The Age of How-To

What made us modern?

The list of the attributes of modernity keeps growing and changing. Once modernity meant “progress”; but that one took a huge shellacking in the last century, when some of the most “modern” nation-states behaved worse than the worst barbarian states of the Dark Ages.

Then it was science—until anthropologists forced us to recognize that that practically every “pre-modern” culture had some form of science. Then science became “science,” with all the equivocations the scare quotes imply.

Did capitalism make us modern, as Marx said? Or was it globalization and the commodification of practically everything? Or, maybe it was simply the emergence of the bureaucracies that intrude in our daily lives. A strong case has been made that it was the communications revolution ushered in by printing and culminating in the internet that made us modern.

One thing historians do agree about is that modernity began with the “early modern”—that is, during the period between about 1500 and 1750, when a host of developments—including, of course, science, capitalism, and centralized bureaucracies—coalesced to reshape the Western consciousness.

The result was a transformation far more characteristic of modernity than any of those individual developments: the slow but steady secularization of society. Like the rise of the middle class, with which it is often associated, secularization was a process that was crucial to the development of the modern world.

Secularization did not mean godlessness: early modern European society remained, for the most part, profoundly Christian. It was rather that the boundary between the religious and the secular became more distinct than ever before. As the 17th-century English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne put it, humans live “in divided and distinguished worlds.” The sphere of religion was diminished, so that many of the hopes and fears formerly expressed in religious terms became more readily expressed in worldly terms. According to historian William Bouwsma, “Secularization rested on a deep conviction that eternal truths are inaccessible to the human intellect, and that only the limited insights afforded by experience in this world are relevant to the earthly career of the human race.”

Certainly the main causes of this far-reaching intellectual change were the emergence of a market economy, the rise of the middle class, and the growing dominance of cities in the political and economic life of Europe. No less important, however, was the inculcation of new attitudes toward materials and material life.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the German craft manual, Künstbuchlein, noting that this humble little handbook spawned scores of similar works detailing the “secrets” of the arts. The most popular early modern book of secrets, Alessio Piemontese’s Secrets, was continuously published down through the 17th century. More than 100 editions of the work appeared in Italian, French, German, English, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, and even Polish.  Thanks to the printing press, hundreds of thousands of “books of secrets” were published in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were bought and read by artisans and middle class readers as well as by members of the nobility and intelligentsia.

The “professors of secrets”—as one contemporary called the authors of these books—sincerely believed that they were laying bare the recondite secrets of nature—secrets that could be known only by experiment. But for most readers, the books of secrets were simply repositories of useful information.

Typical of such books was an Italian household manual titled Dificio di ricette (Palace of Recipes), first published in Venice in 1520 and then reprinted dozens of times all across Italy. The author’s name is unknown; possibly the book was put together by a printer. Beautifully designed though distinctly downmarket, Palace of Recipes provided recipes for making soap, perfume, dyes, and cosmetics, along with gardening tips and parlor tricks such as how a make a candle burn under water and how to make a ring dance on a table.  An extremely popular work, Palace of Recipes was later translated into Dutch and French and became a staple chapbook for centuries.

Dificio di ricette (1528)

There were how-to books for practically every conceivable craft and activity, including how to do “it”—that is, sex. There were manuals teaching how to choose a good spouse, manuals teaching married couples how God and the medical experts thought they should behave in bed, manuals that taught midwives the proper techniques of childbirthing, and manuals to teach parents how to rear their children properly. The ideology of how-to permeated daily life in early modern Europe.

One might speculate that the widespread availability of craft recipes tended to demystify trade secrets, reducing them to simple formulas and procedures. The explosion of printed “how-to” books made it clear as never before that a recipe might effectively replace the artisan’s cunning, and that what had formerly passed as magic could now be seen as mere hocus-pocus and sleight of hand.

Did these booklets also give readers a sense of empowerment, of having some tangible means of controlling the forces of nature and the vicissitudes of life? Did technical literacy contribute in some measure to the “disenchantment of the world” that Max Weber noted was a hallmark of modern culture?

It seems likely; at the very least, the avalanche of self-help manuals showing readers how to assay metals, dye fabrics, and handle all manner of tools and instruments must have contributed to a greater understanding of the artificially created world. Recipe-books translated craft “secrets” into simple rules and procedures, and replaced the artisan’s inexplicable shrewdness with the technologist’s know-how.

To anyone not familiar with the arts, craft “mysteries” can seem occult and magical. Spelling out artisanal secrets and expressing them in the form of mundane recipes demystifies the arts. That is what the books of secrets did. Readers of books of secrets may not have understood why certain materials hardened iron or made fast dyes, but they had a better idea of how to do it.  The books of secrets gave answers to the timeless question, “How in the world did he do that?”

The circulation of recipes in popular culture did something else, too: It instilled a sense that humanity’s lot could be bettered by technological—that is, human—means, not just through prayer or other spiritual methods, thus sharpening the distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Knowing “how-to” didn’t just empower readers by giving them tangible means of controlling the forces of nature; it made us modern.


Rudolph M. Bell, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (Chicago, 2000).
William J. Bouwsma, “The Secularization of Society in the 17th Century,” in A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley, 1990).
William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, 1994).
Paul Gehl, Humanism for Sale: Making and Marketing Schoolbooks in Italy, 1450-1650.
Allison Kavey, Books of Secrets. Natural Philosophy in England, 1550-1600.  (Urbana, 2007)

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