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You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

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You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

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625 pages
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Feb 23, 2016


"Knowledge is of two kinds," said Samuel Johnson in 1775. "We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." Today we think of Wikipedia as the source of all information, the ultimate reference. Yet it is just the latest in a long line of aggregated knowledge--reference works that have shaped the way we've seen the world for centuries.

You Could Look It Up
chronicles the captivating stories behind these great works and their contents, and the way they have influenced each other. From The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known compendium of laws in ancient Babylon almost two millennia before Christ to Pliny's Natural History; from the 11th-century Domesday Book recording land holdings in England to Abraham Ortelius's first atlas of the world; from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language to The Whole Earth Catalog to Google, Jack Lynch illuminates the human stories and accomplishment behind each, as well as its enduring impact on civilization. In the process, he offers new insight into the value of knowledge.
Feb 23, 2016

À propos de l'auteur

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University and a Johnson scholar, having studied the great lexicographer for nearly a decade. In addition to his books on Johnson and on Elizabethan England, he has written journal articles and scholarly reviews, and hosts a Web site devoted to these topics at http://andromeda. rutgers.edu/~jlynch/18th/. He is the author of Becoming Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson's Insults and the editor of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. He lives in Lawrenceville, NJ.

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Aperçu du livre

You Could Look It Up - Jack Lynch

For Dan Traister

Prince of Librarians


CHAPTER 0:   Prologue: Looking It Up

CHAPTER 1:   Justice in the Earth: Laws of the Ancient World

CHAPTER 1½: Of Making Many Books: Information Overload

CHAPTER 2:   In the Beginning Was the Word: The First Dictionaries

CHAPTER 2½: A Fraction of the Total: Counting Reference Books

CHAPTER 3:   The History of Nature: Science in Antiquity

CHAPTER 3½: Easy as ABC: The Rise (and Fall?) of Alphabetical Order

CHAPTER 4:   Round Earth’s Imagined Corners: Mapping the World

CHAPTER 4½: The Invention of the Codex

CHAPTER 5:   The Circle of the Sciences: Ancient Encyclopedias

CHAPTER 5½: The Dictionary Gets Its Day in Court

CHAPTER 6:   Leechcraft: Medieval Medicine

CHAPTER 6½: Plagiarism: The Crime of Literary Theft

CHAPTER 7:   New Worlds: Cartography in an Age of Discovery

CHAPTER 7½: Tell Me How You Organize Your Books

CHAPTER 8:   Admirable Artifice: Computers before Computers

CHAPTER 8½: To Bring People Together: Societies

CHAPTER 9:   The Infirmity of Human Nature: Guides to Error

CHAPTER 9½: Ignorance, Pure Ignorance: Of Omissions, Ambiguities, and Plain Old Blunders

CHAPTER 10: Guarding the Avenues of Language: Dictionaries in the Eighteenth Century

CHAPTER 10½: Of Ghosts and Mountweazels

CHAPTER 11: The Way of Faith: Guidelines for Believers

CHAPTER 11½: Who’s Who and What’s What: Making the Cut

CHAPTER 12: Erotic Recreations: Sex Manuals

CHAPTER 12½: The Boys’ Club

CHAPTER 13: Collecting Knowledge into the Smallest Areas: The Great Encyclopedias

CHAPTER 13½: Dictionary or Encyclopedia?

CHAPTER 14: Of Redheads and Babus: Dictionaries and Empire

CHAPTER 14½: A Small Army: Collaborative Endeavors

CHAPTER 15: Killing Time: Games and Sports

CHAPTER 15½: Out of Print

CHAPTER 16: Monuments of Erudition: The Great National Dictionaries

CHAPTER 16½: Counting Editions

CHAPTER 17: Grecian Glory, Roman Grandeur: Victorian Eyes on the Ancient World

CHAPTER 17½: Lost Projects: What Might Have Been

CHAPTER 18: Words Telling Their Own Stories: The Historical Dictionaries

CHAPTER 18½: Overlong and Overdue

CHAPTER 19: An Alms-Basket of Words: The Reference Book as Salvation

CHAPTER 19½: Reading the Dictionary

CHAPTER 20: Modern Materia Medica: Staying Healthy

CHAPTER 20½: Incomplete and Abandoned Projects

CHAPTER 21: The Foundation Stone: Library Catalogs

CHAPTER 21½: Index Learning

CHAPTER 22: The Good Life: The Arts and High Society

CHAPTER 22½: Some Unlikely Reference Books

CHAPTER 23: Presumed Purity: Science in a Scientific Age

CHAPTER 23½: At No Extra Cost! The Business of Reference Books

CHAPTER 24: Full and Authoritative Information: Doctrine for the Modern World

CHAPTER 24½: Unpersons: Damnatio Memoriae

CHAPTER 25: Nothing Special: Books for Browsers

EPILOGUE:    The World’s Information: The Encyclopedic Dream

A Brief Etymological Glossary







It all begins with the written word.

