‘In our time’ on the Encyclopédie

The BBC program In Our Time has an edition on the French Encyclopédie, which privileges trades. Here’s a sample of host Melvyn Bragg’s take on the episode:

Caroline Warman pointed out in more detail than we could manage on the programme how important the description of the trades was:
“Every single trade – the cutlers, the foundries, the miners and the engineers were covered in careful up to date detail by Diderot and his crowd of authors going into the work shops and taking notes. It was very hands on. Diderot, we think, wrote the entry on hat making and even wrote the entry on apricots including lots of recipes for apricot jam. There was a genuine engagement with every day life and this was an object of massive respect for the Encyclopedie which found a good market in the various guilds who all wanted to know the latest developments in their fields and associated fields. In this way they would acquire the knowledge of that solid material mechanistic progress that Enlightened thinkers aimed at. The plates, which were published after the text volumes, were crucial here. They depicted all the latest machines and processes in minute detail. This was a genuine engagement with material progress and a genuine desire to create a book that could be of use to a wide swathe of the population (even if they couldn’t actually afford to own their own copy). This was why it was organised alphabetically, so that people without the academic training in the various branches of knowledge could still look up the stuff that related to them. This utilitarian approach had the added benefit of making many high-minded books of abstract thought and theology look absurd by comparison.”

Perhaps the seriousness of this part of the enterprise is one of the reasons why trades and crafts appear to be so much more respected in France (as in Italy) than they are in this country. The revolutionaries certainly took up this aspect of the Encyclopedia.

Listen at In Our Time website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/

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