The Earliest Encyclopedias

512px-Encyclopedia_Britannica_seriesThe word ‘encyclopedia’ means “a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject and typically arranged alphabetically”.

The first known collections of subject information gathered in one place were recorded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC- 322BC). Aristotle included his theories on logic, metaphysics and ethics within one huge book. This early collection of knowledge formed a model that many writers would follow.

One of the earliest and wider ranging encyclopedias is the Historia Naturalis (Natural History). Written by Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman who lived in the 1st century AD, this work was the first encyclopedia of natural science. His encyclopedia had thirty seven chapters, containing information about natural history, architecture, medicine, geography, geology, and the world around him. Although Pliny compiled this first encyclopedia, he didn’t write all the content himself. Two hundred other authors provided him with the twenty thousand facts included in his book. The Historia naturalis was published around AD 77-79. It is possible Pliny never saw his published encyclopedia, as he was killed in the eruption of the volcano, Vesuvius in AD 79.

One of the greatest scholars of the early Middle Ages, Saint Isidore of Seville in Spain, is widely recognized as being the author of the Etymologiae or Origines, the first known encyclopedia of that time, in c.630. Saint Isidore’s encyclopedia contains four hundred and forty eight chapters, and fills twenty separate volumes.

These three early historical volumes of knowledge paved the way for many new encyclopedias through the medieval period and beyond. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century, however, when the first mass-produced encyclopedias such as the Chambers’ Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica were printed, that encyclopedias took a form we would recognise today.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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