Reference means nothing without writing. In a primary oral culture, wrote Walter J. Ong, the twentieth century’s greatest theorist of orality, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence.... You might ‘call’ them back—‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them.¹ But because we live in a bookish and data-rich culture, we all know what it means to look for information. You Could Look It Up is an account of fifty great reference books, from the third millennium B.C.E. to the present, all of them ambitious attempts to collect a vast amount of knowledge and to present it to the world in a usable form.

For some, the reference book is the emblem of pedantry, sterility, dead facts rather than living wisdom. Charles Dickens gave us Thomas Gradgrind, the dry-as-dust pedant whose mantra is Fact, fact, fact! Sadly, the word knowledge is often paired with rote, as if a knowledge of facts necessarily precludes a deeper understanding or an imaginative engagement.

Dictionaries do not spring into being, Sidney Landau wrote. People must plan them, collect information, and write them… . No other form of writing is at once so quixotic and so intensely practical.² But when the public thinks about the people who write reference books—if the public ever thinks about them—they probably call to mind what Samuel Johnson called harmless drudges. Howard Hawks’s 1941 screwball comedy Ball of Fire sparkles with a script co-written by Billy Wilder. It features a team of socially inept professors, modeled on Snow White’s seven dwarfs, who live together in a big house and work on an encyclopedia containing all the world’s knowledge. Gary Cooper, brilliantly cast against type as Professor Bertram Potts, stands at the head of this sorry crew of encyclopedists, lexicographers, and grammarians including Professors Gurkakoff, Magenbruch, Oddley, and Peagram. They are all utterly stymied when confronted with the va-va-voom burlesque-queen heroine, Katherine Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

But the actual world of reference books, overflowing with fact, fact, fact, is positively exuberant, passionate, bursting with knowledge, and their authors are not always sexless cartoon characters but include quirky geniuses, revolutionary firebrands, and impassioned culture warriors, many of them with the unflagging intellectual energy of a whirling dervish. You Could Look It Up tells the story of two emperors, a Roman naturalist who sailed his ship toward an erupting volcano and died in the falling ash, the inventor of the decimal point, the philosophers who were blamed for starting the French Revolution, the German folklorists whose gory tales still frighten children, and an Oxford classicist whose daughter Alice went down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

You Could Look It Up is partly a call to read, or at least read in, these books, and to get to know the people who wrote them. A reference book collects a civilization’s memoranda to itself. When we turn an ancient dictionary’s pages, we read something never meant for our eyes, and we get to overhear the dead talking among themselves. That is why reference books have much to teach us, even when they are obsolete—especially when they are obsolete. Of course we can learn all sorts of trivia from old dictionaries and encyclopedias, but also much more than trivia. In looking at these old books we get the chance to look through them, at the people who created them and at the worlds they inhabited. When we discover that human beings were divided into five groups in the first Encyclopædia Britannica—American, European, Asiatic, African, and monstrous—we get a glimpse of early scientific race theory coming into being. An old atlas is worthless if we want to locate events in today’s news, but it tells us plenty about how the world looked to another culture. An encyclopedia written before Columbus crossed the Atlantic says nothing useful about the smartphone, but it is one culture’s way of describing the entirety of their physical, intellectual, and spiritual worlds. Even a book filled with numerical tables can end up telling a story about the incipient Industrial Revolution.

The dictionary, the encyclopedia, the atlas, the legal code—all act to distill knowledge. Distillation is the right metaphor. As any decent encyclopedia will explain, distillation removes impurities and gives us a concentrated essence. A solution goes into the alembic, where it is heated to boiling; the volatile spirits separate from the water and are captured, then allowed to condense on the other side. Out comes a purer form of the spirit—in our case, knowledge. The reference book is concentrated wisdom.

Even when concentrated, the information can still be overwhelming. A reference book is the product of a society trying to deal with more knowledge than even the most committed sage can hope to hold in memory. Reference books are big, because no one needs an encyclopedia with ten entries. Only when the body of information becomes too large to keep in our heads do we decide to offload it to paper and expand our memories into offsite storage.

