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Dissemination of Knowledge


DISSEMINATION OF KNOWLEDGE. Between 1450 and 1800 the focus of European intellectual life shifted away from the traditional university centers to become diffused across a much greater geographical and social spectrum. The advent of printing radically changed the exchange of knowledge and ideas in Europe and facilitated an additional move away from the communication of knowledge at local levelsuniversities, courts, early humanist academiesto international communication among the self-proclaimed "republic of letters." Oral and manuscript communication nonetheless remained vibrant through the end of the eighteenth century at both institutional and informal levels of dissemination.


Building on strong medieval foundations, the university as an institution continued to expand throughout the early modern period. Thus, while the importance of the university as an instrument for the communication of knowledge fluctuated greatly, it continued to fulfill its essential social and cultural function of creating educated elites. It would be this corps of university-trained personnel who provided both actors and audiences for new ideas and new forms of communication from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.

The staple of university education was the public lecture, dependent on the oral delivery of information. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries university lectures increasingly made use of printed books. Students used two principal methods of recording lectures: either in manuscript notebooks or through annotation of printed texts. Many university lectures, commentaries, and entire year-long courses also circulated in manuscript. Private teaching was equally important to the dissemination of knowledge within the universities. At Cambridge and Oxford private teaching was carried out within the confines of the college system, roughly equivalent to the modern tutorial. Elsewhere, particularly in central and southern Europe where the college system was less developed, students were offered group instruction in the houses of university faculty members, for which professors were paid directly by the student. Much of this kind of teaching at the college and private levels was preparatory teaching, using drills and exercises to enable students to master core university subjects and techniques (for example, in declamation, disputation, and even letterwriting). The informal, largely unregulated nature of such teaching also meant that it was often responsive to intellectual trends and new currents of learning well in advance of formal university lecture courses. In some areas of Europe and particularly in the Norththe Netherlands and Germanythe university remained a pivotal part of intellectual life. In other areasEngland and France, for examplemajor new intellectual movements such as the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment evolved more or less independently of the university.


The earliest and most clearly defined rival to the intellectual authority of the university came from the academy. With their origins in fifteenth-century Italy, the academies spread only gradually elsewhere in the sixteenth century before rising to positions of considerable importance over the next two centuries. Academies could be either informal gatherings, usually centered around one or two scholars of prominence, oras they generally were after 1650institutions with established rules and procedures. Most academies established intellectual discussion and the discovery and communication of knowledge as their guiding principles and were usually devoted to the pursuit of specific branches of knowledge: for example, natural philosophy (the Royal Society of London and the Académie des sciences in Paris) or language (the Accademia della Crusca in Florence and the Académie française in Paris). By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, academies contributed greatly to the professionalization of science and scholarship. Academies readily followed the winds of intellectual fashion. Eventually they created not simply a new forum for intellectual exchange, but a new public role for science and scholarship more generally. In England, France, and Italy they existed largely independent of local university culture, while in Germany their constituencies often overlapped with that of the universities. Related to the academies are the salons of the eighteenth century. More informal in nature and with strong ties to aristocratic culture, they were more socially exclusive. Nonetheless they frequently functioned to bridge rigid social boundaries. It was largely through salons that women actively participated in the communication of knowledge, and salons served as jumping boards to intellectual respectability for those to whom advancement in the republic of letters was otherwise blocked.


Much of the real work of early modern scholars, antiquarians, natural philosophers, and other members of the republic of letters was carried out using one of the most traditional instruments of communication: the manuscript letter. Despite the traditional form of the lettera genre of communication well known to antiquity and the Middle Agesepistolary exchange in the early modern period attained a new level of abstraction in the exchange of information. Letters between scholars from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries most closely resemble the political reports and diplomatic dispatches of the period: communication was informal, direct, and frequently candid. As such, this was a new mechanism of intellectual exchange based on a constantly shifting balance of social standing, patronage, and common intellectual interests. Networks of like-minded investigators, even if they had never met, used correspondence to share information, work through problems, and disseminate their own "findings" well in advance ofand in many instances in place ofprint publication. The Latin letter was capable of overcoming linguistic and, to a certain extent, social barriers to the exchange of knowledge. It was also not uncommon for correspondents to assume a basic understanding of the two dominant vernacular languages of intellectual exchange, French and Italian. The manuscript letter was also key to keeping lines of intellectual communication open across the confessional divide that separatedand isolatedProtestant and Catholic investigators in the officially regulated world of print. Some astute early modern scholarsDesiderius Erasmus (1466?1536), for example, or Justus Lipsius (15471606)carefully orchestrated their epistolary exchange and edited their correspondence for publication in their own lifetime. To a great degree it was the letter, rather than publication in print, that was key to achieving fame in the republic of letters.


