Reading Rivière in Early Modern England

Reading Rivière in Early Modern England

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Lazare Rivière, The Practice of Physick (London, 1658), title page

“Reading Rivière in Early Modern England” uses the story of Lazare Rivière’s bestselling Praxis medica/The Practice of Physick to explore the production, transfer, and codification of vernacular medical knowledge in early modern Europe. The project traces the book’s convoluted journey from the lecture halls at the University of Montpellier in the 1630s to the parlors of English ladies and gentlewomen in the early eighteenth century. From Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, medical ideas have circulated in printed books, journals, and pamphlets. Medical print not only allowed academics and medical professionals to exchange and discuss new knowledge, but opened access to health-related information for patients and their families. As readers, early modern English men and women devoured all sorts of medical texts, from hefty learned tomes to broadsheets advertising wondrous cures, leaving traces of their encounters in book margins, battered leather-bound notebooks and in the flurry of letters sent between friends, families and acquaintances. These reading “notes” are rarely straightforward copies of existing texts, but rather records of a particular readers’ appropriation of natural knowledge through processes of information selection, collation, and organization. Within these same pages, our readers also recorded their own first-hand experiences with healing, preserving the human body, experimentations with drugs and cures, and observations of nature. As they put pen to paper, their acts of reading become acts of writing, and what might at first sight seem to be an act of knowledge transmission becomes an act of knowledge production.

Drawing on a survey of vernacular medical print in England and extensive archival research on annotated printed books and manuscript notebooks, I analyze five points of epistemic contact and change: written codification of orally transmitted knowledge, practices of translation, commercial printing, reading and annotating, and note-taking and rewriting. At the heart of the project is the idea that acts of reading, writing, translating, and book production not only profoundly shaped early modern knowledge-making processes but were themselves crucial steps in these processes.