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Volumes of History

In his new book, Romance Languages professor Jeff Loveland finds anecdotes, advertisements in an influential 18th-century encyclopedia.

Date: 3/22/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Jeff Loveland, department head and associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is the author of “An Alternative Encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal History of the Arts and Sciences (1745),” a book just published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Tell us a bit about the book and what you’ve found.

Jeff Loveland.
Jeff Loveland, department head of Romance Languages and Literatures.

My book is about a virtually unknown English encyclopedia of the mid-18th century, Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal History of Arts and Sciences (1745). In the book, I examine Coetlogon, his patterns of compilation in the Universal History, the work’s publication, its organization, and its often controversial contents. Among other things, I argue that the Universal History exerted a big influence on the form of subsequent encyclopedias, notably the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and I show how rival encyclopedias interacted and faced off in England in the 18th century.

Why did you decide to write about Dennis de Coetlogon? Why is he important?

Coetlogon himself is fascinating in his mysteriousness; was he really an exiled French nobleman, as he pretended, or a sophisticated impostor? His encyclopedia is important for three reasons. One, it was the immediate source for the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s innovation of placing long entries, or “treatises,” in encyclopedias. Two, it sparked a war among encyclopedias that led to the widespread adoption of serial publication, which helped in turn to democratize knowledge, and three, it shows that the style and objectivity now associated with encyclopedias only gradually became an established norm, in and after the 18th century.

Were you surprised by any of your findings?

Initially I was shocked to find autobiographical disclosures and advertisements in the Universal History. Never before, in an encyclopedia, had I been informed of the author’s adventures and preferences, for example, or been invited to buy his pharmaceutical concoctions. My initial feeling of surprise pushed me to reflect on the exclusion of autobiography and advertisement from 19th- and 20th-century encyclopedias and thus on the history of objectivity within encyclopedias.

How is this piece of history relevant to today?

As the market for printed encyclopedias has dried up over the past two decades, the idea of the encyclopedia has been subject to rethinking. Wikipedia, for example, has challenged the notion that encyclopedias require the participation of credited experts in order to attain a reasonable degree of accuracy. Other electronic encyclopedias exhibit deliberate departures from the characteristically dry, objective language of traditional encyclopedias. Returning to the origins of the modern encyclopedia helps to contextualize these developments, since 17th- and 18th-century encyclopedias were more diverse than their counterparts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Much of your research centers on encyclopedias. What do you find fascinating about these publications?

Encyclopedias are at the same utopian and extremely practical: utopian insofar as all knowledge can never be captured within a book, despite what ambitious encyclopedists claim to believe, and practical insofar as encyclopedias are nonetheless made, marketed, and sold by enterprising publishers. Likewise, encyclopedias exist at the interface between learned and popular culture. For me, these tensions are part of what makes encyclopedias fascinating.

What are you working on next?

I am beginning work on a book about Western encyclopedias from about 1550 to about 1980. After doing a considerable amount of research on particular 18th-century encyclopedias over the past decade (for example, on the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the French Encyclopédie), I would like to do something broader, both chronologically and geographically. One of the goals of my project is to integrate scholarship on German encyclopedism with scholarship on French and British encyclopedism. Tentatively, my book-to-be will be organized around chapters on encyclopedias’ contents and size, their illustrations, their organization, their authors, their readership and use, and their modes of publication.

Read more about the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures:

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A course offered in McMicken College gives Spanish students a chance to expand verbal skills, learn cultural differences.

Of French and Fashion
Romance Languages graduate Jamie Bryant is the creator and editor of Kiki, a successful new tween fashion magazine.

The UC Chapter
Romance Languages graduate published five books while completing his dissertation in McMicken College.

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