Knowledge and manipulation of nature between usefulness and deception in the Arabo-Islamic tradition (9th–15th century)

UseFool brings together a corpus of previously unexplored Arabic technical sources that illustrate how to exploit the properties of natural substances in order to entertain and deceive. The project considers for the first time the technical knowledge of nature as applied by merchants, charlatans, craftsmen, and entertainers in the streets, markets, and other public and private urban spaces of the Arabo-Islamic Mediaeval and early modern world. Erudite scholars and street performers alike were engaged with the knowledge of nature and its numerous applications. UseFool investigates the parallel development of this interest in the different social and intellectual groups engaged in the transmission of this knowledge and involved in its practice. UseFool adopts the practitioner’s point of view and studies how both nature and humans are being manipulated, and the kinds of knowledge that develop around and in response to these practices.

Reconstructing Marginalized Knowledge: Bridging Textual Analysis and Material Reality in Historical Epistemology

The project aims to write a new chapter in the social, cultural, and material history of knowledge, which includes thus far marginalized groups as well as their refined forms of technical knowledge, often hastily dismissed as ‘popular’. UseFool is inspired by kindred recent research, including that on vernacular science and artisan epistemology in the mediaeval and early modern period and projects such as Making and Knowing and AlchemEast. It is also intrigued by the reconstruction of cultural and sensory heritage through written sources (Odeuropa and European Music Archaeology Project). Consequently, UseFool develops a fresh interdisciplinary approach that combines the textual analysis of the sources, tailored in terms of their technical nature, with the hands-on replication of the material reality behind the procedures, and unique attention for the performative and commercial component entailed in these practices.

While the experts of ‘street science’ are the same cunning characters that populate the urban landscape of the One Thousand and One Nights, technical literature has never stirred an enthusiasm remotely comparable to that for the Nights and it has often been perceived with some embarrassment within an idealized view of the Arabo-Islamic history of science. Humour and jocular elements have been studied in both prose and poetry, in classical and popular literature, but the focus mostly insisted on the literary and linguistic aspects. The technical manipulation of nature for entertainment and deception has largely been overlooked. Stefan Wild’s preliminary remarks on illusionistic tricks in the Arabic tradition have remained an isolated sparkle. Great inspiration can be derived from Western Mediaeval and Early modern studies, in which, by comparison, there has been more discussion of the popular interest for pranks and illusion. Language is indeed a peculiar and intricate aspect of these texts, and the use of spoken and vernacular Arabic has not yet been fully explored in its technical dimension.

Manipulation and Perception: Unearthing the Hidden Dimensions of Mediaeval Arabic Technical Literature

Against this background, the project aims to fill a considerable gap in the Mediaeval and early modern history of knowledge and technology. It will study the manipulation of both nature and human perception in Arabic technical literature, the different performers engaged in these practices, their endowment of material instruments and practical knowledge, not to mention their uncanny ability to use common-sense ideas, shared notions, and beliefs as a pivot for their deceitful occupations.

At the core of UseFool’s textual corpus are four technical handbooks on entertainment and illusion composed in Arabic between the 6th/12th and the 9th/15th century (authored by al-Iskandarī, al-ʿIrāqī, al-Ǧawbarī, and al-Zarḫūrī). This core is combined with other complementary sources, such as the handbooks for the inspector of the market, which instruct on how to detect and test artisanal counterfeits. An analysis of the sources focusing on their technical contents allows the project to explore both the material reality of the procedures and the performative and social component that characterized these practices. This ‘street science’ did not appear out of nowhere, rather it was fuelled by various textual traditions (medical, artisanal, and alchemical sources) that converged into the four handbooks under examination. UseFool will disentangle these streams of scientific and technical tradition by mapping the Arabo-Islamic reception of antique and late antique materials on the properties of natural substances in the early Abbasid period (3–4th/9th–10th cent.). Researching this textual and empirical tradition will also make a significant contribution to understanding its reception by the Mediaeval Latin tradition.

The UseFool project will work in parallel on two primary and overarching research goals, namely (a) to understand and describe the technical knowledge applied to the manipulation of nature and perception, focusing on the two complementary applications of entertainment and fraud; and (b) to map the intricate network of the sources of this literature, dealing with the properties of natural substances, from their acquisition as antique and late antique heritage to their reception in Mediaeval Europe.