery, incense, and the coloring of leather, appended to the German translation of Marie Meurdrac's Chymie in 1673. He was sought out by learned polyhistors and physicians, including Georg Hieronymus Welsch of Augsburg, Johann Matthaeus Faber in Heilbronn, and Georg Wolfgang Wedel of Jena. Muffaz offered these experimentalists both materials and training in lacquer techniques, fabricating bezoars, making paper of asbestos, and preparing opium. Welsch even included Muffaz in a catalog of one hundred "Modern Charlatans," showcasing charlatanous knowledge. Such learned discussions of Muffaz suggest that other figures may have played similar roles, perhaps serving as the hidden ingredient enabling the bravura displays of late seventeenth-century polyhistoric knowledge.

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Presenter 3

The Work of Family Connections: In-Laws and Other Kin in the Early Modern Sciences

Alix Cooper

Stony Brook University

Abstract

One kind of "hidden labor" that helped to enable the work of early modern science was that performed by natural inquirers' family members. Especially in the observational sciences like natural history and astronomy, as well as in medicine, family ties were often crucial in providing those interested in the natural world with enhanced access to the field of their study, whether through the sharing of ideas and personal contacts or, in some cases, by transmitting useful collections of material objects like specimens, instruments, and books. Focusing in particular on the examples of the Camerarius & Buache-Delisle families in early modern Tübingen and Paris respectively, this paper will explore the role of in-laws and other family members in helping to get young naturalists established in their chosen areas of study. While at first glance, it might seem unusual to view family members as "invisible technicians" of the kind discussed by Steven Shapin in his well-known work on this topic-his focus was primarily on manual "operators" of lower social classes than the natural philosophers they assisted-nonetheless, family members do have a key feature in common with them, namely the degree to which the relative invisibility of both in the archives has meant a relative invisibility in historical accounts as well. This paper thus aims to make visible a less-well-known aspect of the social history of science.

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Commentator

Elizabeth Yale

University of Iowa