Reading Time: 3 minutes

Le roman vrai de l'Encyclopedie   I’ve been reading about the French Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, in the lovely illustrated Gallimard Decouvertes volume authored by Francois Moureau, which he entitles Le roman vrai de l’Encyclopédie [ The real novel of the Encyclopedia], first published 1990). The book itself  rather ignored the “real novel”, which I supposed to mean the controversy that the Encyclopedia caused.  Moureau in fact did not make the most of the subject. It didn’t go into many of the controversies around the supposed atheism of many of the entries.  It did cover in lots of detail the many illustrations in the Encyclopédie, although for a modern reader it is difficult to see if these plates represented a radical new way of looking at things for their time, or simply (as Moureau suggests) a way of masking the radicalism of much of the text alongside the plates. Revealingly, when the Encyclopédie was banned, volumes containing the plates continued to be published without any censorship.   Moureau’s volume only touched on what has been one of the most fruitful areas of study in recent years, the publishing history and reception of the Encyclopédie. Moureau points out there were an estimated 25,000 pirated copies in print between 1751 and 1782 (presumably of individual volumes rather than the entire set).  Where these volumes came from, and who read them, would be a fascinating subject.


The Moureau book only hints at the controversies around the Encyclopedia, for example pointing out that the article for “certitude” (what a topic for an encyclopedia!), was written by priest but then accused of being atheistic. This in itself suggests the situation was not that the article writers were all deists or atheists, but that even clerical writers could be accused of unorthodoxy. But Moureau doesn’t tell us precisely why the article was accused of atheism.  In fact, Moureau concludes that the Encyclopédie was “Moins lue que critiquée, et moins influente par son contenu que par es polémiques qu’elle suscita “[less read than condemned, and less influential for its contents than for the arguments it aroused]. Of course, if that is the case, it makes the subject matter of the book not the book itself, but the society in which the Encyclopédie was published – rather more difficult to include in a short introduction.


The bibliography to Moureau’s book listed only seven titles, of which one was Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment: a Publishing History of the Encyclopedia (1987). I discovered a review of Darnton’s book by Simon Schama in the London Review of Books.  Schama praises Darnton’s book for revealing the success of the quarto (pocket-sized) editions of the Encyclopédie, rather than the original folio (large-sized and expensive) edition.  I assume he means by this the revised version proposed (and published) by the Parisian bookseller Panckoucke, who invited Diderot to manage this new edition. Schama writes of Diderot’s “ill-tempered refusal to have anything to do with a proposed revised version, in 1768”, and explains, in a sentence I fail to understand:


This was not because his [Diderot’s] editorial genius could not bear the prospect of alterations to the sacred text, but for precisely the opposite reasons. He now regarded the whole Encyclopédie as ‘un gouffre où ces espèces de chiffoniers jetèrent pêlemêle une infinité de choses mal digérées, bonnes, mauvaises, détestables, vraies, fausses, incertaines et toujours incohérentes’ [a chasm where those species of  rag merchants throw pell-mell a mass of undigested things, good, bad, detestable, true, false, uncertain and always incoherent].


If Diderot meant the original Encyclopédie was a hotchpotch, it wouldn’t say much for his editorial management skills. If he feared that Panckoucke’s revised version was likely to be a muddle, then surely it was more likely to be so without him.   Panckoucke, spotting an opportunity, proceeded to publish a thematic, not alphabetic, version of an encyclopedia, called the Encyclopédie methodique, which reached 166 volumes by the end of the series in 1832. But Diderot didn’t do so badly out of the Encyclopédie either: he was hired to manage five volumes, but delivered 28, and was paid well for all of them.