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Journey to the History of Knowledge: What You Need to Know About Encyclopedias

Humanity is experiencing the most comfortable period of accessing and recording information. Especially thanks to the internet that came into our lives in the 20th century, it is easier than ever to access any information. However, from ancient times to modern times, knowledge was much more valuable than it is now. Because it was very difficult to obtain information on any subject. In addition, the written sources to be consulted were extremely limited. More precisely, there was only one source to refer to: The Encyclopedia! Scholars in ancient times made great efforts to write down every possible knowledge of their time and pass it on to future generations. Of course, it was not easy to record information at that time. Despite this, magnificent encyclopedias, which are the work of a great human effort throughout history, have emerged in which information is systematically recorded. Here is what you need to know about the most important information sources of the period before modern times, encyclopedias…

The oldest known encyclopedia was written between 77 and 79 AD.

Gaius Plinius Secundus Maior, a statesman living in Ancient Rome, or commonly known as “Pliny the Elder”‘s “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) is considered to be the oldest encyclopedia in the world. Pliny the Elder recorded everything he knew about Ancient Rome in his Naturalis Historia. The work contained very important information about different disciplines such as nature, history, architecture, medicine, geography and geology. However, Pliny the Elder claimed to have used more than 2000 sources from 200 different authors when writing the Naturalis Historia…

The first 10 books of this comprehensive encyclopedia were published by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD. However, in 79, Plinius, who went to investigate the interesting activities on Mount Vesuvius, lost his life due to the explosion there. Therefore, the task of completing the rest of the work fell to Pliny’s nephew, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus! Thus, the full version of the encyclopedia consisting of 10 volumes and 37 books was published in 79.

Naturalis Historia was not exactly like the encyclopedias of today.


However, the compilation of information in different fields in the work, the reference to original sources and the index section in the books constituted the basis for the encyclopedias to be written later.

Important encyclopedias also appeared in the East in antiquity.

The encyclopedia Brihat Samhita, written by the 6th century Indian astrologer Varāhamihira, was one of the most famous sources of knowledge to emerge in the Eastern world. Information in different fields, from meteorology to architecture, from perfume production to toothbrushes, was recorded in the encyclopedia. On the other hand, Brihat Samhita was an incredible compilation, 3 times the size of the Naturalis Historia written hundreds of years ago…

The encyclopedia became an increasingly common source of information in medieval Europe.

But only among Christian clergy! The first known encyclopedia of the Middle Ages was written around 630 by St. Isidore of Seville, also known as the “last scholar of the ancient world”. The encyclopedia named “Etymologiae” was written using different sources from both its own period and previous periods. In the work, information in 448 different fields such as geometry, mathematics, rhetoric and music was compiled. However, Etymologiae was a work that focused more on grammar and the origins of words. In this way, it enabled the recording of very important texts from the past centuries and reaching the present day.

The first encyclopedia known to have been written by a woman in history: “Hortus Deliciarum”

Written by Sister Herrad von Landsberg, Hortus Deliciarum is estimated to have been completed in 1175. Consisting of 324 scrolls, the work contains some theological and worldly information used for the training of nuns. In addition, there are 344 different drawings made by Herrad von Landsberg in the work.

In the 9th century, the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I wrote the encyclopedia known as the Bibliothecia or Myriobiblos

While writing this work, Photios I benefited from the 279 different books he had read so far. In the next century, the encyclopedia “Suda”, which is full of valuable information in terms of Byzantine history, was written by a writer named Suidas. Technically standing between a dictionary and an encyclopedia, the work contained 30,000 different definitions! In the following years, the Byzantine capital faced numerous looting and destruction that began with the Crusades. For this reason, the most important encyclopedias of the medieval Eastern world disappeared. As a result, the Suda and the Bibliothecia became much more important works…

People living in the Far East also benefited from encyclopedias to record and transfer their knowledge.


Especially between the 11th and 17th centuries, great importance was attached to the writing of encyclopedias in China. In 1408, the Yongle Encyclopedia, one of the greatest encyclopedias of the Middle Ages, was also written in China. The 11,095 volumes consisted of 22,937 manuscripts! This encyclopedia held the title of being the world’s largest encyclopedia for nearly 600 years. At the end of 600 years, it lost its title to Wikipedia!

The spread of the printing press with the Renaissance led to a significant increase in the number of encyclopedias in Europe.


The printing techniques that developed with the printing press also improved the possibilities of people dealing with science to access encyclopedias. Thus, the number of new encyclopedias written increased. One of the most remarkable encyclopedias written in this period was the work called “Nuremberg Chronicle” written by the German historian Hartmann Schedel. Written in 1493, the encyclopedia contains important information about hundreds of historical events and personalities. In addition, the encyclopedia contained information from different geographies. On the other hand, the Nuremberg Chronicle was one of the first and most important studies to integrate written information with visual illustration.

As we approached modern times, writing encyclopedias for specialties gained importance.


With the developing printing techniques, it became possible to publish an encyclopedia in a very short time. Thus, encyclopedias written for different fields of expertise began to spread. This situation also led to the change of the encyclopedia pattern used since ancient times. For example, in the 1700s, both traditionally prepared encyclopedias containing different information and cultural encyclopedias prepared to change the way of thinking of humanity were used together.

The concept of encyclopedia has changed drastically in the digital age.


As history progressed, the limits of knowledge that humanity could reach expanded. On the other hand, developing technology and the internet have freed information from the “printed” mold. Especially in the 1990s, “online encyclopedias” began to appear. By 2001, the most popular of the online encyclopedias, Wikipedia was born! In 2004, there were 300,000 articles on Wikipedia. This issue has made Wikipedia the largest encyclopedia in history. Just 1 year later, there were more than 2 million articles on Wikipedia in more than 80 languages! In 2022, it is possible to access 6.5 million different information on Wikipedia!

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