By Pamela Smith
The Making and Knowing Project is a five-year initiative to create an open-access critical digital edition and English translation of an intriguing late sixteenth-century French manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640. This anonymous manuscript is the written result of recipe collecting and workshop practice in the sixteenth century, and it gives unique insight into craft and artistic techniques, daily life in the sixteenth century, and material and intellectual understandings of the natural world. This compilation of artisanal techniques, recipes, and experimental notes produced by an experienced practitioner stands at a pivotal moment in the growth of a new mode of gaining knowledge which we now call “science.” It grants an invaluable view into the continuous, methodical experimentation through which art objects were created by skilled labor, and how the process of artistic creation yielded insights into the behavior of natural materials.
The fact that an artisan recorded these technical procedures at all is part of a seminal development in early modern European history. Around 1400, craftspeople increasingly began to write down their embodied knowledge. Their “how-to books” were imitated and disseminated by entrepreneurial printers to a diverse audience, helping to foster a culture that valued practical knowledge. Ms. Fr. 640 shares in the practical format and aims of these how-to books, but it differs significantly from any other known how-to text in its lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observation of animal behavior, and its illustrations.
The critical edition will add a rare and important text to a limited corpus of technical treatises and will make the manuscript accessible to diverse audiences. It will contribute to the careful deciphering of materials and techniques done by museum curators and conservators; it provides rich evidence for new scholarship in the histories of art and of science; and its extensive interpretative apparatus of textual, historical, and technical annotations will open fertile avenues of research on technical “recipe books” to literary scholars and historians, among others.
The Making and Knowing Project is creating the critical edition and English translation of this manuscript by a series of “expert crowd sourcing” workshops and courses that involve students, practitioners (such as sculptors, conservators, technical art historians), scholars of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, anthropology, and museum scholars), natural scientists (chemists, conservation scientists, and engineers), and practitioner-scholars from the emerging field of the digital humanities.
The first stage of transcription and translation of the manuscript is carried out in a series of three-week summer paleography workshops that bring together graduate students (of, for example, French literature, history, and art history) to gain skills in middle French script by transcribing and translating the manuscript in the collaborative workspace of a Google Drive folder. The first paleography workshop was held in June 2014, during which 15 students from European and North American universities transcribed and translated about a third of the manuscript (concentrating on metalworking “recipes”). The following summer (focusing on colormaking recipes), the students were able to complete a draft of the entire transcription and translation. The next paleography workshop (which will also include data visualization work) is scheduled for June 2016.
The second stage of the project, the Laboratory Seminar, began September 2014. In the Laboratory Seminar (History G8906: Craft and Science), students conduct historical and laboratory research on the recipes transcribed and translated by the paleography workshop. Laboratory research focuses on attempting to understand materials and processes appearing in the manuscript by means of a variety of techniques, including experimental reconstructions of the processes described in the manuscript. The students take field and laboratory notes, stored on a Wiki and photos stored in Flickr, in which they record their reconstruction experiments as well as their experience as history students doing hands-on work in the lab, for the entire project is also meant to be a reflection on methodology and the use of reconstruction as a historical source. The student research (text-based, object-based, and hands-on) is brought together in multi-media essays that form the historical and material commentary for the critical edition of the manuscript. This course is being offered every semester for at least three years (2014-17).
The third phase of the project began May 2015, when a Working Group Meeting brought together scholars, practitioners, and the students from the 2014-15 Craft and Science classes to discuss and critique the “moldmaking and metalworking” annotations written by the students. This phase provides expert oversight on the critical edition. Working Group Meetings will be held each May at Columbia University; the next is slated from May 25-28, 2016.
The fourth phase of the project (begun 2015) includes design and development of the final digital environment for the completed critical edition and translation. This stage includes digital encoding workshops to collectively complete the markup of the manuscript, and a Digital Humanities Laboratory Seminar in which humanities and computer science students help develop the final digital edition.
The Project has taught all its many participants much about both collaborative work in the humanities (primarily its remarkable efficacy!), and how much information the reconstruction of technical recipes can yield. One of the most important results of reconstruction has been the new level of interpreting the recipes that it necessitates and fosters. By the constant moving between the manuscript and recipe texts and the hands-on experimentation, we have gained an understanding of the manuscript that would not have been possible by attempting to read through it in a linear way (which, because of the manuscript’s nature as a compiled text would have been difficult at best).
The combination of text-based, object-based, and reconstruction research has allowed us to decipher obscure materials and techniques, such as the method for “incuse reverse casting,” or, as Ms. Fr. 640 has it, “Molding a hollow on one side and a relief on the other”). We also learned more about workshop practice, and, interestingly, have found ourselves able to follow the learning process of the author-practitioner himself in the course of his trying the recipes. He appears to have learned and recorded his experiences in some of the processes, while other recipes he seems not to have tried. In all, we have come to appreciate the constant experimentation of the workshop, and we have come to see that failure, repetition, and “extension” are important components of experiential learning in the workshop.
We have also come to understand better the author-practitioner’s bodily intimacy with some materials used, and how this understanding may have shaped his classification of materials into taxonomies. We have been able to map out some parts of his taxonomy of materials—his material imaginary—to see the ways in which he reasoned and experimented across types of materials in order to hypothesize about useful materials and probable results of his trials. We have gained insight into his primary areas of interest, which include transforming the state or properties of one material to resemble another material, such as casting an ephemeral rose in metal, or attempting to transform a brittle material into a malleable one. Such manipulation of materials to bring about transformation of properties and states, as well as his “material mimesis” is typical of technical recipes more generally, indeed of craft making in early modern Europe in general.