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  • Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory
  • Daryl Hafter (bio)
Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory. Edited by Ursula Klein and E. C. Spary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. 398. $50.

How important was science in developing industries in the early days of the Industrial Revolution? This is the question that Materials and Expertise confronts. The answer, according to this book, is that academic science in the late eighteenth century was not nearly as important to industry as some historians claim. Science, understood as precise experimental measurement and theoretical generalization, was practiced by artisans as well as scholars, however, and the science of such artisans was important. Both groups sought to analyze materials in order to transform them into effective, saleable products. The scientifically inclined did experiments and promoted profitable manufacture, while artisans sometimes sought technical advice from experts and their publications. Knowledge circulated from the hands-on tinker to the scholar’s study and back. When they moved toward a more chemical understanding of medicines, for instance, apothecaries “did not have to enter an entirely new realm of higher learning that was utterly distinct from their artisanal world, but rather smoothly shifted their activities to additional inquiries” (p. 138). Suggesting that the current definition of technology should be broadened, the editors of this volume assert that “circulation, exchange and appropriation seem more appropriate terms to capture such complex and intertwined relations than the metaphor [End Page 622] of flow recently deployed by the economic historian of technology Joel Mokyr” (p. 18).

Thus, this book joins the ranks of others promoting a nuanced understanding of technological history, taking a view similar to that of the contributors to the 2004 collection Artisans, industrie: Nouvelles révolutions du Moyen-Âge à nos jours, edited by N. Coquery, L. Hilaire-Pérez, L. Sallmann, and C. Verna. Materials and Expertise is the fruit of two workshops sponsored by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin in 2004 and 2006, which included European and American scholars. Eleven writers focus on the period when there were no strict separations between the arts and crafts and academic science. Indeed, as Charles Gillispie has demonstrated with his magisterial Science and Polity in France (1980), academic disciplines as we know them were just beginning to be formed.

The book is divided into three parts, each with articles underscoring the main theme that production in this era depended on “blending technical innovation and learned natural knowledge” (p. 125). Part 1, “The Production of Materials,” presents metal, ceramics, silver, ink, and ethers as materials whose natures had to be studied before they could be made into products. The “science” used to understand them was based on theories such as phlogiston, galenic composite medicines, and humoral explanations of nutrition, which may sound like relics of a pre-experimental past, but which were nonetheless tools in the minds and hands of artisans and scholars. Part 2, “Materials in the Market Sphere,” shows the difficulties that experimenters had in analyzing milk, mineral water, and liqueurs. Milk defied chemical analysis because of its varied consistency; this gave rise to disputes over the nutritional and medical value of milk, disputes promoted by different theories of digestion. In the case of mineral water, chemical analysis turned it into a commodity. We learn in the third article that the term “liqueur” included many non-alcoholic drinks as well, and that they were all considered possible medicaments. Based on early chemical techniques, distillation processes became the subject of polemical academic tracts as well as the object of feuds between distillers and chemists.

Part 3, “State Interventions,” documents the change from sixteenth-and seventeenth-century “individual expertise and princely patronage” (p. 257) to state-sponsored economic societies that fostered experimentation and the collection of information to benefit the country, all part of the Enlightenment agenda. German agriculture, English gunpowder, and French dyeing gained from academic societies, and in each case learned investigators gained firsthand artisanal understanding of the materials as they struggled to make theoretical analyses.

Each article in this book is closely argued, with dense discussion of the particular material it studies. Scholars will find these brief...


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