Encircled by knowledge: New life for old encyclopedias

Banner Enzyklothek

In happy and carefree moments you can be tempted to think that only the internet made it possible to have all possible kinds of knowledge within you reach. However, for centuries having a compact or massive encyclopedia on the shelves of your personal library seemed already to warrant this vision. Lawyers were no strangers to this opinion as I showed in a post about Early Modern legal encyclopedias. Interestingly there is a movement to recreate the world of old encyclopedias. In this post I want to look at some projects which bring you to online versions of older encyclopedic works. Some of them are still familiar among historians, others will come as a surprise.

On digital and real shelves

Logo Seine Welt Wissen

Among the Early Modern works that you might still turn to is at least one German work. I confess I had not quite realized how voluminous the Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexikon aller Kunste und Wissenschaften by Johann Heinrich Zedler (1706-1751), published in 64 volumes between 1732 and 1750, followed by a supplement in four volumes. In 2006 two German libraries held an exhibition in his honour, Seine Welt Wissen. Enzyklopädien in der Frühen Neuzeit [Knowing your world. Encyclopedias in the Early Modern age]. This year I could use the Zedler in its online version provided by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich to expand scarce information about members of a family in Kleve who served the Brandenburg government of this duchy. The makers of the 2006 exhibition drily note the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences. des arts et métiers by Diderot and D’Alembert has only 17 volumes with 72,000 articles on 23,000 pages, whereas Zedler serves you 290,000 articles on 68,000 pages.

Before exploring other works it is fair to look quickly at the great Encyclopédie and its current digital availability. Foremost among its modern incarnations is the searchable version offered by the team of ARTFL in Chicago. Its editors, Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe, immediately mention the 11 volumes with illustrations that set this encyclopedia apart from all its predecessors and contemporary competitors. These plates and the character and quality of the contributions still command respect and admiration. The editors at ARTFL count 74,000 articles on 18,000 text pages. The information about supplements published after 1772, links to forerunners of the Encyclopédie, a bibliography and other essays enhance the ARTFL version which stands out for the search possibilities of Philologic4.

More traditionally looking at first sight is the ENCCRE online version recently created by the French Académie des Sciences, with modern introductions and search facilities using a corrected Wikisource transcription. The acronym ENCCRE is a French pun on the word encre, ink. The Encyclopedia project for an English translation at the University of Michigan, too, offers more than a strict rendering from French into English. The plates can be quickly searched at Planches. Lexilogos does a great job in offering both the ARTFL and ENCCRE versions, and adding links to the text-only version in the French Wikisource, and last but not least to the digitized original volumes at Mazarinum, the digital library of the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. This copy is used at ENCCRE, too.

In the limelight

Zedler and the Encyclopédie deserve scholarly attention and quickly accessible modern versions, but other valuable works can readily be found. Let’s look at a few websites which bring you both to other general encyclopedias and to works focusing on specific scientific disciplines. Let’s go straightforward to the heart of this post, a tour of the wonderful German Enzyklothek. A few years ago I had briefly visited this portal, and I put it aside with the impression it does not contain much for legal history. However, this time I became intrigued by its sheer coverage, and I marvelled at its holdings.

Peter Ketsch launched the Enzyklothek Historische Nachslchlagwerke in 2014. He offers access to digital versions or information about printed works in five sections: bibliographies, secondary literature, general encyclopedias, encyclopedias for specific disciplines, and biographic dictionaries. The sixth section for dictionaries is empty, a reminder you cannot expect everything at one portal. First of all it was a surprise for me to find here bibliographies. You will find here a number of entries concerning national bibliographies, but also some items for individual authors. For legal history I found in this corner only Rolf Lieberwirth’s study Christian Thomasius. Sein wissenschaftliches Lebenswerk. Eine Bibliographie (Weimar 1955). Among the bibliographies for specific disciplines Rechts- und Staatswissenschaften (disciplines concerning law, jurisprudence and government) are only announced, but alas no items have yet appeared under this heading. The general section on bibliographies starts with just one work from the late sixteenth century, and to me the choice of works in this section seems rather at random but nevertheless interesting. The section Enzyklopädistik with historical overviews and bibliographies of encyclopedias and specialised dictionaries is much richer.

