Contributed Papers

Medieval and Early Modern Reading Practices

Presenter 1

Acts of Non-Reading and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

Raz Chen-Morris

Hebrew University of Jerusalem


The critique of bookish learning was a commonplace in early modern intellectual culture. Humanists, as well as natural philosophers, alchemists as well as astrologers all rejected books in favor of non-mediated experience of the human and the natural world. Yet, these sentiments did not exclude an active engagement with texts to fashion a complex persona of an early modern reader struggling to overcome books in order to capture reality as is. This paper will focus on a specific mode of engaging with texts through an active gesture of non-reading. Following certain instances of non-reading by Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and René Descartes I will point to how they calculatedly construed this tension between reading, commenting and writing books on the one hand and "seeing with my own eyes" mode of knowing on the other, only to attempt at creating a new mode of producing knowledge. For Kepler this tension, between his humanistic inclinations and his search to embed abstract geometrical structures with the physical realm, molded his thought from his early Mysterium Cosmographicum to his posthumous Somnium. Galileo ventured to reclaim humanistic vita activa from its rhetorical and political contexts, transforming it into a new mode for manufacturing knowledge about nature. Descartes struggled with his Jesuit upbringing to fashion a new vantage point from which one can acquire knowledge. All of them, however, entertained these tensions through pronounced acts of non-reading that reshaped how books, and reading books produce knowledge.


Presenter 2

Reading the Philosophical Transactions: The English Manuscript Notes of Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686)

Nuno Castel-Branco

Johns Hopkins University


Among the personal archive of the anatomist Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686), held at the Galileo collection in Florence, there are a series of folios with English writings that have confused historians to this day. When and how did Steno learn English, and why is there no other similar writings of his? As this paper argues, these English and Latin writings are part of a set of notes on the Philosophical Transactions, which Steno wrote while reading its first issues. As Nicolaus Steno navigated the scientific networks of Europe, from Leiden to Paris and Florence, his interests also shifted. Well-established as a leading anatomist, he became more interested in mathematics and, later, in the earth sciences and theology. By a careful reading of Steno's notes on the Philosophical Transactions, it is possible to identify Steno's shifting interests, as he highlighted certain articles and bypassed others. As such, this analysis will shed light in the intellectual processes behind Steno's career, as well as what was being read in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a time deeply influenced by the "new sciences." Drawing on the history of scientific note-taking and Steno's own personal notes, especially those from his early years at the university of Copenhagen, this paper contributes to place Steno as a primary actor in the early history of scientific journals and academies.


Presenter 3

Taking the Pulse in the Marketplace of Print in Seventeenth-Century England

Yijie Huang

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge


Despite the unremitting controversy over pulse theories since the early Renaissance (Bylebyl 1985), taking the pulse presented its striking ubiquity in seventeenth-century English medical practice. This paper investigates this practice's perplexing prevalence and its potential impetus in this period by looking at the circulation of pulse taking in the marketplace of vernacular prints. I will limit the focus to James Cook, a seventeenth-century English physician and surgeon of relatively humble upbringing and more known for Englishing John Hall's medical cases (Lane 1996). I will first examine the four editions of Cook's most popular Mellificium Chirurgiae and its 1655 Supplementum and see how Cook's pulse knowledge accumulated in the course of building this treatise. Through the perusal, I question how he "decoded" the old, abstruse pulse lore into his more comprehensible and instructive interpretations, and how his juxtaposition of contemporary studies of medicine, anatomy and surgery contributed to this knowledge transformation process. I will also consider Cook's translation of John Hall's medical observations, and compare the knowhow of pulse taking it conveys with that in his original corpus. It will disclose how the diversity of medical genres, while enriching Cook's self-cultivation of pulse knowledge, contributed profoundly to demonstrating its usefulness. This case study on James Cook will orchestrate with the rich literature on the significant role of marketplace, commoditisation and print culture in shaping early modern medicine (Jenner and Wallis 2007; Fissell 2007; Leong 2018). Specifically, it will accentuate how early modern marketplace responded actively to contemporary medical disputations by channeling people's everyday experience and practice, and to what extent it determined the continuing popularity of certain propositions and the lament of others.


Presenter 4

Seriously? Humor as an Invisible Genre in Medieval Medical Manuscripts

Carol Pal

Bennington College


In the British Library's collection of manuscripts, there is a beautiful thirteenth-century medical text known as Le Régime du Corps. It is a comprehensive encyclopedia of medicine, covering everything from descriptions of food and nutrition to more complex notions of mental and sexual health. It was apparently a well-known work, since there currently over thirty-five extant copies in various archives. These texts don't vary much; they are informative, straightforward, and current. However, Sloane 2435 is a little different - not only because of its beauty, but because of its sometimes puzzling illustrations. In this lavishly produced manuscript, the straightforward medical information is sometimes accompanied by equally straightforward illustrations - but at other times, these illustrations are quite unexpectedly frank. Some, in fact, are quite naughty. The question then arises: were the naughty ones supposed to be instructive? Was this considered to be an effective way to help communicate the contents? Or were these, in fact, jokes? And if they were jokes, was this the overall intention of the text, or were they slyly slipped in by a rogue illustrator? This paper takes up these questions with respect to both Sloane 2435 and other medical manuscripts, considering the possibility that we have overlooked the role that might have been played by humor in medieval medical culture.