Founded on logic, reason, and the spirit of critical enquiry, the mid-18th century publication of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) was the culmination of everything that the Age of Enlightenment stood for.
Inspired by Francis Bacon’s idea of the systematic classification of knowledge, Denis Diderot, who edited the Encyclopédie, claimed that it was a collection of “all the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth.” He hoped that it would dispel human ignorance and transform society. To aid in this monumental endeavor, Diderot enlisted some of the greatest minds of the French Enlightenment to contribute to the Encyclopédie.
Voltaire wrote on matters of history, literature, nature, philosophy and art.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote on music and political theory.
Notably, there were no women contributors to the Encyclopédie and, in the entire text, no woman who had made a contribution to history was mentioned.
The Encyclopédie came under “repeated attack as a repository of skepticism, atheism, and sedition.” The contributors were labeled “encyclopédistes” and encyclopaedism became a synonym for a refusal to accept anything uncritically.
The first volume was published in 1751. Twenty-seven more volumes followed, for a total of seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates. In 1759, publication was suspended by the French Government and the Encyclopédie was banned. Diderot continued working in secret on the remaining volumes, which were finally published in 1765 and 1766.
Later, many would cite the Encyclopédie as one of the contributing factors to the French Revolution.
The complete collection of plates from the Encyclopédie as well as translations of many of the text articles can be viewed online at The University of Michigan Library. The plates can also be viewed at the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project at the University of Chicago. I encourage you to visit their collections. In the meanwhile, here are a sampling of Encyclopédie plates to whet your appetite…
Top photo: Title Page to Volume I of the Paris Edition, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.
This article originally appeared on MiMiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her latest Victorian romance The Matrimonial Advertisement can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.