RSA 2014 - Worldly wisdom: Early Modern Handbooks in Theory and Practice

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Jessica Rosenberg and Laura Kolb

Shakespeare's Iago frowns on "bookish theoric" as "mere prattle without practice" – the formal display of knowledge without the substance of experience. But a great deal of early modern book-learning would in fact have fallen under the heading of "practick," drawn from experience and aimed at achieving practical results. An extraordinary flourishing of advice literature accompanied the rise of print in England: from conduct books and letter-writing manuals, to vernacular arithmetics and handbooks on weights and measures, to guidelines on managing health, hygiene, and household.

This panel invites papers on any aspect of practical literature, broadly construed. We are especially interested in new and experimental approaches to these complex and often sophisticated texts, as well as papers that consider the methodological and theoretical issues they raise. For example, how might we approach them as literary and cultural objects, and not just historical evidence? What challenges do they pose to us as readers, or to the category and canon of "literature" as we usually understand it? How might formal and rhetorical considerations give us new perspective on audience and circulation? How might such approaches be put in contact with book history and social history?

We welcome approaches from scholars of the history of science and technology, history of art, literature, and other disciplines, and interdisciplinary approaches are especially welcome.

Topics may include (but are not limited to):

-Theorick and Practick, and the conflict and continuity between theoretical and practical knowledge

-The relationship between kinds of knowledge and particular texual forms, such as letters, sermons, or epitomes

-Print, manuscript, and other material practices

-Communities of readers and expert communities

-Early modern forms of expertise and "technology transfer"

-Self-advice and mnemonics: in diaries, autobiography, account-books, and annotations

-Questions of textual originality and unoriginality; authorship

-Methods of reading, copying, annotation, and experimentation

Please send a 150-word abstract and a brief CV to Jessica Rosenberg ( and Laura Kolb ( by June 8 for consideration.