In Pursuit of “Useful” Knowledge: Documenting Technical Innovation in Sixteenth-Century Potosí


  • Renée Raphael



bureaucracy, Iberia, mining, administration, Potosí, technology


This article examines a series of proposals for improving silver refining methods presented to the municipal council of Potosí (in current-day Bolivia) in the late sixteenth century as a means of nuancing current understandings of the Iberian state’s pursuit of “useful” knowledge. Historians have argued that the sixteenth century saw the fostering of an empirical culture, one based on experiential and collaborative practices, in the Iberian world. They have stressed that as artisanal experts and royal officials developed a mutually beneficial relationship, this empirical culture became institutionalized in administrative bodies for the pursuit of useful knowledge. This article focuses on the textual production that resulted from the relationship between artisanal experts and royal officials. It probes the motivations of local officials in generating a textual record of artisanal knowledge. Historians have tended to interpret and actors at the time often stated an interest in inscribing, artisanal knowledge as expertise and experience. However, this article demonstrates that what often motivated municipal officials’ inscription of such knowledge was an emphasis on administrative knowledge as rule-following, in particular, a desire to demonstrate one’s competency as an administrator. This conclusion suggests historians should expand their conception of “useful” to better reflect how early modern actors in the Iberian world viewed their pursuit of scientific and technical knowledge. It also indicates the importance of paying attention to the process of bureaucratic knowledge production when interpreting the written traces of the scientific and technical culture of the early modern Iberian world.

Author Biography

  • Renée Raphael

    University of California, Irvine, US






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