And the more virtual memory a reference promises us, the more enthusiastic we are about its contents. At the heart of the reference genre is the Renaissance ideal of copia, Latin for copiousness or fullness. Desiderius Erasmus, the very model of the Renaissance man and one of the most expansive minds the world has ever known, devoted a whole book to copia, the ebullient overflowing of words and ideas. He loved books that were crammed with knowledge, so much so that they were almost bursting at the seams, and everyone who has ever fallen in love with a dictionary or an encyclopedia has the same passion. This book tries to capture some of the copiousness that marks the great reference books.

Reference books shape the world. Encyclopedists and lexicographers rarely discover new facts, but by organizing and categorizing the old ones they can influence whole fields of knowledge. They determine what kinds of questions a civilization can ask about itself. Those who work under the imprimatur of some prestigious organization—The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia—proclaim unquestionable doctrine to the masses. Lexicographers may have no ambitions beyond telling an accurate story about a word, but they have determined the outcome in decisions of the Supreme Court. The compilers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can, by declaring a given condition to be a psychiatric illness, save a criminal from the gallows or exclude a qualified person from government service. And yet, even though these books have all been compiled by fallible human beings, much of the world looks on them as unimpeachable. I’ll argue—with only a small bit of exaggeration—that the reference book is responsible for the spread of empires, the scientific revolution, the French Revolution, and the invention of the computer.

What, exactly, is a reference book? In 1911, the librarian Gilbert Ward offered a succinct explanation: Definition of a reference book.—A reference book is a book which is used for looking up particular points rather than for reading through.³ Most books get their worth from their entirety, and it makes no sense to read just chapter 37 of Don Quixote or book 11, chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov. Reference works, on the other hand, are meant to be useful in pieces. Information is extracted from its original context, sliced, and rearranged, with the important level of organization being not the book or the chapter but the entry, which is expected to make sense on its own. These entries are usually organized arbitrarily, designed to be conveniently located in answering questions that users might ask. That word users is a significant one: most books have readers, but reference books have users. Still, it is not always easy to draw a line between reference works and others. Is a cookbook a reference book? An anthology? Almost any compilation could count. In fact, any book in the world can become a reference book if we read in it to find a specific piece of information. But a proper reference book is designed to facilitate consultation rather than reading through.

Of course, a reference book need not even be a book. The works I discuss here include many garden-variety books, but there are also four-ton slabs of basalt and globally interconnected networks of semiconductors. Reference works have taken the form of stone tablets, papyrus scrolls, and numerical tables. They can be as grand as multivolume encyclopedias prepared by learned academies or as homely as stock reports and racing forms on cheap newsprint. Even TV Guide, issued for more than half a century as a weekly magazine, is a kind of reference work. And of course the most important reference works of the last few decades have been in electronic form, first on diskettes, then on CD-ROMs, and now on the Internet. Book is a more elegant word than text, so I’ll use it in this work, but usually in this expanded sense.

You Could Look It Up does not pretend to be comprehensive, touching on all the world’s important reference works—no book could do that. Instead, it contains accounts of fifty great works I find interesting, maybe because they are the first of their kind, maybe the biggest, or the most learned, or the most controversial, or the most influential, or maybe just the most eccentric or quixotic. I have borrowed my method from the ancient biographer Plutarch: each of the twenty-five chapters focuses on an exemplary pair of major reference works. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives put important Greeks next to important Romans (Theseus and Romulus, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Demosthenes and Mark Antony) and then explored the similarities and differences between them to highlight what was distinct about each figure. In my pairings I choose two more or less contemporary works on related subjects and set them in their historical context. Limiting my main discussion to just fifty books means many things are neglected. The reference house has many mansions, and I have had to omit too many important works, even whole genres: almanacs, timelines, biographical dictionaries, price guides, gazetteers, calendars, bibliographies, dictionaries of slang and regionalisms, faux reference books such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, compendia of proverbs, and thesauruses did not make the cut. But I do get to discuss some of the most famous reference works—the dictionaries of Johnson, Webster, and the Grimms, Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the Encyclopædia Britannica, Gray’s Anatomy—with attention to what made them so noteworthy and, whenever it can be known, the personalities behind the books. Besides the central pair, each chapter touches on other relevant works, setting the major books in a longer historical context—sometimes looking back centuries to the origins of the form, sometimes looking ahead to the present day. Tucked between the chapters are shorter interludes that introduce stories that would otherwise go untold in a strictly linear history. In telling fifty little stories, I hope one big story emerges, as well as histories of some of the major reference genres—dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, and so on.

I repeatedly ask a few questions: What need prompted someone to bring all this information together in one place? Who decided to rise to the challenge? What made them the right people for the job—or, at least, what made them think they were qualified? How did they go about their work? What carried them through the years, even decades, of work it took to compile these often million-word-plus compendia? What is in these books, and what is omitted? What did the world make of them? Finally, and most important, what do they tell us about the mentalities of the ages that produced and used them?

