A thirst for knowledge


I confess – I have a craving for facts, for knowing things. Whilst I have an array of free online sources at my disposal for ‘on-demand’ knowledge, the same cannot be said of my eighteenth-century predecessors whose own quest for knowledge became remarkable feats in themselves.

The Enlightenment was the age of encyclopaedias, and the construction of such compendiums – which topics to include, which to leave out and how, crucially, to arrange the topics – was a remarkable feat. Although the Diderot et al. Encyclopédie is greatest project of the period, the encyclopedia legacy was considerably expanded by other reference works that have tended to pale in its shadow.

In her book From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansion Kathleen Doig delves into Charles Joseph Panckoucke’s vast Méthodique, and compares its construction and genealogy to the earlier Encyclopédie. Panckoucke’s intent was to resolve the inherent disorder of the Encyclopédie due to the alphabetical arrangement of entries. He chose to arrange his œuvre as a series of subject-specific dictionaries with overviews or treatises at the beginning of each series, followed by alphabetised entries on relevant terms. Through this we can see how, in the Enlightenment, knowledge was already being packaged in different formats according to the editor’s view of the public appetite. Panckoucke, for instance, regarded his market as the ‘informed layperson’ who wanted a self-study course in a certain subject area.


Today’s encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, have gone a long way down the road of market segmentation, with different editions for the home user, the student and the academic library. Most investment goes into online versions so as to compete with and provide value over and above what Wikipedia and similarly-modelled free encyclopedias can offer. Whilst I can retrieve information and facts within the click of a mouse, access to knowledge in the eighteenth century was limited and only available to the literate few who could afford it. The issue I face is what to believe in the free, openly edited encyclopedias. This is where a modern-day Diderot or Panckoucke is needed.

–Lyn Roberts

Putting a price on slavery: Voltaire and the New World

Voltaire and globeIt is now the mid-sixteenth century, and we have passed the half-way mark in the publication of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs with the appearance this month of our fifth volume of text. In its fascinating central section (chapters 148-54), Voltaire charts the discovery of the New World and the rivalries between the various European powers in the exploitation of its wealth – without losing sight of the moral conflict caused by the parent powers and their depredations in the development of this new economy.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in September this year, it was announced that fourteen Caribbean countries are seeking reparations for the 10-12 million Africans transported to the New World in order to sustain that new economy. With an ongoing desire for justice, The Caribbean Community countries (Caricom) hope to create an inventory of the wrongs suffered, and on the basis of this to demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands (New York Times). Caricom established an official reparations commission in July.

In chapter 152 of his Essai, Voltaire, always with an eye on human suffering, comments on the ‘marchandise humaine’ from the African coasts used to exploit the commodities of the New World: ‘Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme […] s’ils veulent s’enfuir, on leur coupe une jambe […] Ce commerce n’enrichit point un pays; bien au contraire, il fait périr des hommes.’

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

In October, the Australian-based rights organisation Walk Free released a Global Slavery Index. The International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2013 there are almost 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labour.

‘… après cela,’ says Voltaire, ‘nous osons parler du droit des gens.’

Essai sur les mœurs, volume VI, chapters 130-162
OCV, vol.26A, ISBN 978 0 7294 0976 6, publication November 2013


Bibliography prize, and a newly-discovered early edition of Voltaire’s works

With so many good reasons for visiting Amsterdam, the idea of going there to read 70 or so bibliographies in two days might not seem the most compelling. None the less, I and five other people interested in book history did exactly that in October, as guests of the Breslauer Foundation of New York, which awards a prize  for the best bibliography published in the previous four years in any language. Publishers are invited to submit entries for consideration, and the winner will receive the prize of $10,000 at a gala dinner in Paris next year. The whole process (reading, discussing and deciding the winner) was enlightening, educational and – believe it or not- very good fun! We read bibliographies on subjects as varied as  a Compendium of German-Language Books of Travel in Spain 1750-1900, Social Liberation from the French Revolution to the Middle of the Twentieth Century, Nineteenth-Century American Designers & Engravers of Typeas well as more conventional author bibliographies. It was one of these that we eventually chose as the winner:  Ian Fleming. The Bibliography, by Jon Gilbert, a truly impressive and exemplary piece of research and scholarship which will not be superseded.


One of the reasons why bibliographies are essential to the scholar is that they can reveal previously-unknown editions of works. But however many editions of Voltaire come to light, there always seem to be more left to discover. So, completing the bibliography of Voltaire, as Theodore Besterman reminded us many years ago, is an impossible dream: nobody will ever be able to guarantee that every possible edition, in every possible variant, has been recorded. To illustrate the point, here is a scan of a newly-discovered volume of the Oeuvres de Mr. de V***, containing La Henriadewhich is now in the VF’s own collection. There is no clue as to what may have been in the two preceding volumes, but they almost certainly contained editions of his plays, such as Oedipe, Herode  et Mariamne and L’Indiscret, among others. The frontispiece is a copy in reverse of the one in the 1728 ‘Seconde édition’ of La Henriade which was undoubtedly printed in London. The fact that the printer of this volume is said (falsely) to be Christophe Revis in Basle suggests that the printer wanted to capitalise on the success of the Histoire de Charles XII of 1731, which bears the same false imprint, but was printed in Rouen by Claude-François Jore; indeed, it is quite possible that Jore printed this edition as well. Somewhere, the two previous volumes of the edition may be lurking, unnoticed, in a private collection or even a library which has not been fully catalogued. So, keep looking….

David Adams