A little while ago, Kevin Kelly suggested that the habit of sitting at desks might be "a short-term anomaly" that we would abandon in the future. This got me thinking: what is the ergonomic history of writing and thinking? Five hundred years ago, what kinds of spaces did philosophers or essayists construct for themselves; how were they furnished; and how did they work in them? There are lots of pictures of scholars or saints at work– Saint Jerome in his study and all that– but how idealized are those? How well do they reflect what scholars actually did?

I asked Anthony Grafton what had been written on the subject, and he suggested, among other works, Gadi Algazi's 2003 article, "Scholars in Households: Refiguring the Learned Habitus, 1480–1550." It's a really excellent piece of work, and it'll resonate with anyone who ever writes within sight of children's toys, or revises articles on nap drives. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that Algazi's Web page mentions that he has three children!) Here's the abstract:

Until the fifteenth century, celibacy was the rule among Christian scholars of northwestern Europe. Celibacy was a major element of the codified cultural representation of the scholar and his specific way of life, sustained by peculiar institutional arrangements and daily routines. Founding family households implied therefore a major reorganization of the scholar’s way of life. Broadly speaking, this involved refashioning the scholarly habitus (understood as a system of durable and transposable social dispositions), redefining social relations, and developing the necessary material infrastructure. The paper focuses on three aspects of this process during a period characterized by uncertainty and experimentation. It discusses the structure of scholars’ families, arguing that at least until the middle of the sixteenth century, received models still persisted, while new viable models for articulating family reproduction with the transmission of scholarly dispositions had not yet crystallized. It then turns to the reorganization of domestic space, focusing on the different uses of the study to manage social distance and regulate domestic relations. Finally, among the different manifestations of the scholarly habitus, it argues that the emotional detachment of learned men was itself a learned habit. The well-documented discussion of competing options for organizing scholars’ family households and cultivating an acquired nature in academic settings provides an exceptional occasion to examine the way a group habitus is reshaped and to explore the cultural work involved in this process.

Of course, there's Dora Thornton's The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy, which I've encountered a couple times, but never looked at with this particular subject in mind.

There's also some work on commercial and mercantile calculation and writing. I think Alfred Crosby talks some about this in one of his books, and of course there's JoAnne Yates' Control Through Communication, which is full of interesting detail on 19th-century business information practices.

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