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Reading the World

Encyclopedic Writing in the Scholastic Age

The thirteenth century saw such a proliferation of new encyclopedic texts that more than one scholar has called it the “century of the encyclopedias.” Variously referred to as a speculum, thesaurus, or imago mundi—the term encyclopedia was not commonly applied to such books until the eighteenth century—these texts were organized in such a way that a reader could easily locate a collection of authoritative statements on any given topic. Because they reproduced, rather than simply summarized, parts of prior texts, these compilations became libraries in miniature.
In this groundbreaking study, Mary Franklin-Brown examines writings in Latin, Catalan, and French that are connected to the encyclopedic movement: Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum maius; Ramon Llull’s Libre de meravelles, Arbor scientiae, and Arbre de filosofia d’amor; and Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Roman de la Rose. Franklin-Brown analyzes the order of knowledge in these challenging texts, describing the wide-ranging interests, the textual practices—including commentary, compilation, and organization—and the diverse discourses that they absorb from preexisting classical, patristic, and medieval writing. She also demonstrates how these encyclopedias, like libraries, became “heterotopias” of knowledge—spaces where many possible ways of knowing are juxtaposed.
But Franklin-Brown’s study will not appeal only to historians: she argues that a revised understanding of late medievalism makes it possible to discern a close connection between scholasticism and contemporary imaginative literature. She shows how encyclopedists employed the same practices of figuration, narrative, and citation as poets and romanciers, while much of the difficulty of the imaginative writing of this period derives from a juxtaposition of heterogeneous discourses inspired by encyclopedias. 
With rich and innovative readings of texts both familiar and neglected, Reading the World reveals how the study of encyclopedism can illuminate both the intellectual work and the imaginative writing of the scholastic age.

424 pages | 5 color plates, 21 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Literature and Literary Criticism: Classical Languages, Romance Languages

Medieval Studies


“It is a powerfully provocative, strikingly well-written book, which is exciting in a multitude of intellectually distinguished directions.”

Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing

"Franklin-Brown does an impressive job of arguing for and demonstrating the importance and relevance of the medieval encyclopedia. . . . Her work, like that of Mary Carruthers and other influential writers she cites, will undoubtedly spur on a new generation of scholars to examine changes in medieval readership, the history of the book, and the relationship between Latin and vernacular literature."


Reading the World is the most interesting book I have encountered in the field of medieval encyclopedism. Mary Franklin-Brown’s continued dialogue with Foucault means that her study is never merely descriptive, but always an intellectual and theoretical endeavor. While benefiting from Foucault’s archaeological approach, Franklin-Brown importantly rebuts his account of premodern discourses of knowledge—which for Foucault are predicated on likeness—showing that they instead combine figuration with compilation in a way that is itself textually knowing and regularly puts itself in question. Franklin-Brown’s focus on the complexity of medieval modes of knowing guides her appraisal of the encyclopedic texts themselves, across an impressive range of Latin, French, Occitan, and Catalan works.”


Sarah Kay, New York University

“This is a fascinating and innovative study of scholastic compilation and the reading practices it fostered, but it is also much more than that. Mary Franklin-Brown offers exciting new readings of vernacular texts whose ‘encyclopedic’ qualities have long been recognized, but never so insightfully analyzed; and on the intertextual networks in which medieval literary and scientific texts alike participate.”

Sylvia Huot, Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

“Written with grace, critical sophistication, and a deep knowledge of its subjects, Reading the World will likely be the standard English-language reference on scholastic encyclopedism for some time to come, and a major contribution to all study of medieval intellectual and cultural history. Both specialist and nonspecialist readers will enjoy Franklin-Brown’s analyses, which extend our understanding of the scope of the medieval encyclopedic enterprise with many provocative and valuable insights.”

Mark D. Johnston, DePaul University

“Mary Franklin-Brown has taken on the very difficult task of making the medieval encyclopedia accessible as literature, and developed an original and very effective method for doing so. It has required the powers of a sophisticated literary critic together with an art historian’s ability to interpret manuscript illustrations and a codicologist’s understanding of the layout of the manuscript page. With these, Franklin-Brown combines a considerable knowledge of patristic and medieval biblical exegesis and the full range of medieval rhetoric and figural modes, as well as a wide knowledge of medieval Latin literature and a ready familiarity with many of the encyclopedists’ ancient sources. The result is a tour de force.”

Winthrop Wetherbee, Cornell University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  
Explanatory Notes  

Chapter 1  The Book of the World: Encyclopedism and Scholastic Ways of Knowing  

Chapter 2  Narrative and Natural History: Vincent of Beauvais’s Ordo juxta Scripturam  
Chapter 3  The Obscure Figures of the Encyclopedia: Tree Paradigms in the Arbor scientiae  
Chapter 4  The Order of Nature: Encyclopedic Arrangement and Poetic Recombination in Jean de Meun’s Continuation of the Roman de la Rose  

Chapter 5  A Fissured Mirror: The Speculum maius as Heterotopia  
Chapter 6  The Phoenix in the Mirror: The Encyclopedic Subject  

List of Abbreviations  
Selected Bibliography  


American Comparative Literature Association: Harry Levin Prize

SHARP: SHARP-DeLong Book History Prize
Honorable Mention

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