You Could Look It Up is both a history of and a love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases. It is also, I fear, something of a eulogy: we may be approaching the end of the era of the reference book. That is not to say reference is dead—in the information age it is more essential than ever. But the references of the future almost certainly will not be books in the traditional sense. Every technological revolution has shaken up the organization of information. Advances such as alphabetical order, page numbers, tables of contents, and indexes made it possible to organize old information for new purposes—and, as a side effect, revealed the limitations of the old technologies. As we begin thinking about new ways we might use an old book, we discover new things we would like to do with it, new ways of searching it.

The change we are living through now, in which hard-copy dictionaries and encyclopedias are becoming harder and harder to sell and publishers are scrambling to figure out what will work online, makes it all the more urgent that we understand the history of the genre. As the information banks available on our computers expand vertiginously in the present, writes Anthony Grafton, we have realized that we do not understand the ways in which information was created and transmitted in the past. New forms of cultural history are taking shape to fill this gap: histories that emphasize not the formal content of ideas but the institutions and practices that enabled them to be created and transmitted.

Whenever I quote works in English I follow original spellings, including those of foreign names and titles, except when they require special characters and diacritical marks that are not available in most typefaces—there I have used the closest equivalents available to me. Outside quotations, I give names and titles in the most familiar forms. I provide the sources of all quotations in the endnotes, though when the source is obvious from context—when I quote the definition for apron in John Kersey’s New English Dictionary, for example—I do not bother with notes. A handful of uncited quotations from living writers came from personal communication, and uncited translations from French, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek are my own.

I’ve scattered some vital statistics about the major titles throughout the book: boxes give the full title of each reference work, the person primarily responsible for it, the principle on which it is organized, and the date of publication of the first edition. To give some idea of relative sizes, I give the number of volumes, pages, and entries, and, whenever I can manage, the physical size and even the weight of the book, along with the total surface area of all the pages, counting both front and back. (It’s usually impossible to give measurements for books from before the age of print, and even printed books can be bound or trimmed differently, so consider the numbers approximations.) Word count is the total number of words, not merely the number of entries. (This book is around 140,000 words; the Encyclopédie would fill about 142 volumes this size, and Pauly-Wissowa is about 392 times longer than this book.) If the book had an afterlife, I give the latest edition. Round numbers are my best estimates; precise figures mean someone has counted, usually with the aid of a computer.



Laws of the Ancient World

A list as pithy as the Ten Commandments fits comfortably in the memory. It can be learned quickly and passed on by oral tradition. As a society grows increasingly complex, though, a short list of thou-shalt-nots is insufficient.

It is easy to forbid murder, for instance, even to guarantee an eye for an eye. But how to settle the terms of a no-fault divorce, or establish a fair price for caulking a boat, or adjudicate rival claims about agricultural fees after a storm destroys much of a crop? As legal precedents multiply, as finer and finer distinctions arise, as more and more circumstances have to be accounted for, it becomes impossible for even the wisest sage to keep everything in his head. The most capacious memory eventually breaks down.

Laws, therefore, were among the first things to be written down in every literate society—and eventually those written laws grew long and complex enough to demand a reference book to make sense of them. Legal compendia are among the foundational reference works in nearly every civilization, and they take us back to some of the earliest known writing in the world. This chapter focuses on two important ancient legal codes, Hammurabi’s Code of Babylonian law and the greatest attempt to codify the laws of ancient Rome. Together the codes of these long-gone societies give us insights into daily life that we cannot get through any other channels.

It is one of the oldest legal works in the world. The ancient story goes back thousands of years, but the modern story begins in the nineteenth century, when the French government began a series of exploratory digs in Iran. Modern Khuzestan—known in antiquity as Susa or Shushan, the city of the Persian kings—first attracted archaeologists’ attention in 1810, when John MacDonald Kinneir believed he had identified Susa. The ruins, Kinneir wrote, "consist of hillocks of earth and rubbish, covered with broken pieces of brick and coloured tile… . These mounds bear some resemblance to the pyramids of Babylon."¹ But nineteenth-century Persia was a dangerous place, and several attempts to explore the site ended badly.

After a series of failed expeditions, Jacques de Morgan took over what the French government was calling the Délegation en Perse in 1897. De Morgan had trained as a mining engineer and worked in Transylvanian gold mines and Caucasian copper mines. His real passions, though, were geology and paleontology. When he was thirty-four he was named director of Egypt’s Service des Antiquités, and he did pathbreaking work on Egypt’s prehistory. When he arrived in Persia, de Morgan put another enthusiast for ancient Egypt, Gustave Jéquier, in charge of the daily operations, and the dig began on December 18, 1897, nearly ninety years after the site was identified. It was worth the wait: the location proved richer than anyone expected.

