Serious Pursuits – Rare Encyclopedia

Reprinted in full from the 2005 Rare Book Review magazine article.

Dieter Schierenberg reports on French Encyclopedia and the 18th century quest for enlightenment

Lille-born publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke began work on the Encyclopédie Méthodique in 1777 hoping to create a definitive record of the history of European thought and civilization. When it was completed in 1832 it ran to in excess of 120,000 pages, contained over 6,000 engravings and had taken three separate publishers to finish. Today it can be found in anything up to 300 volumes.

For many of his contemporaries, its appearance confirmed Panckoucke’s status as the ‘uncrowned king of the French publishing world’. In 1786 aged 32 he was made the official book dealer to the French court and Royal Academy of Sciences. Writing about the Encyclopédie, the renowned French bibliographer Jacques-Charles Brunet described it as the crowning achievement of French book production, unmatched anywhere in the world.

Reading the dictionary provides a comprehensive Who’s Who of France’s 18th-century intellectual elite: architectural critic Quatremere de Quincy, theologian Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier, mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and Charles Bossut, naturalists Pierre-André Latreille and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck whose controversial evolutionary theories were a precursor to Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Initially, the Encyclopédie Méthodique ou par ordre de matières, to give it its full title, also enjoyed great commercial success. Twenty-five printing offices were employed for the first edition, and the number of subscribers proved so great that the subscription list had to be closed early. A papal ban on the Encyclopédie further helped to stoke up controversy and guaranteed publicity.

Yet despite the plaudits, popularity and incredible ambition and scope of his project, Panckoucke has not become a household name, and his great work has failed to realise the same degree of notoriety as Diderot and d’Alembert’s encyclopedic work of the time, even though the latter is svelte by comparison; it contains just 35 volumes, has 2795 plates, and was completed in the comparatively quick time of 29 years.

Being such a mammoth project, the Encyclopédie Méthodique presents the collector with a minefield of bibliographical problems. My own collection has taken over ten years to assemble. Indeed, perhaps no more unmanageable body of dictionaries has ever been published with the possible exception of Jacques Paul Migne’s Encyclopédie Théologique (1844-1875) which runs to 119,059 pages in 168 volumes and 101 dictionaries.

Panckoucke’s project had three separate publishers. After his death in 1798, work continued under the stewardship of Henri Agasse, Panckoucke’s son-in-law, and then following his demise by Agasse’s widow until its completion in 1832. Furthermore, most volumes in Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie, but by no means all, were originally published in two halves. Volumes have in turn often been subdivided, and added to by other dictionaries, supplements and appendices.

The whole work was to be completed and connected by a single volume quarto-sized index or ‘Vocabulaire Universel’ with references to all places where each word occurred, and a history of the Encyclopédie and its editions by Panckoucke. A prospectus marketing the project, issued early in 1782, proposed three editions – one with 84 octavo-sized volumes, another with 43 quarto-sized volumes with three columns per page, and a third with 53 quarto-sized volumes of about 100 sheets with two columns per page. However, some subjects such as engineering, hunting and games were overlooked in the prospectus, and new volumes had to be added.

To give some idea of the chief concerns of the age, the largest dictionaries in the collection were ‘Medicine’ which ran to thirteen volumes and 10,330 pages; ‘Zoology’ with seven dictionaries and 13,645 pages and ‘Botany’ with 12,002 pages and over 1000 plates. 

Denis Diderot et al

As the project got underway, Panckoucke had difficulties living up to his ambitions. Production fell behind as editors and contributors failed to meet deadlines. Complaints began to arrive from subscribers who had not received the latest instalment of the Encyclopédie, and Panckoucke was facing rising debts.

In November 1788, in a desperate bid to keep his project on track Panckoucke wrote to his authors appealing to them to finish the work. Those who were behind made new contracts, giving their word of honour to put their parts to press, so that Panckoucke hoped to finish the whole in 1792. That goal was not achieved until forty years later, thirty-four years after his death. 

Most copies of the Encyclopédie in libraries – even famous ones – are incomplete. Besides a set at Quaritch in London, the only other genuinely complete copy is at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem who will be hosting a special exhibition on the Encyclopédie and age of Enlightenment in 2006. My own collection was completed by having some volumes photocopied and then bound in the familiar ‘cartonnage d’éditeur’ – the greyish publishers board with printed labels on the spines. In total it contains 286 volumes – 251 ‘text’ volumes and 35 atlases – with 5952 engraved plates and maps along with the famous allegorical frontispiece representing Truth wrapped in a veil, encircled by Reason, Philosophy, Theology and other personifications of sciences, arts and crafts engraved by C. Boily and based on an original painting by Charles-Nicolas Cochin.

Denis Diderot et al

Good bibliographical and historical guides to Panckoucke’s life and work include Charles Joseph Panckoucke et la Librairie Française 1736-1798 by S Tucoo-Chala, Paris (1975) or R Darnton’s study The Business of Enlightenment – A History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Cambridge (1979).

Darnton cites Diderot and d’Alembert’s creation as the major scholarly achievement of the 18th century, but it is perhaps best to see the two great Encyclopedias working in tandem, both serving as testaments to the remarkable intellectual ambition and tenacity of their authors, as well as a lasting paper testimony to the breadth and obsessive quest for knowledge in 18th- and 19th-century France.

Background image: A very rare complete set of the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1777-1832) at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem