The Book that Brought Tolerance to the Enlightenment

UCLAGetty Research Institute digital project revives Europe's first taste of religious tolerance.

It blew me away that L.A. was the best place to work on this book. You can't do this in Paris, Amsterdam or even in the British Library.

UCLA News 12/6/2007

By Meg Sullivan

ODDS WERE STACKED against Bernard Picart's "Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde" ("Religious Ceremonies and Costumes of All the People in the World") when it started rolling off the presses in Amsterdam in 1723.
For starters, the seven-volume set with some 600 elaborately engraved illustrations cost today's equivalent of $20,000. Then, in 1738, the Vatican effectively blackballed the encyclopedic treatment of the world's religions by consigning it to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — a list of prohibited books — where it remained until the index was abolished in 1966.
Yet despite such obstacles, the book sold 3,000 copies in 1738 alone.
"You might say, '3,000?,'" said UCLA historian Margaret C. Jacob, a noted authority on Picart, his circle and the Enlightenment. "But trust me: In 1740, that would have made The New York Times best-seller list."
And the book, which was translated into Dutch, German and English, wasn't just one of the most popular books of the 18th century. Historians today credit it with laying the foundation for ethnography and anthropology and bringing the concept of religious tolerance to an era now associated with those virtues — the Age of Enlightenment.
"This is the first reading of the world's religions with a sympathetic eye," said Jacob, author of the 2006 book "Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe" and a contributor to the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment.
"It digested all the religious material in travel literature from the Age of Discovery," Jacob said, "and made the information available to the general public, with an attempt to purge the discourse of negativity, superiority, prejudices and assumptions. It tried to treat all religions on par and with respect, and this was an achievement, a considerable achievement."
While nobody expects to recapture the work's original effect, a unique collaboration between UCLA, the Huntington Library and the Getty Research Institute is making sure it lives on.
Adapting techniques that have gained popularity over the Internet, the scholarly team is digitizing and annotating the 3,000-page oeuvre. Eventual plans call for making at least three annotated editions available on the Web.
Commercial publishers have undertaken digitization projects of similar scope, but they charge for access, team members said. After the Getty Research Institute has completed digitization efforts, the UCLA Library, in cooperation with UCLA's Center for Digital Humanities and Holland's University of Utrecht, will make the book available online free of charge. Three editions — in English, French and Dutch — are expected to launch by the end of 2008.
"This will open up to anyone who is interested in the history of the world's religions the European understanding of just about every place in the known world in the first half of the 18th century," said Lynn Hunt, a UCLA history professor who is writing a book about "Cérémonies et costumes" with Jacob. "It's an enormous resource."
Initial results went on display Dec. 6 as part of "At the Interface of Religion and Cosmopolitanism: Bernard Picart's 'Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde' and the European Enlightenment," a scholarly conference organized by Jacob and fellow Picart scholar Wijnand Minjhardt, a professor of history at Utrecht University. Held jointly at the Getty Center and UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, the event brought together 12 leading Picart scholars from around the world to discuss various aspects of the book's colorful history.
Picart, a gifted and well-connected engraver, produced the set with Jean Frederic Bernard, a French-language bookseller and publisher. Originally from Paris, both had sought refuge in Calvinist Amsterdam after becoming affiliated with the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Scholars believe the Huguenots' experience with religious persecution in the wake of a 1685 edict that made Protestantism illegal in France probably inspired the project.
The book presents one of the most sympathetic portraits of European Jewry then available. In one engraving, Picart, the mastermind behind the book's dazzling illustrations, even showed himself celebrating the Sabbath with Amsterdam's leading Jewish family. There are portraits of American Indians, Sufis and Muslims, including one of the first illustrations of Mecca in the West. Although the document includes a rare depiction of the Inquisition, even Catholics are treated with regard.
"Here's a group of French Huguenot refugees, some of whom have left parents and children behind, confiscated by the authorities, put into orphanages and jailed, and yet these people are trying to give a fair presentation of Catholic sermons," Jacob said. "It's a remarkable effort."
The encyclopedia was published far from French censors, in Amsterdam, which at the time was the publishing capital of Europe, Jacob said. In addition to Picart and Bernard, ghostwriters and more than a dozen other engravers participated in the project, the first edition of which wasn't completed until 10 years after Picart's death at age 60 of unknown causes.
In 1981, Jacob became the first scholar to publish research on Picart in English. She had stumbled upon his name in the 1970s while conducting research on a contemporary of the 18th-century English philosopher John Toland. The reference linked Picart with a group of freethinkers who called themselves the Knights of Jubilation.
"Cérémonies et coutumes" got another boost in 2003, when a well-received essay by Minjhardt, the Dutch scholar, noted the book's relevance for knee-jerk, anti-Islamic sentiments in post-Sept. 11 Europe.
Jacob, Hunt and Minjhardt then approached the Getty with a proposal to mine Southern California's unique Picart holdings. Between the Getty Research Institute, the Huntington Library and UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, all four editions of "Cérémonies et coutumes" can be found in local public holdings — two of them at UCLA. No place else in the world can make such a claim, the scholars said.
"It blew me away that L.A. was the best place to work on this book," said David Brafman, rare books curator at the Getty Research Institute. "You can't do this in Paris, Amsterdam or even in the British Library."
The three historians originally envisioned leveraging the holdings for a temporary exhibition at the Getty, but Brafman suggested something more lasting: scanning all four editions with optical character-recognition technology so that scholars everywhere can electronically search all editions, improving their ability to uncover themes, motifs and patterns and isolate important or compelling passages.
"It deliberately confronts cultural alienation between the West and East," Brafman said. "Given the current world's stage, the work is extremely relevant."
Working with Tom Moritz, chief of knowledge management at the Getty Research Institute, Brafman has also developed a "Wiki" version of the illustrations in the first edition in French. Like the popular Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, the WikiPicart allows leading scholars to annotate the document and comment on each other's annotations. When made available to the public, the running commentary will be condensed into more traditional annotations, organizers said.
Every year since 1985, the Getty Research Institute has invited scholars, artists and other cultural figures from around the world to work in residence at the institute on projects that bear upon its annual research theme. As Getty scholars for the 2006–07 research theme — religion and ritual — the three historians devoted themselves to discovering as much about the encyclopedia's history as possible. They tracked down in the original the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum and translated the document from Latin. They also found Dutch documents listing the complete contents of both Picart's and Bernard's personal libraries at their times of death. Each library exceeded 2,000 volumes in an era when Europe's largest personal library included no more than 4,500 books, suggesting that both were voracious readers; the team also discovered evidence that Picart and Bernard were in touch with the owner of that immense personal library, located in Rotterdam.
Armed with this information, they have been able to track down the specific explorers' or travelers' accounts that informed about half of the encyclopedia's dazzling illustrations, which drive the text. For instance, the team tracked a depiction of the Aztec calendar to a 1700 book by an Italian traveler about "the New Spain" and a mesmerizing portrait of American Indian women in Florida decorating the graves of their deceased husbands to a German book from the late 16th century.
"For the first time, we were able to pinpoint the depth and breadth of the influences behind the book," Jacob said.

Published: Friday, December 21, 2007