In late December 1901, on a dig led by Jéquier, a shovel hit a large piece of diorite. In the next few days more pieces turned up, and the workers were able to assemble the fragments into a large round pillar 7’ 4 (225 cm) high and between 5’ 4 (164 cm) and 6’ 2" (190 cm) in diameter.² And though to all appearances it was an architectural rather than a bibliographical find, it turned out to be a reference book of sorts—one of the oldest known in the world.

On the stele, written in the cuneiform characters used throughout ancient Mesopotamia, were 282 laws. Ancient monuments are often badly degraded by the time they are excavated, but the stone on which these laws had been carved was uncommonly hard, and the inscription was still clear. Although the stele was broken into three pieces, they fit together almost perfectly, with no significant gaps. It is not in perfect shape—a substantial part of the text is missing—but the damage was caused not by time but by intentional human action. On the front, the last five columns have been erased; that part of the monument probably contained around thirty-five laws, some of which can be supplied from other sources, but others are now irretrievably lost. The surviving 282 paragraphs, though, are the most complete collection of laws we know of from the ancient Middle East, and they were compiled at the command of Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon and the first Babylonian emperor, who ruled for more than forty years in the early eighteenth century B.C.E. When he assumed power—in 1792 B.C.E., according to the usual calculation—Babylon was a small city-state. His father, who ruled before him, began to build it up, but Hammurabi turned Babylon from a minor outpost into the administrative center of an enormous Mesopotamian empire. He did it largely by codifying the legal system, and he did that largely by creating a work of reference.

TITLE: Hammurabi’s Code

COMPILER: Hammurabi, Emperor of Babylon (d. c. 1750 B.C.E.)

ORGANIZATION: Entries 1–5, introduction; entries 6–126, property; entries 127–282, persons

PUBLISHED: c. 1754 B.C.E.

ENTRIES: 282 laws


SIZE: 7′ 5″ × 2′ 2″ (225 × 65 cm)

AREA: 15.7 ft² (1.5 m²)

WEIGHT: 4 tons

At first the discoverers were not sure what to make of the pillar. It prominently bore the name Hammurabi, king of Babylon, but the find was in Susa, in the rival kingdom of Elam, about 230 miles (370 km) from Babylon. The German scholar Friedrich Delitszch finally solved the puzzle. Even before the stele was discovered, he had published a learned article, Zur juristischen Litteratur Babyloniens (On Babylonian Legal Writing),³ in which he suggested that such a sophisticated empire, with uniform laws across the whole of Mesopotamia, could not have functioned without a thorough legal code—and he hinted that it might yet survive somewhere. Thinking about the name Code Napoléon, he began calling this strictly hypothetical legal compendium the Code Hammurabi. And now de Morgan’s team had found the very thing Delitszch had predicted. As James Pritchard notes, Rarely in the annals of archaeology has the excavator been able to oblige his colleague the philologist by producing from the earth the very monument which the latter had suspected to have been in existence.⁴ Eventually the mystery of the origin was solved. The Code did not originally come from Susa or anywhere else in Elam. It probably came from Sippar, about 19 miles (30 km) from Baghdad. In the year 1168 B.C.E., many hundreds of years after Hammurabi’s death, it was carried to Susa by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte.⁵

Word of the discovery spread quickly. De Morgan settled on Jean Vincent Scheil, a member of his team, to make the work public, and in just three months Scheil translated and published the Code—blazingly fast by scholarly standards.⁶ By 1902, every archaeologist and historian of the ancient world was paying attention.

The Code falls into three sections: an introduction (entries 1–5), laws regarding property (6–126), and laws regarding persons (127–282). The sections on property and persons are each subdivided into three groups.⁷ The introduction opens with an invocation of the gods and an assertion of the emperor’s authority:

When Anu, the supreme, the king of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of heaven and earth, who fixes the destiny of the universe, had allotted the multitudes of mankind to Merodach, the first-born of Ea, the divine master of Law, they made him great among the Igigi… . Then Anu and Bel delighted the flesh of mankind by calling me, the renowned prince, the god-fearing Hammurabi, to establish justice in the earth, to destroy the base and the wicked, and to hold back the strong from oppressing the feeble.