The section Sekundärliteratur contains a more personal mix of things. In the corner with websites it is good to note the projects at Wolfenbüttel and Braunschweig for a virtual recreation of the Thesaurus eruditionis and similar works, and also Welt und Wissen auf der Bühne, a project about Early Modern works which used the metaphore of the theatre, a project I discussed here, too. For the legal disciplines Ketsch mentions just three titles in this part of his portal, on various subjects, from Zeremonialliteratur, texts written by lawyers about official ceremonies, to economical treatises and their forerunners, the Hausväterliteratur. By the way, here Ketsch indicates titles can appear in more rubrics. At this point the question about using either rubrics or a form of classification using a thesaurus or another form of tagging entries, and a second question is the choice for a database versus single pages. The search function clearly suggests the presence of a database, but the tagging of entries could be more generous. However, you can apply multiple filters for author, title, year, location, publisher and language. For the genre Hausväterliteratur there are now 784 entries. A section such as the one concerning publications about single medieval encyclopedic works contains nearly 4,000 items. As for now there is a total of 21,000 titles in this database. Whatever the quality of the coverage, the quantity of entries commands respect. For many entries Ketsch has added links to translations in other languages, reference works and bibliographies. In some cases you will see a series of incunabula editions of works, this seems too much of a good thing, even for Diogenes Laertius’ Vitae phlosophorum.

We must proceed now to the heart of Ketsch’s website, the general and specialized encyclopedias. For the general encyclopedias there is a division in periods (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Early Modern) and in entries for several modern languages. The presence of works in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian is a most welcome addition. In the section with Dutch encyclopedic works I encountered several books which you do not encounter often. In this respect it is good to see more popular and educational works. For the legal disciplines Ketsch mentions three German Konversationlexikons, in particular Herman Wagener’s Neues Conversations-Lexikon. Staats- und Gesellschafts-Lexikon (23 vol., Berlin, 1859-1867) was a massive project followed by modern successors. Ketsch scores by guiding you also to studies about the genre of the Konversationslexikon. If you want to know more about the Zedler Ketsch gives you some thirty publications.

The biographical section of the Enzyklothek shows national biographies for twenty countries, showing their rich history from printed works to online databases. The subsection with women’ biographies contains some eighty titles, almost exclusively translations of and studies about Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. I had hoped for a very different content… At this point I must alert to Ketsch’s invitation for anyone interested to help him with his project.

How show one judge the merits of the Enzyklothek? The Swiss project on Enzyklopädien, Allgemeinwissen und Gesellschaft [Encyclopedias, general knowledge and society] stopped adding entries after the launch of Ketsch’s website. The overview of works of the Swiss project, launched in 2001, offers an alphabetical list of authors, a chronological overview and a drop down menu for particular genres. Its strength lies in the descriptions of works and the attention to the context and variety of encyclopedic works.

Logo N-ZyklopThe project N-Zyklop (Universität Trier) which started in 2005 is another attempt at a full-scale database for finding encyclopedias. I checked here for works concerning Law (Recht). At first I was bewildered by the wide choice of works concerning trade and the presence of some biographical dictionaries, but you will find also the Vocabularium jurisprudentiae romanum by Otto Gradenwitz and other German scholars (Berlin 1903-1939). In particular the first edition of Jacob Bes’ Scheepvaarttermen. Handboek voor handel en scheepvaart (Amsterdam 1949) seemed gone astray, but in its multilingual version it became a classic work for maritime law, Chartering and shipping terms (1951). With some 5,000 entries and the possibillity to search for Dewey Decimal Classification codes in the advanced search mode N-Zyklop is certainly worth a visit, even if you have to translate the German terms used for every DDC code.

