Ann Blair

Home/Office hours  Curriculum Vitae  Grad advising  Teaching  Publications  Projects/conferences

    How did intellectual work get done in early modern Europe? How were students taught to read, learn, take notes, and write? How did scholars build on that training and devise their own ways of managing input from all the sources they sought out -- including texts, people, specimens, and direct experience? How was their work shaped by personal relationships, with printers, correspondents, and helpers of various kinds? Through questions like these I have tried to combine intellectual history with new contextual perspectives throughout my research on early modern European culture, from my initial focus on early modern science to my more recent emphasis on book history. I have worked most often with the Latin writings of the late humanists north of the Alps ca. 1550 to 1700, but since intellectual practices are long-lasting structures widely shared across time and place I find it valuable to read and reflect comparatively on contexts before, after, and elsewhere.

    My first book, based on my 1990 Princeton dissertation, studied an encyclopedic work of natural philosophy by the famous political theorist Jean Bodin (1530-96). I argued that Bodin's principal goal was to build a new and properly pious natural philosophy, to replace received Aristotelian positions. I also read Bodin's work "against the grain" for clues about his working methods which included, I hypothesized, keeping a commonplace book, in a practice characteristic of prolific authors both before and after him. My study of surviving copies of the work shed light both on the meaning of the book to contemporary readers and on the methods of reading and annotating that those readers deployed. Click here for a transcription of one set of annotations in a copy of Bodin's Theatrum.

    In the meantime I started teaching, first at the University of California Irvine 1993-96, then in the History Department at Harvard (1996-, with tenure as of 2001). A lecture course I developed on the history of the interactions between science and religion (currently Culture and Belief 20) inspired me to investigate some little-known aspects of natural theology. In one book project underway I seek to trace the range of arguments from design beyond the rationalist arguments which have been well studied (e.g. in early modern England) and to investigate anti-rationalist formulations, in which God's greatness is confirmed not by the laws of nature we understand, but by all the mysteries we do not understand.

    Book history is a major focus of my teaching and research. Book history embraces all the factors that affected the production, dissemination, use, and survival of writing in any number of contexts. The range of students drawn to European book history from other fields has been especially encouraging.  In Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010) I argued that the early modern methods of selecting, summarizing, sorting, and storing text are at the root of the techniques we use today in information management and comparable to techniques devised earlier and elsewhere. I used a few large early modern printed reference books as an entry into the working methods of their compilers, into the finding devices that made them useable, and the culture of note-taking that made them so appealing. Click here for on-line supplements to Too Much To Know (quotations in foreign languages and data about surviving copies).

    My current project grew out of my realization during that research that large works were not written single-handedly by the author credited on the title page. More generally, intellectual work in the Renaissance was routinely carried out with the help of others. As a complement to recent work on various forms of collaboration in early modern authorship, I am studying specifically the roles of amanuenses, broadly defined as those who helped an author or scholar in the process of composing and writing a work, including servants, family members, and students. I am focusing on the work performed by these helpers, the dynamics of the relationships involved, and the role of printing in both hiding their work and bringing it to light.