The Code laid out the source of justice itself, the powers granted to the great Hammurabi, and the reason he was spelling out the laws. Then it introduced more specific laws. The laws themselves were not original with Hammurabi, and many of them had been in circulation for centuries. The contract law, for instance, goes back at least to the time of Ur, and some of the laws were originally written in Akkadian, in use centuries earlier. Plenty of legal situations must have arisen in real life that are not addressed at all. This means we are dealing not with a new system of laws, nor with a comprehensive code of all the laws of Babylon, but a digest of earlier legal writing, edited and reorganized to make it more suitable for finding what the reader needs. In other words, a reference work.

The Code of Hammurabi spelled out guidelines for dealing with matters of civil law, including relations between landowners and tenants, between buyers and sellers, and between masters and slaves. Laissez-faire economics was not the goal: commerce was strictly regulated. Hammurabi sets the fees for ox drivers and the liability for shoddy contracting in new houses. The interest charged on both money and grain was 20 percent. Doctors’ fees varied for different social classes: for a major operation, the ratio of fees was 10 for the rich, 5 for the middle classes, and 2 for the poor.⁹ Even very specific situations are covered in detail, as in law 48:

If a man is liable for interest, and the god Adad has flooded his field, or the harvest has been destroyed, or the corn has not grown through lack of water; then in that year he shall not pay corn to his creditor. He shall dip his tablet in water, and the interest of that year he shall not pay.¹⁰

Or, even more strangely, law 108:

If a (female) wine-seller has not accepted corn as the price of drink, but silver by the grand weight has accepted, and the price of drink is below the price of corn; then that wine-seller shall be prosecuted, and thrown into the water.¹¹

A long section covered the criminal law. There were rules for people who cast wicked magic spells and for those who bore false witness in court. Those who stole from temples, or even received the stolen property, were condemned to death. Death was also the penalty for doing business with a child or a slave without the consent of a parent or master. One who stole an ox or a sheep had to repay thirty times its value, unless he was poor, in which case he had to repay ten times its value—or if he was really poor, and could not afford the fee, in which case he faced the death penalty. There were even rules for judges who reached the wrong conclusion in convicting someone.

Most notorious is the lex talionis, usually summed up as an eye for an eye. The Latin talio refers to a punishment that is identical to the offense, so the lex talionis is a law of retribution. It appears most famously in Exodus 21:23–25: And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus has many similarities with ancient Babylonian law, leading to extensive investigation of whether there was any direct influence.) The Code of Hammurabi has a series of laws that enact retribution on criminals:

195. If a son has struck his father, his hands shall be cut off.

196. If a man has destroyed the eye of a free man, his own eye shall be destroyed.

197. If he has broken the bone of a free man, his bone shall be broken.¹²

The Code, though, was hardly a model of enlightened social thinking—these were the penalties for blinding or breaking the bones of free men. Poke out a poor man’s eye or break a poor man’s bone, and there was merely a hefty fee; do it to a slave, and the penalty required only part of the cost. Retribution is not always directed at the guilty party:

209. If a man strike the daughter of a free man, and cause her fœtus to fall; he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fœtus.

210. If that woman die, his daughter shall be slain.¹³

Passages like this are a reminder of why the study of ancient law can be so rewarding: nowhere else are the mores of a society on display more clearly. Legal codes do not set out to reveal the deep unconscious of a society; they are concerned only with regulating real-life legal conflicts. But they tell stories whether they want to or not. Here we see the world as the Babylonians saw it: some lives are worth more than others; all life is cheap; and if one life is not available for forfeit, another will do just as well.

Another legal code is among the oldest written documents in Western civilization, but still more than a thousand years younger than the Code of Hammurabi. Historians confidently attribute a legal code to an ancient Athenian named Draco, and they say his laws were established in 622 or 621 B.C.E., but when pressed, they admit they are not even sure whether Draco existed, so intertwined are the historical figure and the legend.¹⁴ The stories tell us that Athens at the time had no written laws, and Draco—who may have been an Athenian official already, or who may have been appointed specifically for this job—was charged with crafting a set of laws to govern the polis.

The result was a set of laws to cover various responses to both just and unjust killings. Manslaughter was to be punished with exile. In cases of homicide, kings were charged with judging whether the planner or the actual killer should face punishment. If some in a family were in favor of reconciliation, anyone who objected was able to veto the proposed penalty and call for retribution.¹⁵ The actual law was a sophisticated piece of legislation, with several sections covering twenty or more provisions. What is remembered about Draco’s laws, though, is not their complexity but their brutality. An Athenian named Demades said Draco’s laws were written in blood rather than ink, because the penalties for almost all violations were so harsh.¹⁶ "The distinguishing Character of Draco’s Laws, wrote an eighteenth-century historian, was Severity, or rather Cruelty; for every little Offence, and even Indolence itself, was by him punished with Death, for which he assign’d this Reason; Small Faults seem to me worthy of Death, and for the most flagrant Offences I can find no higher Punishment.¹⁷ Legend held that Draco would carry out punishments even against inanimate objects: a statue that toppled and killed a man was put on trial and banished. (History does not record the statue’s defense.) Though they were called the noblest and most hallowed [laws] of all … forever unaltered,"¹⁸ they became unpopular, though they managed to last three centuries almost unchanged.

