(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books? / Introduction (Post 1/4)

Guest post by Kristina Hartfiel & Tobias Winnerling, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Lehrstuhl für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. This series of guest posts is inspired the workshop „Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher“ – „About (Making) Use of Books“ (cf. https://bookhistorynetwork.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/conference-book-use-the-practices-of-using-books-in-the-early-modern-period-dusseldorf-november-14-15-2014/)

(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books?

Introduction (Post 1/4)

  1. Let an object be a material thing with a potential to be used in a way co-determined but not completely determined by its materiality.
  2. Let a book be an object.
  3. As a result, let a book be a material thing with just that potential.

What follows from these three steps? If one is to accept the premises 1 and 2, which we have set up hypothetically for the time being, then the conclusion 3 seems to be compulsory. A book would thus come to carry a much less definite character than just providing a material basis for the information recorded in it.[1] At the same time this would tie the information recorded in the book and the possibilities to make use of this information much more intimately to the material configuration of the object ‘book’. This configuration could be read as a source for statements not only about the object ‘book’ itself but also about all kinds of practices connected to it. Thus, the whole complex of text(s) and material(s) taken together can be put to direct use in historical research.

At this point we will drop the subjunctive and consider not just hypothetically but emphatically books as material things in the sense given above. This means that books only produce effects in combination with the practices connected to them, their uses and appropriations. Following Hans Peter Hahn, material culture and its meanings do not exist autonomously from objects’ contextual use but constitute a dimension of things which is constructed, shaped and to be understood by the use made of objects.[2] And Andreas Reckwitz makes a case for thinking about things as necessary, contingent but not non-arbitrary components of social practices. The social relevance of things lies in their potential to establish practices if they are used in certain ways.[3] Books as things are hence essentially polyvalent: they unfold their specific contextual meaning only if framed by practices.

Methodically this becomes problematic if just the things themselves but not the accompanying practices have been preserved – as is almost always the case. Unlike Ethnologists, Historians cannot determine the use of things through observation. They may try to retrace the common or commonly intended uses of things from normative sources; however, this approach does not account for the possibility that other practices may have been connected to a thing to establish completely different correlations of use and meaning in the context of a productive appropriation. In consequence, a book does not always need to be read: A thick-bodied herbal is very much suited to press herbs, and an essay by Montaigne’s can be put on a shelf just as an ornament.[4] Appropriation thus is not or not foremost the physical taking of an object but the individually shaped handling of it. In such an appropriative process the material configuration of the object “book” may change, be defined or nuanced in a new way. Yet this change is never possible without taking exactly this material configuration into account and only possible in connection to the relevant societal norms.[5] But how are we to retrace these interactions between object and subject (be it user or researcher) from hindsight if the objects are all that is left?

We will tackle this question in three succeeding blog posts. In these, we will present specific examples to outline different perspectives on and strategies of how to deal with the materiality of books in specific research situations. Our examples derive from presentations given at the workshop „Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher“ – „About (Making) Use of Books“ which we held in November 2014 on the use of books in Early Modernity.[6] The concentration on that particular timeframe (roughly 1450-1800) proved especially fruitful because of the peculiar character of early modern printed books. The early modern printed book is characterised by the transition from a hand-written singular piece of work to a serial object due to the development of the printing press. Because of the still considerable amount of manual labour that was invested into the production of each book in the process of binding we may of course not speak of mass production in its modern meaning. But these printed books can no longer be considered as singular, truly individual objects because of the standardized book block.

In our blog posts, we draw on a select sample of the workshops’ presentations and discussions and complemented by what we have learned from them. In this, we focus on three key issues we have come upon within the material at hand:

1. The object

2. Paratexts

3. Collections

These three foci will be considered in three separated blog posts. Each of these posts will open up perspectives for the integration of the material object ‘book’ into historians’ research strategy by analysing select examples from the workshop. We explicitly embrace the ambiguity and equivocality of material traces of books. This means that the different perspectives and strategies we present are to be understood neither as mutually exclusive nor as better or worse ways of how to deal with the material character of books. We rather aim to offer a set of tools that may diversify and enrich historians’ research agenda when dealing with material book culture.

[1]             Some historians already have assumed this, cf. James Daybell/Peter Hind: Introduction. Material Matters, in: — (Eds.): Material Readings of Early Modern Culture. Texts and Social Practices, 1580 – 1730, Basingstoke 2010, 1 – 20; pp. 15–6.

[2]             Hans Peter Hahn: Materielle Kultur. Eine Einführung, Berlin 2005, p. 11.

[3]             Andreas Reckwitz: Grundelemente einer Theorie sozialer Praktiken. Eine sozialtheoretische Perspektive, in: Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 32, 4/2003, 282 – 301; p. 291.

[4]             Michel de Montaigne: Essais. Erste moderne Gesamtübersetzung, translated by Hans Stilett, Frankfurt/M. 1998, p. 424.

[5]             Cf. Julia A. Schmidt-Funke: Buchgeschichte als Konsumgeschichte. Überlegungen zu Buchbesitz und Lektüre in Deutschland und Frankreich um 1800, in: Hanno Schmitt/Holger Böning/Werner Greiling/Reinhart Siegert (Eds.): Die Entdeckung von Volk, Erziehung und Ökonomie im europäischen Netzwerk der Aufklärung, Bremen 2011, pp. 259–279. We have to especially thank Dr. Julia A. Schmidt-Funke in this place. With her knowledge of early modern material culture she provided us with indispensable animation and inspiration. See also her recent article: Handfass und Hirschgeweih. Zum Umgang mit den Dingen im Kontext frühneuzeitlichen Wohnens, in: Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte 28, 2013, pp. 115–142.

[6]             For a complete synopsis, see the conference minutes by Nancy Erasmus: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/index.asp?pn=tagungsberichte&view=pdf&id=5819.


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