The Encyclopédie

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the French encyclopedie, the European Enlightenment in book form. One of its editors, D’Alembert, described its mission as giving an overview of knowledge, as if gazing down on a vast labyrinth of all the branches of human ideas, observing where they separate or unite and even catching sight of the secret routes between them. It was a project that attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment - Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot - striving to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopaedia. No subject was too great or too small, so while Voltaire wrote of “fantasie” and “elegance”, Diderot rolled up his sleeves and got to grips with jam-making.The resulting Encyclopedie was a bestseller - running to 28 volumes over more than 20 years, amidst censorship, bans, betrayals and reprieves. It even got them excited on this side of the Channel, with subscribers including Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and Charles Burney. So what drove these men to such lengths that they were prepared to risk ridicule, prison, even exile? How did the Encyclopedie embody the values of the Enlightenment? And what was its legacy - did it really fuel the French Revolution?

Listen on BBC Sounds website


  • Judith Hawley 14 episodes
    Senior Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway
  • Caroline Warman 4 episodes
    Fellow and Tutor in French at Jesus College, Oxford
  • David Wootton 16 episodes
    Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York

Related episodes

Programme ID: p0038x93

Episode page:

Auto-category: 030 (Encyclopedias and books of facts)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello, this week we discuss the mammoth 18th century undertaking that was the Encyclopédie.