Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Encyclopedias before L’Encyclopédie

The circle of knowledge and its gaps

William N. West

The idea of an encyclopedia long predates the Enlightenment projects of the Britannica or Diderot and d’Alembert. The desire to know everything is old—Plato wrote that the sophist Hippias professed to be able to lecture on any subject, and even to wear, use, and eat only what he himself had made. The name we give to works containing all knowledge is newer. There was no such word until one day in 1471, when a letterer correcting books in a print shop wrote the unprecedented term into a blank space on a page of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (The Orator’s Education). The original text had something in Greek, but the printers had no Greek type and lettered in the occasional phrase by hand. Quintilian prescribed for his young student attention to “what the Greeks call ——,” something unintelligible, the result of being copied from manuscript to manuscript with increasingly extravagant error. Manuscripts of Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic Naturalis historia (Natural History) gesture to his project using the same phrase, “what the Greeks call ——,” a lacuna tempting the same range of guesses. Corrections to editions and manuscripts of Quintilian and Pliny from the period range from the farfetched to the nonsensical. This particular scribe guessed ΕΓΚΥΚΛΟΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΝ: encyclopedia. Knowing everything now had a name.


For readers at the turn of the twenty-first century, the word encyclopedia conjures an arm’s length of books, containing articles on everything from A-ch’eng to Zywiec. But the earliest encyclopedia we can in fact point to is not a book but a person. Around 1490, Francisco Puccio, congratulating his friend Angelo Poliziano on the publication of his Miscellanea, a book of one hundred philological problems, praised his “kaleidoscopic encyclopedia”—not the book, but the exhaustive brilliance that allowed Poliziano to write it. The word was carefully chosen, for encyclopedia was one of Poliziano’s pet ideals: in Miscellanea, he insisted that understanding the works of the ancients demanded “that circle of learning that we call encyclia.” It was nearly thirty more years before encyclopedia referred to an object, in the title of the 1517 edition of Johannes Aventinus’s Rudimenta grammaticae ... Encyclopedia orbisque doctrinarum in calce (The elements of grammar ... in sum, an encyclopedia and circle of teachings). The word first has something like its modern meaning, a written account of all that is known, in the title of Skalich de Lika’s Encyclopaedia, seu orbis disciplinarum (Encyclopedia, or circle of disciplines, 1559).


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