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Encyclopedia

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Encyclopedia, reference work that summarizes all knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge in a series of articles arranged alphabetically or by subject. The original aim of the encyclopedia was to provide a general education. The word encyclopedia is of Greek origin, meaning instruction in the complete circle (en kykloi) of learning (paideia). While fragments of earlier works are known, the earliest extant encyclopedia is that of Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D.). Its 37 volumes concentrate on the natural sciences and are arranged by subject (rather than alphabetically). In the early Middle Ages, Isidore of Seville (6th–7th centuries) wrote encyclopedias based on 4 organizational principles: history, biography, arts, and words or subjects. His Etymologiae (also called Origines) in 20 books was an attempt to cover all knowledge, including the liberal arts, law, medicine, God, the Church, society, humanity, geography, food and drink, and tools. The most famous medieval encyclopedia was the Speculum Majus (Great Mirror) of Vincent of Beauvais (13th century), whose goal was to reflect “all things of all times.” One of the earliest encyclopedias in English was the Mirror of the World, a translation of Beauvais, issued in 1481 by William Caxton. The 18th century inaugurated the great age of encyclopedias. The first English alphabetical encyclopedia, John Harris's Lexicon Technicum (1704), which emphasized the sciences, was soon superseded by Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728), which was among the first works to use articles written by specialists and to employ cross-references. The most important of the several German encyclopedias issued in this period was J.H. Zedler's Great Complete Universal Lexicon, issued in 64 volumes, 1732–50. The French Encyclopédie, the most famous and perhaps the most influential encyclopedia of all time, was edited by the philosopher Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, 1751. The work promoted rationalism and scientific truth in the name of enlightenment. The Encyclopaedia Britannica began with a modest 3 volumes (1768–71) published by a “Society of Gentlemen in Scotland.” Though it covered a great many subjects, it was mainly the work of a few men. Modern encyclopedias employ hundreds of specialists and large editorial staffs.

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