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From Lived Experience to the Written Word

Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World

How and why early modern European artisans began to record their knowledge.

In From Lived Experience to the Written Word, Pamela H. Smith considers how and why, beginning in 1400 CE, European craftspeople began to write down their making practices. Rather than simply passing along knowledge in the workshop, these literate artisans chose to publish handbooks, guides, treatises, tip sheets, graphs, and recipe books, sparking early technical writing and laying the groundwork for how we think about scientific knowledge today.
Focusing on metalworking from 1400–1800 CE, Smith looks at the nature of craft knowledge and skill, studying present-day and historical practices, objects, recipes, and artisanal manuals. From these sources, she considers how we can reconstruct centuries of largely lost knowledge. In doing so, she aims not only to unearth the techniques, material processes, and embodied experience of the past but also to gain insight into the lifeworld of artisans and their understandings of matter.

352 pages | 75 color plates, 41 halftones | 8 3/4 x 9 1/2 | © 2022

Art: Art--General Studies, European Art

History: European History, History of Technology

History of Science

Medieval Studies


"Smith’s study encompasses the period from 1400 to 1800, when practitioners increasingly sought to put their trades in words, composing and publishing craft manuals, guides, treatises, recipe books, tip sheets and diagrams... These texts, she argues, enrich our understanding of the theoretical world of European makers, the development of technical writing and, by extension, the birth of modern science."

London Review of Books

"Focused on ground zero of the scientific revolution—early modern Europe—Smith seeks to 'jolt' us into reassessing our basic categories of knowledge . . . In place of aristocratic gentlemen, Smith centers skilled craftspeople: carpenters, metalworkers, painters, masons, sailors, engineers, and painters. These people worked with their hands, but Smith argues that they did a lot more: they philosophized with their hands, and in doing so taught the world an 'artisanal epistemology' that valued experience, observation, experiment, and manipulation. Their distinctive form of knowing was taken up by natural philosophers at the end of the seventeenth century and turned into what we now call modern science, she argues, but its artisan lineage was also erased in the new narratives of scientific revolution. Smith seeks to recover the artisan worldview on its own terms."

Boston Review

"There are books which close the discussion by offering the final world, and others which open fields by drastically altering the terms of discussion. From Lived Experience to the Written Word Is a perfectly crafted book belonging to the latter category."


"Building from her research and years of hands-on experiences, science historian Pamela H. Smith’s latest title. . . confirms intersections between materials, craft, technique, and developing scientific expertise in early modern European workshops. . . So, if you ever soften some wax to create your special scented candles or take a shot at melting metals to make ornaments and vessels, consider recording the entire creation experience. Ways of making lead toward knowing and may end up serving intelligibly, for posterity."


“This book is a cogently original account of skilled practice, its expression in writing, and its significance for the culture of knowledge as the new sciences developed in early modern Europe. With roots in the world-renowned Making and Knowing Project, it offers an important addition to the histories of skilled craft practice, of science and technology, and of the premodern and early modern periods.”

Pamela O. Long, author of Engineering the Eternal City

“This is a brilliant, groundbreaking, and timely book. Through a particularly novel and exciting approach, Smith offers the first book-length study on the way early modern practitioners wrote about their skills. It is a must read for the growing community of scholars interested in material culture and in the ways how bodies, minds, things, and materials interact with each other.”

Christine Göttler, author of Last Things

Table of Contents

Introduction: Lived Experience and the Written Word

Part 1: Vernacular Theorizing in Craft
1. Is Handwork Knowledge?
2. The Metalworker’s Philosophy
3. Thinking with Lizards

Part 2: Writing Down Experience
4. Artisan Authors
5. Writing Kunst
6. Recipes for Kunst

Part 3: Reading and Collecting
7. Who Read and Used Little Books of Art?
8. Kunst as Power: Making and Collecting

Part 4: Making and Knowing
9. Reconstructing Practical Knowledge: Hastening to Experience
10. A Vocabulary for Mind-Body Knowing

Epilogue: Global Routes of Practical Knowledge


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