Mary Franklin-Brown, Reading the World: Encyclopedic Writing in the Scholastic Age

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Mary Franklin-Brown, Reading the World: Encyclopedic Writing in the Scholastic Age (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2012). xxii + 466 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-26068-6. 32.50 [pounds sterling].

This excellent book should reshape our understanding of medieval encyclopedias and, beyond that, medieval knowledge and literature more widely. Mary Franklin-Brown's gift is the open-mindedness with which she approaches encyclopedias, hitherto frequently either dismissed as hotchpotches or forced into taxonomies alien to them. The focus is primarily on a canonical encyclopedia, Vincent de Beauvais's Speculum maius, but also on Ramon Llull's idiosyncratic reworkings of the genre, the Libre de meravelles and the Arbor scientiae, alongside his Arbre de filosofia d'amor and Jean de Meun's continuation of Le Roman de la Rose, which latter two constitute fictional reactions to the scholastic movement's claims to coherence and universality. The corpus--carefully selected to blend mainstream and leftfield--allows Franklin-Brown to show that scholastic knowledge was created thorough the textual practices of narrative, metaphor, and citation, and that these texts alighted on varying rhetorical and exegetical paradigms to shape their contents: 'these encyclopedias, like libraries, become "heterotopias" of knowledge--that is, spaces where many possible ways of knowing are juxtaposed' (pp. 7f.). Foucault is an unstinting ally in this task, and his concept of discourse proves particularly valuable in transcending the opposition between literature and science, upon which previous criticism of these works has often foundered, as well as in showing how encyclopedias construct both subjects and objects of knowledge. …