Books for members of the professions, university professors, and scholars were printed in the major centers of Paris, Venice, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Cologne, Frankfurt, and other locations of slightly lesser importance. Sixteenth-century printers were quick to capitalize on international as well as established regional markets for Latin imprints, a development that would only really change with the market dominance of vernacular imprints in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the greatest material innovations in print production was the use of the small octavo format for printed books by Aldus Manutius in Venice around 1500. While this did not immediately have an effect on the price of books, it did influence their portability at the level of both distribution and readership. Eventually, prices for octavo texts would be much lower than for larger formats.

Knowing about books was almost as important as knowing what was in them. There were many informal mechanisms within the print world for the dissemination of this kind of information. Booksellers frequently posted lists of books for sale outside their shops (in many areas of Europe they were required to do so by local censorship laws). The practice of printing such lists was well established by the end of the sixteenth century, and book lists entered into wider and wider circulation. Bookshops also served as meeting places for those concerned with the latest developments of the print world. News of books could be exchanged, and frequently books could be read as well. The major forum for the international book trade was the Frankfurt book fair, held twice a year in the spring and the fall. Here, printers and publishers from across Europe gathered to exchange wares and settle accounts. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Frankfurt fair regularly printed its biannual catalogs. Book lists also circulated informally among various networks of scholars, and many libraries jealously guarded their collections of book lists, catalogs, and other bibliographical ephemera. By the late sixteenth century institutional libraries began to print their catalogs, although the practice would remain restricted until the eighteenth century. Auction catalogs of private libraries were also printed beginning in the Netherlands in 1599, and the practice was well-established elsewhere in Europenotably in Germany, England, and Franceby the third quarter of the seventeenth century.


By the end of the seventeenth century, printed periodical publications assumed a major role in the communication of knowledge. Many journals were closely associated with academies. The first journal aimed directly at the world of learning was the Parisian Journal des Sçavants (1665), closely allied to the Académie française; it was followed quickly by the Philosophical Transactions (1665) of the Royal Society of London. The main business of the Paris Journal was reviews of books published in France and abroad. Reviews were initially less important for the Philosophical Transactions, which instead described the scientific experiments of the members of the Royal Society. But in this the Transactions was almost unique: reviews would remain the staple of the learned journal for the next two hundred years. Such was the case, for example, with the Giornale de' letterati (Rome 1668), Pierre Bayle's Nouvelles de la république des lettres (Rotterdam, 1684), and Jean Le Clerc's Bibliothèque universelle et historique (Amsterdam, 1686). Along with such well-established publications that enjoyed lengthy runs, there were a considerable number of periodical ventures that produced only a few issues. The length and tenor of reviews varied from short and descriptive to long critical assessments of major works of science and learning. More or less up-to-date news on ideas in print was thus available to a wide and increasingly diverse audience. The rise of the periodical publication not only facilitated communication between like-minded scholars but also disseminated the fruits of learning to a much broader, and eventually even a popular, audience. These review journals bridged many divides: linguisticbetween Latin and the vernacular and between the dominant vernacular idioms of the republic of letters (French, Italian, English, and German); religiousbetween Protestant and Catholic; and geographicalboth in contributing to the creation of a cosmopolitan public forum for knowledge and ideas and in opening channels of communication between national intellectual centers and regional peripheries. The eighteenth century offered the reading public a dense thicket of review publications. Perhaps most representative of the new popular appeal of the review journal was the Gentleman's Magazine (London, 1731), which became an institution in its own right. Where the early reviews were affiliated with learned academies and scientific societies, the later, more popular journals were rooted in the intellectual culture of the coffee-house and the gentleman's club.

See also Academies, Learned ; Education ; Journalism, Newspapers, and Newssheets ; Journals, Literary ; Printing and Publishing ; Republic of Letters ; Universities .


Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Princeton, 1987.

Eisenstein, Elisabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1979.

McClellan, J. E. III. "L'Europe des académies." Dixhuitième siècle 25 (1993): 153165.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Waquet, Françoise, and Hans Bots, eds. Commercium litterarium: La communication dans la république des lettres, 16001750. Amsterdam, 1994.

. La république des lettres. Paris, 1997.

Paul Nelles

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