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Salem State Professor Donna Seger Discusses Her New Publication, The Practical Renaissance

An Interview with the Center for Research and Creative Activities

Salem State history professor Donna Seger is publishing a new book, “The Practical Renaissance: Information Culture and the Quest for Knowledge in Early Modern England, 1500-1640.” The book will be available for purchase on February 1, 2022. The Center for Research and Creative Activities gained some insight into the fascinating new book in a brief interview with Professor Seger.

The book itself starts at the very beginning of the 16th century and continues up to the middle of the 17th century, creating a century and a half's worth of information focusing on England during the Renaissance period. The Practical Renaissance specifically looks to discuss how the average, literate person might have experienced the Renaissance and focuses on the spread of information at this time rather than viewing the Renaissance as, “an elite movement on art and architecture.”

Professor Seger believes it is important to look at the Renaissance in this way, however, she does recognize the importance of literacy during this time. Seger noted that the majority of the most popular books during the Renaissance were those pertaining to medicine, health, building, cooking, agriculture, and what we would now consider engineering and mechanization.

Seger described the book as, “a survey about how all of these practical skills were changing England,” and how the focus on these skills paved the way for both the Scientific and Industrial Revolution. In zeroing in on these new skills, “there is an emphasis on proven information…I'm trying to show the development of information and specifically good information.”

Beyond this, the book also, “connects the expansions of England to colonization,” and answers questions on how England would have cared for these people embarking on long, overseas voyages.

Seger believes the most important message in this book is that “people are just like us.” The events in this book may have taken place long ago but these people were oftentimes interested in the same things as we are today. Many of the books at this time held recipes for different makeups, covering up grey hair, and even concerns over teeth whitening. All things that exist today as well.

Seger also concluded through her research that these were very experimental people, “Most of their experiments are on plant material for creams and medicine…You are really seeing the transition of alchemy to chemistry at this time.”

Professor Seger decided to change things up and will be writing her next book on saffron. She hopes her next book will cater more to the general audience as opposed to only serving as an academic book. Seger had hoped to make “The Practical Renaissance” a trade book, aimed at the general audience, but the book is considered too academic to do so. However, Seger believes anyone can still pick this book up and read it without needing prior knowledge of the Renaissance.

Along with this project, Seger has the goal of editing a book about Salem's history. The book would consist of submissions from her colleagues in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Salem coming in 2026. She also runs her own blog which shares information about the culture, history, and community of Salem.

Featured with this post are some of the beautiful illustrations that will be in the book itself.

Congratulations to Professor Seger on this new book. We are so happy for you and look forward to seeing what comes next!

Jill Willis
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