Université de Strasbourg

Fellows Seminar - Unfolding the early modern page: Moveable bodies and paper engineering

May 20, 2021
From 12:30 until 14:00

Catoptrum microcosmicum, Johann Remmelin

By Lianne Habinek, 2019 Fellow

This talk explores how readers interacted with printed books from the 16th through the 18th centuries in England and on the Continent. This period saw a wealth of innovations in printing: from movable flaps and foldable pages to increasingly elaborate engravings to experiments with typography and the use of ink; all of which ushered in a new era of literacy. What were the consequences of these transformations? Who read these instances of paper engineering – anatomical flap-books, volvelle-studded star charts, typography manuals that encouraged readers to mark up the page – and how were they marketed? How, ultimately, did early modern literature and its readers deal with (to borrow 17th-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish’s resonant phrase) these “paper bodies," and can we connect their experiences to our own ways of reading and knowing? If facts and knowledge in the early modern period concern objects and ideas that are made rather than, as now, things that are, then readers would be vitally engaged with creating knowledge by manipulating interactive books in ways subsequently lost with the rise of individuated, silent reading. 

This talk focuses on a peculiar phenomenon in scientific history: the invention of the anatomical flap-book in the 16th century. Facing this early modern pop-up book, a reader was encouraged to lift a torso flap on a picture of a seated man or woman to reveal the organs and viscera beneath. The lay reader thus replicated the professional anatomist’s experience, opening the body to uncover its secrets. Most such texts were uncomplicated, consisting of a single figure and flap. But Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum microcosmicum (1618 et passim), which incorporated multiple complex flaps and moving parts, offers a fascinating exception. Most strikingly, over the course of its reprinting in England many of its images were updated so that by century’s end most new editions contained not outdated copies of images from a prior century (as the original text had as well), but illustrations from the frontiers of contemporaneous medicine.


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