Notes from the John Martin Rare Book Room — Long Before Google


GREGOR REISCH (ca. 1467-1525). Margarita philosophica. 2nd ed., 1504].

Long before there was Google and Britannica, there was Margarita philosophica, which might be called the first modern encyclopedia. Its twelve divisions cover the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), and the natural and moral sciences. Of particular fascination are the many woodcuts which include early music notation, a large folding map of the Eurasian continent and parts of Africa, and astronomical, astrological, and zoological figures.  Several of the plates are of great interest to the history of anatomical and medical  illustration, including a man with dissected thoracic and abdominal cavities; two figures of the eye; a phrenological head showing the brain; a lying-in room showing a woman in childbed with infant and midwife; and a mineral spring bath.

Reisch was a Carthusian prior at Freiburg and confessor to Emperor Maximilian I, as well as assistant to Erasmus. Much more could be said of this immensely fascinating book; the music and the map (often missing from copies of all editions) make extremely interesting studies in themselves. The book was very popular, as attested to by its sixteen editions in the seventeenth century. This edition, the second authorized edition, was preceded by the first edition of 1503 and a “pirated” reprinting of the first edition which appeared the month before this second edition.