TITLE: Corpus juris civilis

COMPILER: Tribonian (c. 485–542) on behalf of Justinian I (c. 482–565)

ORGANIZATION: 4 parts: the Codex, containing imperial pronouncements; the Digest, a compendium of Roman law; the Institutes, a textbook; and the Novellae constitutiones, supplements to the original

PUBLISHED: 529–34 C.E.


TOTAL WORDS: 1.35 million

Draco’s laws, though, were limited—they introduced written law to the Athenian polis, but it was a manageable body of law. Things were very different a few centuries later in Rome, by that time not a city-state but an empire that stretched from southern Spain to Jerusalem. It comprised a great many cultures, traditions, religions, and belief systems. To turn them into a coherent political entity required a substantial administrative machinery, and the Romans obliged. Rome was always a more regulated society than Greece. The Roman emperors believed in reorganizing, codifying, and structuring. Their legal system, wrote Andrew Riggsby, was vastly larger, more encompassing, more systematic, and more general than anything else that existed at the time.¹⁹ Their most enduring gift to humanity, if we can call it a gift, may be bureaucracy.

By the sixth century C.E., though, the Empire had split in two, the Western Roman Empire centered on Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire centered on Constantinople. The Italian peninsula was nominally part of the Empire, but in practice it had become an Ostrogoth kingdom. The old order seemed to be breaking down.

This seeming chaos prompted Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus, better known as Justinian the Great, to try to reassert the authority of the Empire. Unlike most of the emperors before him, Justinian came not from aristocratic stock but from a peasant family, and he was born not in Rome or Constantinople but in what is today part of Macedonia. His rise came when his uncle, Justin, adopted him as a son and took him to Constantinople. In 518, Justin was named emperor, and Justinian’s influence on his uncle was considerable. Justin welcomed the input and took him on as a high-ranking adviser—in 527, he became a kind of co-ruler of the empire.

Not many months later, Justin died, and Justinian was his obvious successor. One of his first concerns was to put Roman law in order. The legal system was a mess, with extensive collections of statutes, precedents, and commentaries on the laws having piled up over the centuries; by this point they were filled with redundancies and even contradictions. Legal proceedings were getting bogged down in needless complexity. Modern law, Justinian was convinced, was decadent.²⁰

Early in 528, therefore, he established a commission of ten legal experts, including his chief aide Tribonian and a Constantinopolitan law professor named Theophilus, and ordered them to come up with a new catalog of laws (mostly civil, but also constitutional) based on the three major legal codes of the empire. Their job was not mere compilation: they were to reject everything that was out of date, and to adjust some provisions to make them more suitable to modern conditions. This work took fourteen months.

The next step was to compile the writings of the jurists, the legal scholars, who had been commenting on the laws for generations. Tribonian was placed in charge of that process, and he charged a committee of sixteen members, including Theophilus and his colleague Dorotheus, to make excerpts from the ancient writers of authority. Obsolete commentaries and those that duplicated or contradicted something already in the code were eliminated. The result was the Digest, a compilation of fifty books, each subdivided into titles. The work displays good scholarly habits: all the excerpts came with the names of their sources, the titles from which the extracts were taken, and the volume number of the quotation.²¹

While the Digest was still under construction, Justinian ordered the third part of his great project, a work called the Institutes, to serve as an introduction to the whole legal system. Tribonian, Theophilus, and Dorotheus were once again involved, and they were ordered to stick close to the writings of the classical jurists.

The resulting three-part Corpus had its failings: Instead of a smooth, unified legal code, we have a document that shows its origins in cut-and-paste.²² But it also had many virtues. It collected and reconciled countless scattered sources and ejected obsolete and useless provisions. Most important, though, everything was structured to help the reader find what he needed to know.²³ A sequence of entries gives the flavor of the whole, as an authority is cited and the relevant provisions in the original law are presented concisely:

54. Paulus, On the Edict of the Curule Ædiles, Book I.

Where property is sold in good faith, the sale should not be annulled for a trifling reason.

