by Melissa Reynolds
University of Chicago Press, 2024
Cloth: 978-0-226-82362-1 | Paper: 978-0-226-83489-4 | eISBN: 978-0-226-82363-8
Library of Congress Classification Q225.2.G7R43 2024
Dewey Decimal Classification 508.42

Through portraits of readers and their responses to texts, Reading Practice reconstructs the contours of the knowledge economy that shaped medicine and science in early modern England.
Reading Practice tells the story of how ordinary people grew comfortable learning from commonplace manuscripts and printed books, such as almanacs, medical recipe collections, and herbals. From the turn of the fifteenth century to the close of the sixteenth century, these were the books English people read when they wanted to attend to their health or understand their place in the universe. Before then, these works had largely been the purview of those who could read Latin. Around 1400, however, medical and scientific texts became available in Middle English while manuscripts became less expensive. These vernacular manuscripts invited their readers into a very old and learned conversation: Hippocrates and Galen weren’t distant authorities whose word was law, they were trusted guides, whose advice could be excerpted, rearranged, recombined, and even altered to suit a manuscript compiler’s needs. This conversation continued even after the printing press arrived in England in 1476. Printers mined manuscripts for medical and scientific texts that they would publish throughout the sixteenth century, though the pressures of a commercial printing market encouraged printers to package these old texts in new ways. Without the weight of authority conditioning their reactions and responses to very old knowledge, and with so many editions of practical books to choose from, English readers grew into confident critics and purveyors of natural knowledge in their own right.
Melissa Reynolds reconstructs shifting attitudes toward medicine and science over two centuries of seismic change within English culture, attending especially to the effects of the Reformation on attitudes toward nature and the human body. Her study shows how readers learned to be discerning and selective consumers of knowledge gradually, through everyday interactions with utilitarian books.