Vermilion, Mercury, Blood, and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking

Pamela H. Smith

in Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780226439686
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226439709 | DOI:
Vermilion, Mercury, Blood, and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking

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  • History of Science and Technology


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This article reconsiders the relationship between science and technology by analyzing how matter and its manipulation—making—are linked to deductive and propositional knowledge—knowing—in early modern Europe. Drawing on three essays—Science and Other Indigenous Knowledge Systems by Helen Watson-Verran and David Turnbull, Culture as Appropriation: Popular Culture Uses in Early Modern France by Roger Chartier, and Jean Lave's work on “everyday technology”—this article challenges conventional ideas about matter and natural materials. Focusing on vermilion and metalworking, it explores late-medieval and early modern artisans' ways of making, measuring, and naming materials along with their ontology, as well as their impact on the development of alchemical theory. Metalworking in the sixteenth century was part of a web that included vermilion, the color red, blood, mercury, gold, and lizards. This article discusses the intersections between artisanal techniques and the development of modern ways of investigating nature, and delineates a less familiar worldview or “vernacular science” of materials and nature that has apparently informed artisanal practices in pigment making and metalworking.

Keywords: science; technology; matter; Europe; artisans; vermilion; metalworking; pigment making; vernacular science; natural materials

Chapter.  9490 words. 

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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