For 2,000 years, humans have attempted to summarise their ever-growing knowledge in vast works of literature known as encyclopedias.
In his new book ‘All the Knowledge in the World’, Simon Garfield focuses on the extraordinary history of the encyclopedia, and the eminently human pursuit of knowledge that drives their creation.
From the ancient works of Pliny the Elder in Rome to the sprawling online databases of Wikipedia, what we as humans know has been constantly written and rewritten, chronicling our story on this planet and often salvaging it from the ravages of time. Here we explore a short history of a vast subject: the history of the encyclopedia.
The Ancient world
Published around 77-79 AD, the earliest surviving encyclopaedic work is the Naturalis Historia (Natural History), written by Roman statesman Pliny the Elder.
Recording all that he knew about the ancient Roman world, Pliny covered natural history, architecture, medicine, geography and geology, and claimed to use over 2,000 works from 200 authors (now largely lost). Though accurate in many of his descriptions, some beggar believe, including the peculiar Sciapodae people whose single foot could act as a sunshade!
Pliny would never complete the final revision of his Naturalis. In the year 79, he travelled to Pompeii to investigate the strange cloud that had begun to rise from Mount Vesuvius, and in the now infamous eruption that followed, he was killed alongside thousands in the city.
Those in the ancient eastern world were also recording their knowledge, including notably the 6th century Indian astrologer Varāhamihira. His Brihat Samhita included information on astronomy, weather, architecture, the manufacture of perfume and even toothbrushes! Around three times the size of Pliny’s Naturalis, it is known as the “great compilation”.
The medieval period saw a significant rise in encyclopedic works in Europe, particularly with the rise of monastic scholarship. The first known encyclopaedia of the medieval period is attributed to Saint Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae, written in around 630.
Dubbed the ‘last scholar of the ancient world’, Isidore complied 448 chapters of information both ancient and contemporary, salvaging quotes and fragments of text otherwise today lost to history.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, hand-written encyclopedic works were created from an even greater span of people, including the Hortus deliciarum (1167–1185) by Herrad of Landsberg, thought to be the first encyclopaedia written by a woman.
The Medieval East
Such scholarship also began to explode in the cultural hubs of the East. In Byzantium, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios I, completed his Bibliothecia or Myriobiblos (“Ten Thousand Books”) in the 9th century, compiling 279 reviews of books he had read. A century later the Suda was written, a vast encyclopaedic lexicon rich in information on ancient and medieval Byzantine history.
Both of these works proved to be vital sources on Byzantium, as many original works were destroyed during the Sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, in the final Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.
From the 10th to the 17th centuries, China would undergo the ‘period of the encyclopedists’, in which the Chinese government employed hundreds of scholars to assemble enyclopedias. In the 11th century, the Four Great Books of Song were written, an immense literary undertaking intended to collect the entire knowledge of the new Song dynasty.
In 1408, China completed what was perhaps the most impressive encyclopaedia of the medieval age, the Yongle Encyclopedia. Amassing a vast 23,000 folio volumes, it would be the largest encyclopaedia in history until surpassed by Wikipedia some 600 years later.
Renaissance and the printing press
During the Renaissance, the written word became more accessible thanks to the creation of the printing press, with every scholar now able to own an encyclopaedia.
One of the most notable encyclopaedias of this era was the Nuremberg Chronicle by German historian Hartmann Schedel. Created in 1493, it included hundreds of illustrations of historical figures, events and geographical places.
A striking piece of work, it was one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations and text, and depicted a host of major cities in Europe and the Near East never before illustrated, allowing its readers a glimpse into the wider world.
As the ability to print increased, the concept of the encyclopedia as a widely distributed and purposeful document also grew. During the Enlightenment, one of the most famous early encyclopaedias was printed in France in 1751: the Encyclopédie.
According to editor Diderot, this work’s aim was “to change the way people think” and allow the bourgeoisie to expand their knowledge, and it would become an intrinsic cultural work in the years preceding the French Revolution.
The Enyclopédie would in turn influence the imposing Encyclopædia Britannica, which appeared in various editions across the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond. Printed for 244 years, the Britannica was the longest running in-print encyclopaedia in the English language, with the 2010 version, spanning 32 volumes and 32,640 pages, being the last printed edition before moving online.
The digital age
As the world moved towards the digital age, so too did its breadth of knowledge. Breaking away from the limitations of print, online encyclopedias began to appear by the early 1990s, and by 2001 the most famous of all had been created: Wikipedia.
In 2004, Wikipedia became the world’s largest encyclopedia as it reached the 300,000 article stage, and by 2005 it had produced over 2 million articles in more than 80 languages. As of 2022 it holds 6.5 million articles, complete with images, videos, voice clips and more, allowing for an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of knowledge to be available at the click of a mouse.
Our September Book of the Month
‘All the Knowledge in the World’ by Simon Garfield is – History Hit’s Book of the Month in September 2022 and is published by Orion Books. The book is a history and celebration of those who created the most ground-breaking and remarkable publishing phenomenon of any age, the encyclopedia.
Simon Garfield is the author of the international bestsellers “Just My Type, On The Map’ and ‘Mauve’, while ‘To The Letter’ was one of the inspirations for the theatre shows Letters Live with Benedict Cumberbatch. His study of AIDS in Britain, ‘The End of Innocence’, won the Somerset Maugham prize.