For more than 500 years, the use of paper, pen, and printed page has been cultivated in administrative office and courtroom, apothecary’s shop and marketplace, in voyaging the seas and mining the earth, library and household. Noting and copying, compiling and sorting, lists and tables of all sorts [] are techniques of grasping — intellectually and physically — the natural and human world. But what exactly does that mean? Do we know how scholars and scientists, physicians and jurists, officials and merchants know? How they acquire, preserve, and pass on their knowledge?

The goal of this five-year research project is to show, through the example of medicine, how human beings grasp the world through paper technology. How do old techniques of pen and paper form new knowledge — and our modern world? Today, in medicine as elsewhere, digital media and electronic data replace paper, pen, and print. The long reign of paper technology becomes more visible than ever. It can be understood, we hypothesize, as a longue durée of practices: fewer practices than uses, effects unforeseen as well as intended. We aim to discover these shared practices at work in physicians’ ways of knowing from the 16th to the 20th century and make visible the forces that have shaped knowledge irrespective of knowers’ intentions. The project thereby opens the prospect of not so much a social history of knowledge (Burke 2000) as a history of knowledge society.

The object of research consists of early modern observationes and modern patient files, public health records and private research manuscripts, centuries-old certificates of leprosy inspection and recent certificates of vaccination, reports of all kinds — in short, the whole spectrum of empirical and evaluative writing by physicians.