A Brief History of the First French Encyclopedia

Hulton Archive // Getty Images
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In the mid-1700s, a pair of French writers set out to organize all human knowledge. They called their project the Encyclopédie, and it was a translation and massive expansion of the English Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Denis Diderot was the driving force behind the project, and was accompanied by Jean le Rond d'Alembert until 1759.

The project was insanely vast, and raised substantial questions that still challenge scholars today: How do you categorize and classify knowledge? Should the arts be presented alongside the sciences? How exactly can a reader navigate a 20,000,000-word collection of information? Hardest of all was how to print the thing and not be imprisoned.

Diderot's encyclopedia was almost insanely vast. It incorporated more than 70,000 entries, including original work from Voltaire, Rousseau, and other luminaries of the French Enlightenment. Many writers contributed massive amounts of labor, almost all of it unpaid, spanning three decades.

Louis XV and Pope Clement XIII both banned the thing, though Louis kept a copy, and apparently actually did read it. Because of political and religious pressure in France, Diderot and his compatriots had to smuggle pages out of the country in order to publish them. Collecting human knowledge wasn't just an academic exercise—it was also political.

Diderot explained his goal like so (translated from the original French in an entry on the Encyclopédie itself):

The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the Earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, and to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous and happier, and that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.

Well said.

TED-Ed produced a terrific video history of the encyclopedia. Have a look:

If you find that even remotely interesting, you'll love this online version of the encyclopedia hosted by the University of Michigan Library. It includes an excellent search engine, translations, and scans of the original pages—including illustration plates. If you're looking for a starter entry, read the entry entitled History (originally Histoire) written by Voltaire, which attempts to explain the history of history, at least from the perspective of an 18th-century French philosopher. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

The method suitable to [the writing of] the history of your country does not [require] you to write on the discoveries of the new world. You should not write about a village as you would about a great empire; you should not write of the life of an individual as you would write the history of Spain or England.

These rules are well known. But the art of writing History well will always be rare. It is well known that one must have a grave, pure, varied, agreeable style. There are laws for writing History just as there are laws for all the arts of the mind. There are many precepts and yet so few great artists.

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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Victorian Women Worked Out, Too—They Just Did It Wearing Corsets

Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
Opening a door was nearly as taxing as an actual 19th-century workout.
ivan-96/iStock via Getty Images

The next time you’re gasping for breath in the middle of a cardio routine, try to imagine doing the same thing while decked out in a flowy dress and corset. That’s what female exercise enthusiasts faced in the 1800s.

According to Atlas Obscura, tailors weren’t churning out loose leggings or stretchy tracksuits for women to don for their daily fitness sessions, and workout guides for Victorian women were mainly written by men. To their credit, they weren’t recommending that ladies undergo high-intensity interval training or heavy lifting; instead, exercises were devised to account for the fact that women’s movements would be greatly constricted by tight bodices and elaborate hairstyles. As such, workouts focused on getting the blood flowing rather than burning calories or toning muscle.

In his 1827 book A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises, Signor G.P. Voarino detailed dozens of options for women, including skipping, walking in zigzags, marching in place, and bending your arms and legs at specific angles. Some exercises even called for the use of a cane, though they were more geared towards balancing and stretching than weight-lifting.

To Voarino, the light calisthenic exercises were meant for “counteracting every tendency to deformity, and for obviating such defects of figure as are occasioned by confinement within doors, too close an application to sedentary employment, or by those constrained positions which young ladies habitually assume during their hours of study.”

Nearly 30 years later, Catharine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister) published her own workout guide, Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families, which encouraged educators especially to incorporate exercise programs for all children into their curricula. Beecher was against corsets, but the illustrations in her book did still depict young ladies in long dresses—it would be some time before students were expected to change into gym clothes at school. Many of Beecher’s calisthenic exercises were similar to Voarino’s, though she included some beginner ballet positions, arm circles, and other faster-paced movements.

Compared to the fitness regimen of 14th-century knight Jean Le Maingre, however, Victorian calisthenics seem perfectly reasonable. From scaling walls to throwing stones, here’s how he liked to break a sweat.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]