Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Handbooks of German Commerce

Naming conventions seem to be popular in phases. The theatrum, for example, came into being early in the sixteenth century and died out early in the eighteenth. Handbooks seem to have done something similar. According to the OED, there are etymological sources for “handbook” in English. In the eleventh century, there were “hanboks,” derived from old English. The modern use of the term, however, comes from the German “handbuch” and dates to the rapid German expansion in technical education.

These early German handbooks are of some interest to me and a quick search revealed yet another academic paper devoted to certain aspects of handbooks. Daniel Rabuzzi wrote about business handbooks in the eighteenth century and how they reflect the particular mentalities of that era's business leaders. He notes that these metntalities are “reflected” and “projected” in the handbooks, but not “embodied, confirmed or exclusively voiced.” Instead, handbooks were both a product of a particular environment and served the needs of that environment.

But what exactly was the need?

The books were collection of various bits of information related to the different aspects of business. They contained information on tariffs, exchange rates, tides, etc. They also contained information concerning moral considerations for merchants and guidance on how the ideal pubic deportment of engineers.

These handbooks served many purposes. One purpose may have been for self identification. The handbooks contained dated and spurious information, but "it did not matter because the manuals were also vehicles of identity. A merchant's main sources of market information would always be conversations at the coffee-house or bourse and letters (and, by the late eighteenth century, newspapers), whereas knowledge of techniques would always require hands-on training. The merchant's willingness to buy handbooks that included material of little practical value was driven by other desires, much as modern needs of style and pretension fuel the market for coffee-table books" (p. 174-5)

The authors of these works were often unknowns. Indeed, many works were published under the name of “Sperander.” Rabuzzi maintains that Sperander may have been used as a “franchise” name in the manner of modern travel guides or auto repair manuals (e.g., Haynes or Chilton). He is unforgiving in his description of these characters:

"...many merchant manual authors of the early eighteenth century seem also to have been petty and liminal figures, shuttling, in this case between the worlds of letters and commerce. This made them important but often overlooked articulators, or at least publicists, of the early capitalist mentality. By the mid- and late-eighteenth century the handbooks were becoming part of the pedagogical institutionalization of business knowledge, turning into classroom textbooks written by professors and replete with 'systems' and 'theories.' Already by that time obscurity had descended upon the earlier handbook authors, many of whose names still graced edition almost completely rewritten after their deaths." (p. 171)

In many ways, Rabuzzi hits on many of the same issues that plagued the creator of the theatrum machinarum. They constantly tried to create works of great utility but were constantly plagiarized as a result (although this “plagiarism” may have been more in the manner of the much copied “commonplaces” rather than in line with our modern notion of the term).

In closing, Rabuzzi pulls an interesting quote from Chartier: “Numerous text overtly aim to negate their own status as discourse in order to produce, at a practical level, behaviour or practices held to be legitimate or useful.” (from “Texts, Printing, Reading” pg. 170)

I have yet to evaluate the accuracy of this quote but it certainly resonates with my own thoughts on the problems of studying technical handbooks.


Rabuzzi, Daniel A. (1995-1996). Eighteenth-century commercial mentalities as reflected and projected in business handbooks. Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.2: 169-189.


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