One of the most interesting, valuable, and mysterious holdings in the Smith Rare Book Room is a first edition of the 35 volume Encyclopedie; ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences des arts et des metiers, published between 1751 and 1788 in Paris by Denis Diderot, writer and philosopher of the Enlightenment.
Davidson owns one of the few complete sets of the Encyclopedie. Others are at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Virginia. Usually referred to as the “Diderot Encyclopedia,” it was a work which spanned 30 years and was to be a summary of knowledge at that time. Diderot’s political views, and those of his associate on the Encyclopedie, Jean Alembert, created a firestorm with King Louis XV and his allies, however, and the license for publication of the Encyclopedie was revoked in 1759. Diderot persevered, and the Encyclopedie was published, although in violation of the law. 1
The Encyclopedie contains both text volumes and separate volumes of plates, all beautifully and intricately done. The representations of animals in the section on “Histoire naturelle” are particularly beautiful, as are the astronomical and mechanical representations.
Davidson’s copy of the Diderot Encyclopedie has a particularly peculiar history, however, as we do not know why we own the volumes. We cannot document the provenance (history of previous owners) and we do not know where they came from. The volumes were found in boxes under a stairwell in Chambers. Bookplates in the fronts of the volumes indicate that at one time they were holdings of Davidson’s Union Library and were shelved in Alcove A. Earlier bookplates indicated that they had belonged to Saulot de Bospin, a French minister of Agriculture, but how Davidson came to own his volumes remains a mystery.
For more information see Around the D blog: Happy Birthday, Denis Diderot!
1. Perkins, James Breck. France Under Louis XV. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1897. (p. 459)
Author: Sharon Byrd
Date: 2 February 2012
Cite as: Byrd, Sharon. “Encyclopedie (Diderot),” Davidson Encyclopedia, 6 February 2012 <http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/encyclopedie-diderot/>.