For Knowledge and Country II

Richard A. Davenport: A dictionary of biography : comprising the most eminent characters of all ages, nations, and professions, London: Tegg 1831, title page.

Sunday, March 31st, 2019, for Friday n° 25

Two weeks ago I announced here that I would devote a bit more attention to the interplay between the national provenance of biographical dictionaries and their content matter in the 19th century. I do have to start this post with an excuse because I could do only half this task. I only did the early 19th century for starters (52 years to be exact, 1800-1851), and this already got me behind schedule again.

But at least some things have become visible in paying closer attention to biographical dictionaries from this half-century. The first, and hardly surprising, observation to be made is that the content matter, the biographical information as presented within these works, is fairly stable. At least concerning my protagonists these entries are not the fruit of original research but are copied, sometimes verbatim, from 18th century dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Given that these works were aimed at a wider public, this was a completely rational and economic way to proceed. In most cases this means that the size of a particular dictionary was not so much determined by the length of the individual entries but by their number. Only in very condensed works, those which only featured one or two volumes, a biography would be heavily pruned. Much more often it was the selection of biographies, and not the selection of passages within biographies, which made the difference between a four- and a twenty-volume dictionary. That in turn means that any conscious framing of the complete edition would again rest on the selection of the biographies to be included rather than on rewriting the biographical materials themselves.

There are exceptions from this general rule, of course. In Alexander Chalmers’ “The general biographical Dictionary containing an historical and critical account of the lives and writings of the most eminent persons, particularly the English and Irish”, published in London between 1812 and 1817, Chalmers not only selected a larger share of English and Irish biographies as common in general biographical dictionaries to keep his promise from the title but also added to them in length. At least this might be concluded from the sample of my protagonists he featured: While the dictionary included Thomas Gale, Adriaan Reland, and Eusèbe Renaudot, it devoted four pages to Gale and two pages each to Reland and Renaudot.[1] On average their respective entries do all have roughly the same length within the same dictionary. But Chalmer’s work ran to 32 volumes in the end, so there was no need to be economic in terms of print space.  

The next thing that struck me was that so many of these dictionaries were of British origin. Of the 21 dictionaries surveyed for this post, 12 were written in English, compared to four in French, three in Dutch, one in German and one in Latin. This might well just be a bias in the sample that was caused by me following the references in those dictionaries and publications I had already collected for the last post, but it may also just point to the fact that in the early 19th century Great Britain presumably would have had more people willing and able to buy such a book, or series of books, than continental Europe which first had to cope with the impact of the Napoleonic Wars and then with its lagging behind in industrializing. But although the selections of biographies presented by dictionaries of the sample so far looked at here do not seem to have been much impacted by this provenance. At least Thomas Gale does not pop up with a frequency which seems over-exaggerated in proportion to half the dictionaries being English ones.

My protagonists as referred to in biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedic works, 1800-1851

So what does this tell me? First of all that there seem to have been long-time cycles on the book market, and what is captured by this graphic would be the cycle between roughly 1790 and 1840, with a peak in the 1830ies. The second half of the century would bring the national biographical dictionaries undertaken as state projects, and show a somewhat similar pattern reaching its apogee around the 1880ies. In the 18th century there are quite similar patterns, at least judging from my current state of research.

And, second, that national framings became more closely entangled with the framings – and selections thus prompted – of the content matter these dictionaries presented to their readers. The year I started with, 1800 (yes, that is the last year of the 18th century in proper reckoning), quite symbolically contributed two titles to the list: Francis Godolphin Waldron’s “The biographical mirrour, comprising a series of ancient and modern English portraits” on the British and Nicolas-Toussaint Le Moyne Des Essarts’s “Les Siècles littéraires de la France, ou nouveau dictionnaire, historique, critique, et bibliographique, de tous les Ecrivains français, morts et vivans, jusqu’à a la fin du XVIIIe. siècle” on the French side of the channel, both clearly framed to accommodate a ‘national’ selection of biographies. Fittingly, Waldron of my protagonists featured only Thomas Gale,[2] while Des Essarts in turn showcased only Eusèbe Renaudot.[3] This tendency in turn directly influenced the chances of certain types of scholars to be referred to, and thus being structurally remembered, through works of this kind.

A case in point is Johannes Braun, who only belatedly begins to make an appearance in these dictionaries at all, compared to the other three. This might well be at last partly due to problems in filing him adequately within a national reference system: Born in Kaiserslautern in 1628, he fled from the city with his mother in 1635 during the Thirty Years War, became preacher of the French Reformed Church in Nijmegen for quite a while, and finally got the post of professor of Theology and Hebrew at Groningen University in 1680; he wrote in French and Latin. Was he now to be considered German, French, or Dutch? A bit of everything, or nothing at all? In Mathieu Delvenne’s 1829 “Biographie du royaume des Pays-Bas, ancienne et moderne”, Braun was not included (while Reland was[4]).

This was due to the fact that Delvenne, although he nowhere stated it explicitly, only acknowledged persons in his dictionary who had been born on soil which now was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And this in turn was due to his explicit intention, as stated in his preface, to instill a love for this their fatherland into Belgians, particularly young students, by presenting them examples from their glorious past.[5] Delvenne’s attempt at nation-building obviously came a bit too late, as in 1830 the Kingdom of the Netherlands broke apart into nowadays Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, but it captures quite well the overall spirit of these collections. Even those which called themselves “General” or “Universal” still privileged a certain nationally framed point of view, with the sometimes implicit, but more often quite explicit, aim to create patriotic sentiments and promote national honour and glory.


[1] See Chalmers, Alexander: The general biographical Dictionary containing an historical and critical account of the lives and writings of the most eminent persons, particularly the English and Irish, from the earliest accounts to the present time, vol. 15, London: J. Nichols 1814, pp. 221-224 (Thomas Gale); vol. 26, London: J. Nichols 1816, pp. 131-133 (Adriaan Reland) and pp. 140-141 (Eusèbe Renaudot).   

[2] Francis Godolphin Waldron: The biographical mirrour, comprising a series of ancient and modern English portraits, of eminent and distinguished persons, from original pictures and drawings, Vol. 3, London: Harding 1800, pp. 18-20.

[3] Nicolas-Toussaint Le Moyne Des Essarts: Les Siècles littéraires de la France, ou nouveau dictionnaire, historique, critique, et bibliographique, de tous les Ecrivains français, morts et vivans, jusqu’à a la fin du XVIIIe. siècle, Paris: Des Essarts 1801, Vol. 5, pp. 372-374.

[4] Mathieu Delvenne: Biographie du royaume des Pays-Bas, ancienne et moderne, ou Histoire abrégée, par ordre alphabétique, de la vie publique et privée des Belges et des Hollandais qui se sont fait remarquer par leurs écrits, leurs actions, leurs talens, leurs vertus, ou leurs crimes, extraite d’un grand nombe d’auteurs anciens et modernes, et augmentée de beaucoup d’articles qui ne se trouvent rapportés dans aucune biographie, Vol. 2, Liege: Desoer 1829, pp. 290-291.

[5] Delvenne, Biographie du royaume des Pays-Bas, Vol. 1, Liege: Desoer 1829, p. [ii] : “Il [le rédacteur, i.e. Delvennes] se trouvera assez récompensé dans ses longs efforts, si son livre contribue à inspirer aux Belges, et surtout à la jeunesse studieuse qui peuple nos écoles, l’amour d’un pays qui a tant de droits à notre reconnaissance. Il a cru qu’il ne pouvait mieux employer ses loisirs qu’à la composition d’un ouvrage vraiment national.”


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