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Books and Their Makers as Agents of Change

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 401-407 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0023

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

As historians in the late twentieth century began to focus new attention on the intersections of book production and circulation with intellectual, cultural, and social history, some prominent practitioners began to conceptualize the emergence of a distinct subfield, the history of the book.1 Not surprisingly, the early modern period has been the focus of much of these investigations, influenced by Elizabeth Eisenstein’s strong claims about the impact of print.2 The role of the book as material text and the impact of print in early modern Jewish culture has also received greater attention in recent years.3 Building on the bibliographical achievements of nineteenth-century scholars like Mortiz Steinschneider, a group of bibliographers and historians in Europe, Palestine, and North America (mainly New York and Cincinnati) began early in the twentieth century to publish close studies of printed books and manuscripts, paying attention to paratexts (without having read Gérard Genette) and textual variants, and publishing their studies in journals like Kiryat Sefer and Studies in Bibliography and Booklore. Those careful studies (which continued to be published during the postwar period) also elucidated some of the social and economic aspects of the printing business.

Combined with enumerative listings of the output of particular printing houses, a new generation of scholars from the 1970s on were able to incorporate their findings into the writing of Jewish history, bringing the history of the book into their historiographical tool kits. And questions of editing, publishing, and reading have recently been brought into the study of Jewish-Christian relations, particularly Christian writings on Jews, that is, in those areas where “Jewish” and “European” history productively intersect.4 The two books under review here demonstrate the contributions that careful study of particular books can make to broader historiography whether flying under the banner of history of the book or not. They also raise intriguing questions about the interactions of Jews and Christians, as well as their textual traditions, in the scholarly and literary worlds of early modern Europe.

The Book That Changed Europe examines an eighteenth-century work on comparative religion, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World, which was the collaboration of two Huguenot exiles in Holland, Jean Frederic Bernard, a publisher who acted here as author/editor, and Bernard Picart, a well-known engraver whose illustrations were crucial to the work. The original French work appeared in seven folio volumes between 1723 and 1737 and went through several more editions in French, Dutch, German, and English during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt (HJM) argue that the comprehensiveness of the work, as well as the new attitude toward non-Christian religions, was remarkable for the eighteenth century. The authors offer a thorough survey of the work’s contents, the careers and agendas of the two men who produced it, the context of religious and political ferment of the early eighteenth century, and the work’s intellectual antecedents, as well as some discussion of the text’s reception.5 The authors note that RCW (as they abbreviate it) has been largely ignored not only by historians of the Enlightenment but also in the disciplinary histories of religious studies.6 But, as the authors argue, “Picart’s images, especially when read alongside Bernard’s texts, essentially created the category of ‘religion’ “ as a “comparative social practice.” (p. 157) Thus, HJM are not proposing a minor historiographical revision or a footnote to the history of the social sciences but argue that RCW represents a key aspect of the massive transformation in European social and political consciousness that we conveniently label as the Enlightenment. Not that the three authors, careful historians all, make a simplistic argument that RCW somehow single-handedly caused the Enlightenment or brought about religious toleration.7 We should probably think of the title “The Book That Changed Europe” as a bit of marketing shorthand for “the book that drew on a series of intellectual traditions developing over two centuries of early modernity and then had a major impact on how Europeans viewed religion, thus contributing in a meaningful way to certain key processes of modernization.”8

In exploring RCW as a “major...

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