Plate 6 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus



The painting hanging on the wall of the sick chamber in Stradanus's engraving gives a clue to the source of the sick man's ailments in its depiction of the activities associated with the onset of venereal disease. On the right, the decoction of wood and bark is being prepared, and on the left, a physician watches while his patient drinks down the medicine. The presence of female practitioners in the preparation of the antidote and the kitchen-like setting point to the existence of hierarchies of knowledge-making in early modern Europe. The female practitioners would have learned their craft through apprenticeship and the passing down of oral recipes. Such vernacular knowledge was often disseminated in this period in collections of recipes and secrets, both printed and in manuscript. These compilations would generally not have formed a part of the education of the physician watching his patient at left. Rather, he would have been trained at university in the medical works of the ancients, and he would generally have left manual treatment of patients to barber-surgeons and other craft-trained medical practitioners (including women). As a result of the printing press and the rise in the perceived utility and status of mechanical knowledge, such hierarchies began gradually to break down in the early modern period. Vernacular—or popular—knowledge based on practical experience gained in prestige, even as elite philosophical traditions began shifting their emphasis from textual authorities to individual experience and experimentation.

To call the ways of knowing and the knowledge-making practices of diverse peoples outside the universities vernacular epistemologies is to emphasize their distinction from the Latinate culture of the university. In the late medieval and early modern centuries, professors lectured in Latin; the books were written in Latin; and students discussed and disputed in Latin. From the fifteenth century, however, a growing number of writings appeared in Italian, French, German, English, and other vernacular languages. Additionally, ordinary people gained knowledge in other ways. Artisanal knowledge of the crafts was usually transmitted orally and through practice, usually within formal and informal apprenticeships. Men and women from many walks of life held an eclectic variety of views concerning the natural world, the body, medicine and medical remedies, and practical activities of all kinds from farming to beekeeping to cooking. Their construction of vernacular knowledge—their ways of making sense of themselves and their world—was a heterogeneous task that relied upon overlapping sources of authorities, direct experience, and trial and error.

Hundreds of small books, referred to as "cheap print" or "how-to books," were published in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Present in a remarkably large number of households, these books treated eclectic topics, from sex and childbirth, to gardening, beekeeping, medical remedies, devotional practices, and cooking. For Mary Fissell, they constitute rich sources for the study of popular knowledge and point to the dialogic interchange between "elite" and "popular" culture, caused in part by the printing press and the growing middle class.

These printed works also give insight into the nature of bodily experiences in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, what Gail Kern Paster has called "lived epistemologies." Rather than being mutually exclusive, popular and learned epistemologies influenced one another. For example, the Sylva Sylvarum by Francis Bacon, one of the canonical figures of the new science, bears a remarkable resemblance to traditional books of secrets and other popular texts. Paster has argued that the Galenic humoral theory that dominated medical practice also profoundly influenced the way the passions and experience were understood in literature (for example, Shakespeare's Othello and Thomas Heywood's Wise Woman of Hogsdon) and in popular culture.