(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books? / The Object (Post 2/4)

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?

The object (Post 2/4)

As promised in our introductory post, we will now focus on books as objects. Material culture research can only work with books by approaching them as objects. This means to consider primarily the physical objects as which books are for instance stored in libraries or archives. This approach may produce valuable insights about their producers and consumers alike. Thomas Nutz’s object definition captures this notion very well. He defines objects understood in the sense of a material culture approach as mobile things which can be moved across time and space. Thereby they establish a physical link to the documented information. This physical link distinguishes them as objects from a pure signifier, which merely signifies without a material link to the signified. Nutz in addition notes that objects have to be ‘authentic’ in the sense of being produced by precisely the people these objects shall be used to document.[1] Along these lines a book can be seen as a part of the “extended self”[2] of its users and/or producers[3] which means that their personal characteristics may be traced in and by the specific characteristics of the possessions (books in this case) users assembled during their lifetimes. In order to analyse the book in this way, an evaluation of the materiality of the ‘thing’ book has to be carried out first of all, parallel to the standard procedure of bibliographical recording. This means posing questions such as: What kind of object am I dealing with? How big, how heavy is it? What material is it made of? What do I know about form, pages, binding, and covers? Which traces of use or non-use are inscribed on it? Such traces are rarely without ambiguity and therefore demand contextualisation.[4] A dog-ear may for instance indicate that a certain page was marked; but it could also hint at careless handling. A refitted binding may point to wear and tear through heavy use or it may be due to storage damage caused by years of disuse. It may even point to an entirely different set of circumstances: perhaps the body of the book was trimmed anew, or a particular binding was used which the original owner liked for his personal library; or it might have been bound together with or separated from other works in one volume. Markings, marginalia, names, ownership notes and similar traces are often easier to contextualise, though they are ambiguous in their own ways: Has the former owner done the markings which were executed with a broad feather while his/her signature was carried out with a slim one? Do different kinds of ink hint at different kinds of notes, users, or both? If additions have been made, or sheets, leaves, or even plant or mineral parts have been put into the book and kept there, was this done because of the book’s content or just because of its material suitability. In general, the approaches we observed at the workshop “Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher” (Düsseldorf 11/2014) can be divided into two categories: one is perhaps characterised best as “inductive” and the other as “exemplary” approach.

An inductive approach considers at once a larger number of objects. These objects may then be purposefully examined in search for correlations and clusterings. It is a research strategy that aims at minimising the necessary contextualisation of the objects in question. Every new description of the objects ideally rules out conflicting context interpretations that had to be regarded as possible before Christine Haug focused on the specific materiality of miniature books. She showed that they were used as collectors’ items and as jewellery. Furthermore, miniatures could serve as an easy disguise for content not seen as fitting public display such as erotica and forbidden texts. Iris Bunte studied the long-term orientation of the Werler Erbsälzer libraries as family collections.[5] She focused on the use of these books in spiritual and economic education as well as in raising the family status by analysing the traces of usage inscribed in the material objects.[6]

An exemplary approach, on the other hand, centers on single persons or objects as its starting points whose materially manifested connections to one’s own field of research may be investigated.[7] It aims at enlarging the potential context of the guiding research question, thereby possibly making visible perspectives that would otherwise remain obscure. Simone Zweifel, for example, took the case of Johann Jacob Wecker (1526–86/8) and his Books of Secrets as a starting point. Tobias Winnerling started from one specific object and examined a single herbal, a copy of Jacob Theodor’s (1522–90, al. Tabernaemontanus) “Neuw Kreuterbuch”, from the University and State Library Düsseldorf.[8] By analysing marginalia, markings and deletions, Simone Zweifel was able to show that recipe books, such as “Books of Secrets”, were actually (sometimes even critically) used. This is not as self-evident as it seems, since books could be bought for a number of other reasons than to use them as intended by their author. This presupposes the existence of a potential consumer group willing and able to deal with them. Tobias Winnerling found quite fragile dried plant parts in one of the volumes of the “Neuw Kreuterbuch” which he analysed and which had never been noted before, at least not in the catalogues of the library that keeps them. He argued that the volumes’ good condition proves a non-use since their acquisition by the Royal Düsseldorf Library at the end of the 18th century. With the transition from private to public ownership the volumes went quite literally out of use.

Of course the inductive and exemplary approach are neither mutually exclusive nor restricted to certain research contexts concerning the materiality of book objects. Their use should be determined pragmatically regarding needs and limitations of one’s research question. Should the range of possible interpretations be enlarged or rather downsized? Is it better to analyse individual objects in a condensed or an intensified manner? To begin by analysing a single person might generate a large quantity of objects to be taken into account, and almost no object is so singular that it could not be integrated into a range of other similar objects (see post 3/4). And in any given number of similar objects one may always find an outstanding exemplar which may then be singled out for closer analysis. Above all, however, the object should not become a fetish to be admired for its very essence but should be considered a means to answer a research question – and therefore to optimally (make) use (of) it in this sense.

[1]             Cf. Thomas Nutz: Wissen aus Objekten. Naturgeschichte des Menschen und Menschheitsgeschichte, in: Ulrich Johannes Schneider (Ed.): Kulturen des Wissens im 18. Jahrhundert, Berlin/New York 2008, 599–606; p. 599.

[2]             Russel W. Belk: Possessions and the Extended Self, in: Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 2/1988, 139–168; pp. 140–1.

[3]             Which may fall in one but do not have to.

[4]             Cf. Dominik Collet: Creative Misunderstandings. Circulating Objects and the Transfer of Knowledge within the Personal Union between Hanover and Great Britain, in: German Historical Institute London Bulletin, 36, 2/2014, 3–23; p. 7.

[5]             Hereditary brine workers and owners of brine works in the North West German town of Werl. See also: Iris Bunte: Bildung, Bekenntnis und Prestige. Studien zum Buchbesitz einer sozial mobilen Bevölkerungsschicht im “katholischen Teutschland” der Frühen Neuzeit: die Bibliotheken der Werler Erbsälzer, Berlin 2013.

[6]             For more information on individual presentations see the conference minutes by Nancy Erasmus.

[7]             Jacob Theodor (al. Tabernaemontanus): Neuw Kreuterbuch/ Mit schönen/ künstlichen vnd leblichen Figuren vnnd Conterfeyten/ aller Gewächß der Kreuter, Frankfurt a. M.: Nicolas Bassé, 3 Vols., 1588–91, ULB Düsseldorf 01 M-3-544-1 u. 01 M-3-544-2.

[8]             ULB Düsseldorf 01 M-3-544-1 u. 01 M-3-544-2.


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