Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.10

Jason König, Greg Woolf (ed.), Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xv, 601.  ISBN 9781107038233.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Jacques Elfassi, Université de Lorraine (


The starting point of this book was a conference on “Encyclopaedism before the Enlightenment” held at the University of St Andrews in June 2007.1 The volume collects twenty-four contributions: after an introductory chapter, there are three chronological parts (“Classical encyclopaedism”, ch. 2-9, “Mediaeval encyclopaedism”, ch. 10-17, “Renaissance encyclopaedism”, ch. 18-23) and finally “a postscript” about “Chinese encyclopaedism” (ch. 24). In the second part, it is possible to distinguish three “clusters” (to use the editors’ word, p. 6), corresponding to different cultural areas: the Byzantine Empire (ch. 10-12), the medieval West (ch. 13-15) and the Arabic world (ch. 16-17). In the conference, the papers were organized thematically, but this arrangement was a little artificial (for example, the communications about collections of Greek moral exempla and Joseph Rhakendytès were isolated under the title “Function and audience”, but this theme could be applied to many others); the chronological and geographical composition of the book is less original but clearer.

Each section starts with an overview chapter: encyclopaedism in the Roman empire (by Jason König and Greg Woolf, ch. 2), Byzantine encyclopaedism of the ninth and tenth centuries (Paul Magdalino, ch. 10), mediaeval encyclopaedism from Isidore to Bartholomew the Englishman (Elizabeth Keen, ch. 13), encyclopaedism of the Mamluk period in Egypt and Levant (Elias Muhanna, ch. 16), encyclopaedism in the Renaissance (Ann Blair, ch. 18) and Chinese encyclopaedism (Harriet T. Zurndorfer, ch. 24).

Then come more detailed case studies. In the first part, we find the encyclopaedic projects in the Alexandrian Library (Myrto Hatzimichali, ch. 3), Pliny’s Natural History (Mary Beagon, ch. 4), the collections of sayings and stories about wise men in Greek (Teresa Morgan, ch. 5), Plutarch’s Quaestiones (Katerina Oikonomopoulou, ch. 6), Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica (Daniel Harris-McCoy, ch. 7), Justinian’s Digest (Jill Harries, ch. 8), and Late Latin encyclopaedism (Marco Formisano, ch. 9).

In the second part, come the Constantinian Excerpts (András Németh, ch. 11), the Synopsis uariarum disciplinarum by Joseph Rhakendytès (Erika Gielen, ch. 12), Isidore’s Etymologies (Andy Merrills, ch. 14), the Middle English treatises of Reginald Pecock (Ian Johnson, ch. 15), and the Mamluk encyclopaedias (Maaike van Berkel, ch. 17).

And in the third part are included the connection between philosophy and encyclopaedism in the Renaissance (Daniel Andersson, ch. 19), Solinus’ reception in the XVth and XVIth centuries (Paul Dover, ch. 20), the encyclopaedias probably known by Shakespeare (Neil Rhodes, ch. 21), the History of Imbanking and Drayning by William Dugdale (Claire Preston, ch. 22), and finally the “irony” of encyclopaedism, “the self-subverting stance that many early encyclopaedic works express towards the possibility of their projects, calling their efforts into question” (William N. West, ch. 23).

This rapid presentation gives an idea of the chronological and geographical amplitude of this volume. But it could also give the impression of a simple juxtaposition of unrelated papers, in which each author dealt with his particular field. On the contrary, the book is very homogenous, and there are many cross-references between the different chapters, at least more than in most proceedings of colloquia. The general introduction, written by the editors, and the common bibliography and index will be useful. But the homogeneity is principally thematic, for whichever text is studied leads to the same questions. The principal difficulty is spelled out in the very first sentence of the introduction: “what does it mean to talk of ‘encyclopaedism’ before the Enlightenment?” Furthermore, what is the utility or the pertinence of this concept in non-European literatures? Nevertheless, although it is difficult to talk about a genre called “encyclopaedia” before the XVIIIth century, there are some features which can be associated with it: multidisciplinarity, systematic organization and comprehensiveness (or rather ambition of comprehensiveness). And it is possible to identify some texts that share, to varying degrees, these characteristics. This very large conception of encyclopaedism allows the inclusion of some unexpected texts: for example, Gellius’ Attic Nights (in ch. 2). More generally, one of the greatest interests of this volume is to explore texts that are rarely connected with encyclopaedism, like those of Plutarch (ch. 6), Reginald Pecock (ch. 15) and William Dugdale (ch. 22).

Among other cross-cultural themes, one is especially important: the connections between transmission of knowledge and political power. Various encyclopaedic projects were fostered by emperors. Justinian’s Digest (ch. 8) is possibly the only really “universal” encyclopaedia which has ever been composed: indeed, it comprised the whole of Roman law “for the simple reason any law not contained within ceased to be law at all” (p. 193). The compilation of the Constantinian Excerpts, sponsored by Constantine Porphyrogenitus (ch. 11), required the cooperation of many assistants and is interestingly similar to “a modern encyclopaedia where a large number of authors have to follow strict editorial rules and submit their contributions to a superior authority” (p. 258). Many Chinese encyclopaedias were also produced under imperial auspices (ch. 24). Nevertheless, these initiatives were relatively rare, and even in these contexts, as Jill Harries points out (p. 196), “the concept of the encyclopaedia as an intellectual endeavour, rather than an exercise in power, could prove its resilience”; concretely, the text of the Digest specifies that the law may be changed through interpretation by the jurists, and not only by the emperors. Harriet T. Zurndorfer shows also that the Siku quanshu, the huge compilation of texts ordered by the Qianlong emperor in the XVIIIth century, was actually detached from political in-fighting.

It is impossible, within the scope of a review, to discuss each contribution, but the interest of the volume, of course, is to offer many detailed studies. As a specialist of Isidore of Seville, I read with particular attention the ch. 13 and 14, and I found them at once well-informed and innovative. Andy Merrills (ch. 14) convincingly shows that there are various systems of organization in the Etymologies, and that the only common feature between these different systems is their mnemonic function. Elizabeth Keen (ch. 13) less convincingly but quite originally divides the Etymologies in three parts (Books 1-6, 7-12 and 13-20).

Finally, this volume can be used in two different ways: each article can be read separately (I think it will be its main use), but the whole reading is stimulating. The interest of this book is to remind us that the theme of encyclopaedism, apparently limited to a technical genre, is not of small importance: it enables to think about intertextuality, visions of the world or relations between power and knowledge.


1.   The contents of proceedings, as it happens frequently, are a little different from the conference program.

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