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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 310-312



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Openness, Secrecy, and Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. By Pamela O. Long. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2001. Pp. xii+364. $42.

Pamela Long has written a rare book—in many senses of the word. It is rare that a scholar is able to master such a diverse array of topics, time periods, languages, and material. It is also rare to see such an ambitious project crossing so many disciplinary and chronological boundaries. The work is also rare like an art object, in that it is definitely worth preservation and contemplation. And the topic Long treats is rarified, in that the examples she chooses from nearly two millennia of human technical experience must necessarily be limited.The book itself also acts an argument about a rarity of evidence, in that Long is trying to prove that secrecy in technical writing was in fact rare—although of course if secrecy had been common, we would not have the evidence that it wasn't. And finally, this book is rare in the Epicurean sense, such that connoisseurs will revel in its meatiness and freshness, but others will want a work more digested and interpreted.

Long's topic is the production of technical knowledge up to the 16th century and how that knowledge was recorded, transmitted, and (potentially) suppressed in the name of "secrecy."The volume opens with chapters on techné vs. praxis in the ancient world, with an immediate concern over why authors wrote down their materials: was it for personal glorification, practical "copyrighting," or the free dissemination of important and interesting material? Long unhesitatingly chooses the last of these motivations as the operating principle in technical authorship until the very late Middle Ages, when one can sense the beginning of concern over what we would today consider intellectual property rights. It is only in the 15th and 16th centuries that the concept of patents and protective business practices take hold—or at least begin to appear in the technical treatises. The epilogue, "Values ofTransmission and the New Sciences," is a too-brief but important discussion of what these technical traditions meant to the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. In this epilogue, Long contributes to the Zilsel thesis, but with an eye more firmly on the technical material that has come (and which the actors therefore can potentially know), not the era of "modern" science yet to come (and consequently unknowable to those same actors).

This wide-ranging work takes in the fields of architecture, military arts, painting, sculpture, civil engineering, mining, metallurgy, and alchemy. Long has brought together well-known authors like Vitruvius, Leonardo, and Paracelsus, extended their milieus with moderately well-known authors like Alberti, Dürer, and Keysar, and then found many, many authors that at least this reviewer had barely heard of: Martin Merz on gunnery, Columnella on agriculture, Apuleius on late antique hermeticism, or Cirpriano Piccolpasso on [End Page 310] pottery. In sum, readers of this book will cover both well-tilled and new land in coming to understand how technical knowledge was produced, for whom it was written, and how it came to be in the public domain through manuscripts and, at the end of her study, printed books.

The book covers wonderful and intriguing ground over the span of two millennia, starting in the 5th century BCE and ranging to the early 17th century CE. Consequently, it will be uncommon to find a reader familiar with all the primary authors Long discusses, and this has forced her to do an immense amount of summary for each author and their works. For sections in readers' fields, these summaries seem at once too cursory and yet rather basic, although my sense is that she is quite aware of the relevant scholarship for each subject; for sections readers know little about, Long sometimes only whets our appetite. Either way, the book is so ambitious in its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 310-312
Launched on MUSE
2004-03-30
Open Access
No
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