Fun with old knowledge
July 5, 2005 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Pliny's Natural History, the first encyclopedia. Featuring chapters like "Other wonderful things related to dolphins" and one mentioning the lynx and the sphinx in a single passage. Obviously he got a lot very wrong, but it launched a tradition of authoritative encyclopedias. More recently, you hopefully know that the forty-four million word eleventh (1911) edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is online, later volumes are not, but you can still find elsewhere Trotsky's article on Lenin, Freud's on psychoanalysis, Houdini on conjuring, or Lawrence of Arabia on guerillas. Britannica also offers a series of articles from its archives showing how views on Mars or the debate in 1768 over whether California was an island. Other fascinating encyclopedias online include the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia and the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia Mythica.
posted by blahblahblah (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Excellent series of links.
posted by nightchrome at 12:56 AM on July 5, 2005

I translated a bit of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historiae in college a semester ago -- nothing big, just some bits on rocks and elephants and pigments and medicines and stuff. I found it an interesting compendium (although I am a pretty big Latin geek, so take that cum grano salis).

In the introduction, IIRC, he claims to have studied over two thousand primary sources or something crazy like that. He actually didn't observe very much first-hand, which tends to explain some of the wilder inaccuracies (people now believed to be either the Chinese or possibly Sri Lankans are described as taller than the average person, with bright red hair and blue eyes). He was merely getting information third- or fourth-hand and being forced to use it all as fact, especially regarding topics outside the Empire. Like I said, fun stuff.
posted by jenovus at 3:31 AM on July 5, 2005

Awesome, I love the 1911. The Stoa Consortium has a collaborative translation project for the The Suda or Suidas' Lexicon, a Byzantine encyclopedia from around the 10th century. There is also a collaborative translation in progress for Diderot and Alembert's Encyclopedia that is fun to browse.
posted by mokujin at 4:56 AM on July 5, 2005

Consider most of those links Great collection of stuff.
posted by blindsam at 5:08 AM on July 5, 2005

Great post!
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on July 5, 2005

GUERRILLA, a term currently used to denote war carried on by bands in any irregular and unorganized manner; erroneously written “guerilla,” being the diminutive of the Span. guerra, war.
posted by signal at 7:18 AM on July 5, 2005

Very nice, thank you.
posted by OmieWise at 7:50 AM on July 5, 2005

Great post! And I really appreciate the lack of a Wikipedia link in this.
posted by goatdog at 8:14 AM on July 5, 2005

*standing o*
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:12 AM on July 5, 2005

On Bees:
"They form their combs and collect wax, an article that is useful for a thousand purposes of life; they are patient of fatigue, toil at their labours, form themselves into political communities, hold councils together in private, elect chiefs in common, and, a thing that is the most remarkable of all, have their own code of morals."
Heh. Thank you blahblahblah, that is a most excellent post.
I can only aspire to the bee's code of morals.
posted by peacay at 10:25 AM on July 5, 2005

Excellent post. is indeed one of the best things on the web. And thanks for the other links, as well.
posted by trip and a half at 11:10 AM on July 5, 2005

Cool! I never knew some of this stuff existed. Thanks!
posted by mkultra at 1:32 PM on July 5, 2005

I did some research and wrote a short history of pre-1700 Encyclopedis on Wikipedia

o Pliny's Natural History AD 77. Highly influential in the Middle Ages.
o Cassiodorus' Institutiones, AD 560. First Christian encyclopedia.
o St. Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, AD 636. Christian encyclopedia, most influential encyclopedia of the early Middle Ages.
o Fa yüan chu lin, AD 668, a buddhist encyclopedia of 100 volumes, compiled by Tao-shih
o Adab al-katib (The book of knowledge) by Ibn Qutayba (828–889). Earliest Arabic work that could be called an Encyclopedia.
o Bibliotheke by Patriarch Photios (9th century). Earliest Byzantine work that could be called an Encyclopedia.
o Hrabanus Maurus, 842. De rerum naturis (On the nature of things). Derived from Isidore's text.
o Suda (10th century)
o Bartholomeus de Glanvilla, De proprietatibus rerum, 1240. The most widely read and quoted encyclopedia in the late-medieval period.
o Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Majus, 1260. The most ambitious encyclopedia in the late-medieval period over 3 million words.
o Yongle Encyclopedia (1403–1408). Early Chinese encyclopedia.
o Theodor Zwinger (1533?1588), Theatrum Vitae Humanae, 1588.
o Louis Moréri The Great Historical Dictionary, 1671.
o Pierre Bayle Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1695.
o Vincenzo Coronelli publisher of Biblioteca Universale Sacro-Profana early 18th century, the first encyclopedia to be alphabetical.
posted by stbalbach at 1:52 PM on July 5, 2005

1. I read Pliny about 15 years ago; it has a lot of great tidbits. I'd share some with ya'll now, but I'm away from home this week. Check back here in a week or so. (I seem to remember there was something funny about bees (which in turn makes me think of that guy in Hitchhiker's Guide who was laughing about frogs) (Ooh, nested parentheticals (yeah, I used to do Lisp).).)

B. I have that edition of Encyclopedia Brit. Inherited it from my Dad. It's the source of all my powers.
posted by neuron at 11:44 PM on July 5, 2005

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
posted by neuron at 11:55 PM on July 5, 2005

One great thing about the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia is that it comes up high in various searches, and people then overlook the "1909" part (which is in very small print) and use the results as evidence of how behind the times the Catholic Church is. Hilarity ensues...
posted by davidchess at 4:30 AM on July 7, 2005

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