In 1723, the engraver Bernard Picart and the printer Jean Frederic Bernard revealed the varied religions of the world to European readers. In seven splendidly illustrated folio volumes that appeared from 1723 to 1737, Religious Ceremonies of the World offered—at least to anyone strong enough to lift one of the volumes and open it—a tableau of the world’s priests and believers, in action. Passing in turn before the reader were stately papal rituals with casts of thousands and Jewish families around the Seder table, Russian Orthodox baptisms and Protestant funerals, Freemasonic temples and Chinese altars. Slabs of text compiled from the best sources elucidated each image, and elaborate references and bibliographies offered guidance to the reader who wanted to know more.
At first sight, these volumes seem dignified and ceremonious, not radical or critical. One could imagine a wealthy connoisseur buying them to amuse and edify a bookish child. In fact, the Swedish aristocrat Jan Jacobus de Geer did exactly that. He subscribed to the publication in advance, he explained, because his son Charles “loved travel books which contain such extraordinary stories.” Unwieldy, weighty, dense with proliferating detail, the Ceremonies lacks the subversive look of “those books that one reads with one hand,” the neat little pornographic novels that, as Robert Darnton has taught us, spread the new ideas that booksellers and customers labeled “philosophy” through eighteenth-century France and beyond.
In fact, though, in the years around 1700, massive compilations were as likely as neat little octavos to pack an intellectual punch. Pierre Bayle infused seditious thought after subversive thought into the weighty volumes of his Critical and Historical Dictionary, first published in 1697. He too deployed footnotes—layer after layer of footnotes—to prove his own probity as a scholar, to expose the errors of his rivals and enemies, and to provide ironic commentary, rather like Stephen Colbert’s “The Word,” on orthodox inanities. The genre, format, and scale that Picart and Bernard adopted all exemplify a period style—one that they in turn helped to perfect, by adding their vivid visual commentary, and that reached its climax in that greatest of all polemical reference books, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, with its stunning illustrations of the arts and crafts.
Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, the three distin- guished historians who have now produced a major study of Picart and Bernard’s work, see Ceremonies as more than one ship of the line in the literary fleets of the Enlightenment. Ceremonies, they argue, not only provoked readers but actually “changed Europe.” Western Europeans had studied foreign religions for centuries. Scholars traced the genealogies and tabulated the attributes of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Catholic inquisitors and Protestant professors studied Jewish rituals. Dominicans copied out long explanations of the codices that survived Spain’s …