Making and Knowing
A minimal edition of BnF Ms Fr 640

About the Making and Knowing Project

The Aim

The Making and Knowing Project is a research and pedagogical initiative in the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University that explores the intersections between historical craft/artistic making and scientific knowing. Its current five-year focus is to create an open-access critical digital edition and English translation of an intriguing late sixteenth-century French manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640. This anonymous manuscript is the written result of recipe collecting and workshop practice in the sixteenth century, and it gives unique insight into craft and artistic techniques, daily life in the sixteenth century, and material and intellectual understandings of the natural world. This compilation of artisanal techniques, recipes, and experimental notes produced by an experienced practitioner stands at a pivotal moment in the growth of a new mode of gaining knowledge which we now call “science.” It grants an invaluable view into the continuous, methodical experimentation through which art objects were created by skilled labor, and how the process of artistic creation yielded insights into the behavior of natural materials.

The fact that a practitioner recorded these technical procedures at all is part of a seminal development in early modern European history. Around 1400, craftspeople increasingly began to write down their embodied knowledge. Their “how-to books” were imitated and disseminated by entrepreneurial printers to a diverse audience, helping to foster a culture that valued practical knowledge. Ms. Fr. 640 shares in the practical format and aims of these how-to books, but it differs significantly from any other known how-to text in its lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observation of animal behavior, and its illustrations.

The critical edition will add a rare and important text to a limited corpus of technical treatises and will make the manuscript openly accessible to diverse audiences. It will contribute to the careful deciphering of materials and techniques done by museum curators and conservators; it provides rich evidence for new scholarship in the histories of art and of science; and its extensive interpretative apparatus of textual, historical, and technical annotations will open fertile avenues of research on technical “recipe books” to literary scholars and historians.

The Process

Founded in 2014 by Pamela Smith, the Making and Knowing Project is creating the critical edition and English translation of this manuscript by a series of “expert crowd sourcing” workshops and courses that involve students, practitioners (such as sculptors, conservators, technical art historians), scholars of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, anthropology, and museum scholars), natural scientists (chemists, conservation scientists, and engineers), and practitioner-scholars from the emerging field of the digital humanities. The first stage of transcription, translation, and markup of the manuscript is carried out in a series of three-week summer Text Workshops, co-directed by Marc Smith (Professeur de paléographie medievale et moderne, École des chartes, Paris), that bring together graduate students (of, for example, French literature, history, and art history) to gain skills in middle French script by transcribing and translating the manuscript in the collaborative workspace of Google Drive. The first workshop was held in June 2014, during which 15 students from European and North American universities transcribed and translated about a third of the manuscript (concentrating on metalworking “recipes”). The following summer (focusing on colormaking recipes), a different group of students were able to complete a draft of the entire transcription and translation. The next workshop, which also included data analysis in preparation for the digital edition, was held in June 2016 with a new group of students and interns, and they were able to finalize the verbatim French transcription. Text workshops will continue until all parts of the edition are complete.

The second component of the project, the Laboratory Seminar, began September 2014 (Hist GR8906 Craft and Science). In the Laboratory Seminar, students conduct historical and laboratory research on the recipes transcribed and translated by the paleography workshop. Laboratory research focuses on attempting to understand the manuscript’s materials and processes by means of a variety of techniques, including experimental reconstructions of the processes described in the manuscript. “Expert Practitioners”—conservators, craftspeople, and artists—are brought into the course to assist the students in carrying out the hands-on techniques. The students take field and laboratory notes, stored on a Wiki, and photos stored in a public repository in Flickr, in which they record their reconstruction experiments as well as their experience as history students doing hands-on work in the lab, for the entire project is also intended as a reflection on methodology and the use of reconstruction as historical evidence. The students thus engage in text- and object-based research, as well as hands-on materials research in the lab. They then bring together this research in multi-media essays that form the historical and material commentary for the critical edition of the manuscript.

The third phase of the project began May 2015, when an annual Working Group Meeting brought together scholars, practitioners, and the students from the Craft and Science classes to discuss and critique the annotations on the year’s theme (moldmaking and metalworking in 2015; colormaking in 2016; and vernacular natural history, medicine, and practical optics, perspective, and mechanics in 2017) written by the students. This phase provides expert oversight on the student work and on the critical edition as a whole.

The fourth component of the project (begun 2015) includes design and development of the final digital environment for the critical edition and translation. This stage includes collaboration with students from the Computer Science Department, with the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab, led by Professor Steven Feiner, the xpMethods group at Columbia, and the seminar GR8975: What is a Book for the 21st Century? (spring 2017) in which humanities, social science, and computer science students learned digital skills while they prototyped this final digital edition.

For more information on the Making and Knowing Project, including a roster of team members, collaborators, and supporters please see

The Making and Knowing photo repository from the lab reconstruction experiments:

Follow the Making and Knowing Project on Twitter: