The encyclopaedic shift

A diagram showing the length of the months in an 8th-century manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, a work of encyclopaedic proportions popular throughout the Middle Ages (St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 238, p.325)

For better or worse, Wikipedia is the world’s most popular encyclopaedia, whose English version averages around 255 million pageviews a day. Its popularity makes it hard to imagine the world before the Wikipedian turn, and especially impossible the world before the encyclopaedic shift. Was there ever a world without encyclopaedias, and if so, how could one survive without comprehensive information about every branch of knowledge.

Although the modern encyclopaedia really takes off in the second half of the 18th century after the publication of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie between 1751 and 1772, the roots of the encyclopedic drive in Europe go far deeper and farther back in time.

They may be traced back to ancient Rome and to Varro’s now lost Disciplinarum libri IX, The Nine Books of Disciplines. Written sometime in the 1st century BC, it is known to have been a kind of encyclopaedic work covering all the liberal arts, such as grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, etc.

Varro’s Books became the model for the most popular encyclopaedias of the ancient and medieval periods, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, The Natural History, published in 77 AD.

What Varro, Pliny and other authors of the ancient and late antique period did was to inaugurate an encylopedic age in the West, a turn towards the organisation and systematization of knowledge. By the 13th century, the information collected and developed during the preceding millenium had been integrated into systems of knowledge, compilations, collections, anthologies, compendia, florilegia, encyclopedias, neatly organised and methodically presented in manuscripts lavishly illustrated with diagrams, genealogical trees and other reading aids designed to bring order into the messiness of human knowledge. If the tools had been available, Wikipedia would’ve been invented at that time.

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