Diderot Encyclopedia

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 UVa.  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created a firestorm with King Louis XV and his allies, however, and the license for publication of the Encyclopedie was revoked in 1759.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

Title Page of Diderot's Encyclopedie, "Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers"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.

A sketch of the world as if you were looking at it from above with longitude and latitude lines and mythological creatures and gods scattered around. Also some constellations outside of the earth map.
Black and white picture of a butterfly, lines tracing its wings from its body. 4 mushroom cloud shapes equally spaces out on its wings. Layered arches alternating colors desing on the end of its wings. There is a caterpillar to the left of the image and a smaller butterfly in the bottom right.

Sketch of a porcupine on all fours facing the left so we can see its left side. Oh…I did use the word mysterious in connection with the Diderot, didn’t I?  So what’s the mystery?  We don’t know why we own the volumes…can’t document the provenance (history of previous owners)…don’t 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 Sanlot de Bospin, but who he was, where they came from, and how Davidson came to own them…maybe you can solve that mystery.

1.  Perkins, James Breck.  France Under Louis XV.  Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1897. (p. 459)

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