55. The Same, On the Edict of the Curule Ædiles, Book II.

A sale without consideration and imaginary, is considered not to be made at all, and therefore the alienation of the property is not taken into consideration.

56. The Same, On the Edict, Book L.

Where anyone sells a female slave under the condition that she shall not be prostituted, and if this is violated he shall have a right to take her back; he will have power to do so, even if the slave has passed through the hands of several purchasers.

Once the Corpus juris civilis appeared, Justinian prohibited any further references to the old commentaries: the new Corpus contained all that everyone needed to know. To make the point more emphatically, Justinian ordered many of the older writings burned. There were also to be no further commentaries: all the laws had been systematically surveyed, and everything a jurist needed to know was now in the Digest. It was a bold act, wiping out all the laws of the past and prohibiting commentaries in the future. The latter was a failure, since even during Justinian’s life, legal scholars discovered they needed to write new commentaries.

The Corpus had a long afterlife. Although the ultimate collapse of the Empire’s administrative structure led to the abandonment of Roman law for centuries, Justinian’s brainchild was eventually revisited. There was a revival of interest in Justinian’s legal code in the ninth century in the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the Eastern Roman Empire; legal scholars published a new version of the text in Greek, known as the Basilica, which informed Greek legal practice into the twentieth century. And in the eleventh century, in Bologna, scholars began to rediscover the Roman law in the West again. An important manuscript of the Digest turned up in 1070, leading to many new copies and further study. Here the influence was even more important than in Greece. The Bolognese legal scholars, who thought of themselves as citizens of an ancient Holy Roman Empire, came together to study the ancient texts. These legal students eventually joined with readers of medicine and theology and began to develop policies to govern themselves. The various groups of students and scholars decided to band together, and in 1088 established a group they called a universitas ‘totality’. It was the first university in Europe, and it had Justinian’s Corpus at its heart.²⁴ In many ways the university as we know it had its origins in study groups that sought to make sense of a reference book.

These two reference books—one of them actually a monument, the other a collection of many scrolls—had major real-world significance. In making laws public and accessible, the Code of Hammurabi and the Corpus of Justinian made the law itself a public affair, and even though the laws may have been brutal and arbitrary, at least they were known. Both Hammurabi and Justinian lived in worlds where few people were literate, and their law codes likely had little influence on the lives of the overwhelming majority of people at the time. But works like Hammurabi’s Code and Justinian’s Corpus provide evidence that works of reference—whether they take the form of manuscripts, printed books, or slabs of diorite—can empower their readers. The fact that a legal code exists is an indication that the law is more than the whim of an individual tyrant, that everyone is answerable to the principles embodied in the texts.



Information Overload

Drowning in information, being overwhelmed with more knowledge than we can ever know, is the modern condition. And yet it’s not unique to our time. As soon as there was writing, some were convinced there was too much writing. By these, my son, be admonished, said the preacher in Ecclesiastes somewhere between 450 and 200 B.C.E.: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl. 12:12). Reference books are an attempt to make these many books manageable; they’re also a testimony to just how unmanageable they remain.

The critic Harald Weinrich identified different modes of reading. Through most of history, people practiced intensive reading, focusing on a few books, since a few were all they had. Pliny the Younger advised this sort of reading: "Aiunt enim multum legendum esse, non multa, a pun on reading a lot: They say you should read much, not many things. He meant that it was better to read a few sources intensively than to flit from book to book. But the era of print enabled extensive reading, where we have access to many books. And starting in the twentieth century, Weinrich found evidence of defensive reading, when All readers have to defend themselves against too many books and avoid reading as often as possible."¹

Gutenberg’s development of printing with movable type made possible a new kind of extensive reading. In the manuscript age every book was expensive, since someone had to copy it by hand. Even the devout and literate could not hope to own a Bible unless they were wealthy. But printing knocked the prices down to the point where a new middle class could hope to own a few volumes, and the market responded by making volumes available. According to one estimate, about 5 million copies of books had been made in Europe between about 450 and 1450 C.E.² But in the half century after Gutenberg developed printing with movable type around 1450, somewhere between 8 and 20 million copies of the new printed books were circulating—more in fifty years than in the previous thousand. And in another hundred years,

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  • (5/5)
    A splendid and informative roster of 50 of the most important reference books of Western Civilization (the stupendous accomplishments of Chinese and Japanese encyclopedists are mentioned in passing). I don't hold it against the author that Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire Historique et Critique is consigned to a few paragraphs in the chapter on Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie as it pleases me to find it mentioned at all.

    In short, a pleasant read that sent me scrambling on more than one occasion to archive.org to download pdf's of eccentric titles for my burgeoning library of ebooks.