Who’s Who in 17th-Century Europe

Walk into any modern library, and you’ll come across the reference section. This section contains works that provide researchers with fast facts and general information. For example, here in the medical library, some of the reference works in Archives and Rare Books include: “Polk’s Medical Register and Directory of North America,” “Encyclopedia Britannica” and the “Washington University Manual.” None of these resources has enough material to fill an entire research paper, but they can provide a brief overview of basic information such as important names, dates and significant historical events.

These kinds of publications are hardly an invention of the modern era. They actually date from the Renaissance! During this time, the number of books being printed led to something like an information overload. Readers needed a way to keep track of all of the material flooding the literary marketplace, and this led to an increase in the production of reference works. Encyclopedias, dictionaries and bibliographies began to emerge as a popular new genre in order to help the public cope with the rapidly increasing amount of knowledge.

The rare book collections at the Becker Library hold a number of these early modern reference works. One of the most spectacular examples is Paul Freher’s “Theatrum virorum eruditione clarorum (A theatre of renowned and erudite men),” published in Nuremberg by the firm of Johannes Hofmann in 1688. Spanning two volumes, it serves as a biographical encyclopedia of the significant intellectual figures in European culture as of the late 17th century. Think of it as a very, very early edition of “Who’s Who.”

So what made someone distinguished enough for inclusion in the Theatrum? First, the obvious: this is a dictionary of distinguished men, not distinguished women. Women were sometimes included in reference works – for example, women appear in Giacomo Tomasini’s collection of biographical sketches of notable residents of Padua, Italy published in 1644 – but for the most part, men commanded more respect than women in the intellectual world of early modern Europe.

There was also the matter of what you were famous for. The beautifully engraved frontispiece offers a visual clue. Each of the four allegorical figures represents one of the intellectual disciplines represented in Freher’s work. On the far left, Religion wears a medallion inscribed with the letters “IHS,” the first three of letters of Jesus’ Greek name, and a sash bearing the motto “ORANDO,” which translates to “I pray.” The lamb sitting next to her represents Jesus Christ. Medicine’s sash declares “SANANDO” – “I heal” – and she is crowned with medicinal herbs while a skull lies at her feet. Next to her, Queen Philosophy holds the scepter and mirror that frequently accompany her in Renaissance iconography. The final figure, representing justice, carries her trademark scales and has her eyes covered by a blindfold to represent the impartiality of the law. All four of these disciplines were taught at European universities. Philosophy was one of the pinnacles of undergraduate education, while theology, medicine and law were the three higher degrees.

The biographies themselves were brief, consisting of no more than a few paragraphs, and were accompanied by a corresponding portrait. The portraits were not placed directly next to the text; instead, multiple portraits were incorporated onto single engraved sheets. For modern readers, they can serve multiple purposes. They not only give us an idea of what these men looked like, they provide a window into the fashions of the past!