Lists versus databases

While preparing this post I thought I had spotted in the Enzyklothek an entry for the digitized version of the Lexikon für Kirchen- und Staatskirchenrecht, Axel von Campenhausen et alii (eds.) (3 vol., Paderborn, etc., 2000) in the section Digi20 of the Digitale Sammlungen of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, but I looked at the wrong place, and thus I was at first unable to retrace it. Finally I realized I had seen it in the German Wikisource list of online encyclopedias and lexicons. This work brings me to the final section of this contribution for a quick comparison of the specialized encyclopedia websites with the lists of encyclopedias offered at Wikisource. Some of my readers might well ask why I choose not to start with them. The main reason for my choice is the fact the lists at Wikisource and Wikipedia are not always the fruit of systematic and methodic search, but there is a clear degree of control, and thus the information can be most useful. In fact I had expected the name of a very conscious and active contributor to the German Wikisource as the main author or coordinating editor of this splendid list.

The German Wikisource page for encyclopedias has a section on Politik und Recht, politics and law. When you look at the works mentioned on it the Enzyklothek clearly is deficient. Among the notable works is the Deutsches Staats-Wörterbuch by Johann Kaspar Bluntschli and Karl Brater (11 vol., Stuttgart-Leipzig, 1857-1870). Bluntschli’s draft for a civil law code of the Swiss canton Zürich influenced the Schweizerisches Zivilgesetzbuch designed by Eugen Huber (1907). Bluntschli is better known as one of the founders of the Institute for International Law-Institut de Droit International. You will find als the first three editions of the Staatslexikon published by the Görres-Gesellschaft since 1887, with the eight edition now being published. Even today one can benefit from Emil Seckel’s continuation of the Heumanns Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen Rechts; the sixth edition (Jena 1929) has been digitized in Sevilla (PDF, 80 MB).

I would have been most happy to report here on the wealth of information in the English and French Wikisource for legal encyclopedias, but alas this is not possible. The English Wikisource bring you to the first edition of a single multivolume work, The laws of Engeland, being a complete statement of the whole law of Engeland (31 vol., London, 1907-1917) by the Earl of Halsbury, an encyclopedia from beginning to the end and nevertheless avoiding this word in its title. The English Wikipedia lists five online legal encyclopedias. For completeness’ sake I note that the similar French and Ukrainian Wikisource pages do not give you any legal encyclopedias, but the Russian Wikisource mentions three legal encyclopedias. It is only logical the German Wikisource has also an interesting page Rechtswissenschaft for digitized old laws and older legal works. Both the various Wikisources and Wikipedias as resources in open access gain everything from the input and efforts of contributors. In my view it is wrong not to take them as serious as other encyclopedias in print or online.

Some conclusions

This rapid tour of legal encyclopedias taught me a few things. Apart from my preference to delve into old books it is simply important to realize the great encyclopedias in print and online of our century have many forerunners, a number of them taking much space on your shelves. The famous ones had their competitors, but there was also a market for abridged versions. It is good to see you can often hardly distinguish between legal encyclopedias and legal dictionaries. Another thing is almost a returning refrain here: do not stay content using just one major resource for any subject. The question of languages is a second thread on my blog. The use of the translation tool in a particular web browser from an omnipresent IT firm helps you to get at least a rough idea of contents, and it teaches you knowing a language inside out does help you in many ways. The books on early economic thought and their focus on running a household is a welcome reminder economics only started in the nineteenth century to claim an existence as a science. Private law has captured more attention from legal historian than public law, and this bias, too, becomes more clear thanks to these projects.

Last but not least the predominance of German resources in this post is indeed due to my familiarity with German research. For German legal historians having the second edition of the Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte in front of you on your computer screen as HRG Digital has been a major qualitative step, although you have to subscribe to it or find a university library with a license for this online resource. It is one of the dictionaries containing much more than you would expect. There is also a printed version of the second edition. It is fitting to end here with the efforts of Gerhard Köbler in Innsbruck, who has not only published a number of historical legal dictionaries, but also maintains a massive portal on German and Austrian law and legal history, including for examples concise biographies of many lawyers. Köbler prefers web pages above a database. As for libraries with collections of Early Modern legal works, and increasingly also digital collections, you will not stop me pointing here regularly to the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main.

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