Sites of mediation

Commodity flows and economies of knowledge. Traders, apothecaries and scholars in Basel around 1600 (working title)

Dissertation project by Davina Benkert, M.A.

Sub-project in Research Module 1 
Crossroads – Trading Zones – Intersections. 
Society and knowledge in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Basel

The dissertation project is dedicated to asking which processes of appropriating, attributing and linking objects and bodies of knowledge took place in Basel around 1600 and how they functioned. This question will be explored for various groups of persons – traders, apothecaries and scholars – who were connected to one another by certain groups of commodities – plants, books and scientific instruments – and, in interaction with each other, consumed, produced and transferred knowledge. It draws inspiration from both the new economic history of supra-regional and global cultural contacts and relations of exchange, with its cultural-historical orientation and approaches from the history of science, which increasingly take into account objects and collections. The project will take up the concept of the world city, which has been developed for the metropolis, and reshape it for Basel as a model case.
Objects of knowledge – primarily plants, but also books and scientific instruments – are understood as a central category of exchange and knowledge production and constitute one focus of analysis. The approach is via the objects themselves, their materiality and changing value. Contemporary knowledge practices can be illustrated in exemplary fashion using plants. In order to identify plants with certainty, Renaissance scholars became increasingly preoccupied with plant samples. It became essential to create large collections of plant images, dried plants and living plants in botanical gardens. Thus in Basel, too, medical doctors and botanists laid out their own gardens and collected dried plants and pictures of plants in herbaria. Practices of connoisseurship and expertise in dealing with plants were negotiated in a community of like-minded people, in which letters were the most important medium of communication.
The second part of the study is thus dedicated to the concrete processes of communication and exchange that we encounter in the treatment of objects of knowledge. Apart from the transport problems involved in moving valuable or fragile objects and letters over long distances, questions of trust, gift-giving practices and the negotiation of exchange relationships are in the foreground of the study. Proceeding from the publishing and collecting activities of Basel scholars, in particular, we see the medial transformation and economisation of bodies of knowledge, and need to ask to what extent the observed gift economies took over or anticipated the function of commercial markets.
In summary, one can thus ask: Which object flows and knowledge transfers came together in urban society, and how can we integrate them into an overall context? The further development of current methodological approaches and perspectives can help to make a contribution to linking micro- and macro-history.