Who Knows Now What They Knew Then?

by Broncos_1997 on October 26, 2016 - 1:56pm

Empirical Observations:

The book I worked with was “Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles And Joints” written by a surgeon named John Bell in 1794. The book was written entirely in English, however the pages were rather difficult to read due to the change in common vocabulary since the time the book was published. The pages of the book remain in excellent condition and are made of rags that were folded in quartos and then stitched together. The spine has since been replaced by a leather spine with “Engravings of the Bones…Bell” written on a label that was then sewn on and the front and back hard covers have also been replaced but they are currently in poor condition. The hard covers appear to have had outer layer, which was presumably also leather ripped off as all that remains is some random markings. The majority of the book was text on human anatomy, which included various detailed illustrations by Bell depicting different parts of the human body. Judging by it’s content it is clear that this book was intended for surgeons or someone practicing medicine. It is worth noting that on the table of contents page, where the letters “r” and “s” should be in many words, the letter “f” appears instead. For example:“thefe” and “fhould” are written instead of “there” and “should”.



            Through working with Bell’s book and reading Elizabeth Einstein’s “Defining the Initial Shift” it has become clear that there are both differences and similarities in the production and dissemination of knowledge in the early modern period in comparison to today. The production and dissemination of knowledge in the early modern period was impacted greatly by the invention of the printing press as it made “the transmission of written information […] much more efficient”(Einstein 35). It allowed for an “increase in the output of books” (Einstein 14) and men of learning were now in “a new situation, which released time for observation and research,”(Einstein 20) allowing for more knowledge to be produced. Without the printing press, Bell would have been unable to include such graphic and detailed illustrations of the human body in his book because of “the corruption that occurred when hand-drawn images had to be copied in hundreds of books” (Einstein 25). Those in the early modern period who weren’t fluent in Latin “found scriptural exposition easier when given picture books as guides” (Einstein 36) which was a problem as “identical images, maps and diagrams” (Einstein 24) like those in Bell’s book were nearly impossible to produce. Knowledge was much more difficult to produce and to spread before the printing press because even though two people may be reading the same book by the same author, it was often written by different scribes and illustrated by different people and therefore are not identical and may be perceived in different ways. With Bell’s book coming after the creation of the printing press, everything Bell wrote and illustrated is identical to that of each copy produced, transmitting the exact same information to everyone who reads it, very similar to today’s production and spread of knowledge.

             Today, search engines such as Google are some of the most efficient methods of acquiring knowledge as we have access to practically every source of information in a matter of seconds. This deviates largely from that of the early modern period due to major technological advances, but is slightly similar to the post-printing press era where everybody had access to identical information and images. Another common method of disseminating and producing knowledge today is through books. There is a noticeable difference in the images found in books such as Bell’s and today’s science textbooks. The images in Bell’s book are mostly hand drawn parts of the body that aren’t necessarily accurate. In today’s textbooks, images of human anatomy are almost always created through computers graphics which are much more accurate and they often label and give information on all of the different body parts. Books of the early period often used rags as pages, which have a much longer lifespan than the paper used in today’s books, allowing for the content of early modern books to last longer and thus spreading more knowledge for a longer period of time. Although the books of the early modern period were capable of lasting longer, there was not nearly as many copies of each book as there are today causing many books to completely vanish if the copies created were lost. Today, even if all the copies of a book somehow get lost, there is almost always a computer file where the publisher can recover the book and re-print it.


Works Cited

Elizabeth Eisenstein, “Defining the Initial Shift,” The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 13-45.




I have also noticed during my visit at the library that many "s" were written as "f"! According to the librarian, the oddly shaped "f" (that is supposedly an "s") was written that way in order to mimic the way the "s" looked like when it would be written by hand. It was a social convention, and people at the time did not even notice the difference. I'm glad that someone else shared the same observation as me, in another book!

I am glad you've decided to mention the images presented in the book! According to the same librarian I mentioned earlier, those images were first manually engraved into metal plaques (with acid) , before pressing them against the paper. If you take a look at those images you've presented (which are amazing by the way!), I cannot imagine how long and painful the carving process must have been!