Encyclopaedia Britanica, 11th Edition

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


A chap in a book collectors newsgroup mentioned obtaining the 14th Edition Encyclopaedia Britanica, hoping it had the same cache as the 11th. Though many would be happy to tell him "only" the 11th is collectible, that's not correct either. The discussion induced me to compose a commentary on the topic which I have revised for the Bookseller Essays section of the Violet Books website.

Being the 14th Edition is more than a little unfortunate. Editions from 1910 through 1928 (11th through 13th — the 12th & 13th are only reprints with supplemental content) are all about the same, & truly excellent in their ancient & medieval coverage. Exactly why the 11th has the greater fame among non-book people I've never figured out; but I've observed that junk-mall dealers, er, I mean antique mall folks, who know nothing about books except the first edition that Oz & Little Black Sambo might be worth something, are also often able to wax philosophic about the 11th Edition.

At some point Britanica started weeding out a lot of classical material to make room for contemporary coverage & coverage of rapidly advancing science, shrinking the coverage of earlier history. Mostly this began with the 17th edition, but something even worse than "making room for the new" happened to the 14th edition. "Moral" principles were imposed that did not permit accurate assessments of Caesars. The "moral" principles were decided upon by a committee of Catholic priests, so while they were at it, they censored everything that might offend the Church — look up the nastier or more decadent Popes in the 11th or 13th edition & compare that to the 14th. It was not just a whitewash, it was misrepresentation amounting to lies.

The Britanica had been inspired by a European (really a French) standard for such books, so that it was far more than a parochial encyclopedia for England & America. It had broad coverage of more than what Brits & Americans regarded as important in history. Between the 13th & 14th editions, King Arthur went from being an important mythic figure, to a historical fact — just the most famous example of parochial tinkering. Also the position of women was diminished — someone decided the overwhelming influence of wives (& especially of mistresses) even in cases when queens outranked their kings, should be altered, understated, or deleted. And lastly, these censorious buggers had grudges against certain nations thanks to the War Alleged To End All Wars, so they take more than a few slams & made a few deletions that were unthinkable before WWI.

These changes had been 8 years in preparation (1920 to 1928) but were not published until 1929 — in the meantime they stuck to the classic edition for the 12th & 13th editions which were supplemented reprints of the 11th. When their work was completed in 1928, the Westminster Catholic Federation in association with American Catholic Welfare released this press boast, never imagining anyone would find it objectionable:

"The revision of the Encyclopedia Britannica was undertaken with a view to eliminate matter which was objectionable from a Catholic point of view & to insert what was accurate & unbiased. The whole of the 28 volumes were examined, objectionable parts noted, & the reasons for their deletion or amendment given. There is every reason to hope that the new edition of the Britannica will he found very much more accurate & impartial than its predecessors."
Those "impartial" deletions & revisions amounted to a completely new Encyclopedia of the Bowlderized, Catholicized, Parochialized, de-Feminized, Politicized, tiny brain-sized — & the 14th Edition rightly horrified academicians who'd previously regarded it as a great feather in their hats to have their historical assessments chosen for the Britanica. The former international scholarship & idealism inherited from its French predecessor was all replaced by the perspectives of tories & bubbas. Among non-academics, Anti-Catholic sentiment was already abroad, & this destruction of the encyclopaedia seemed evidence that a fear of malicious Catholic influence was justified.

Britanica was so roundly embarrassed by the backlash against the unpopular edition that they discontinued the 14th rather quickly. Throwing away 8 years of censorship & slanted tinkering, Britanica reverted, with the 15th & 16th editions, to the earlier articles. Therefore if you can get your hands on the 12th, 13th, 15th, or 16th editions you have, in essence, the 11th edition with supplemental information. But if you're stuck with the 14th edition, it is of scholarly interest only if your area of specialty is christian censorship & folly. And if you're stuck with an edition later than the 16th, the coverage of history weakens dramatically to make room increasingly for contemporary coverage, social studies, & new science.


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