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How to Organise the Orient: D'Herbelot and the Bibliothèque Orientale

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When it appeared in Paris in 1697, the Bibliothèque Orientale of Barthélemy d'Herbelot de Molainville (1625–95) became the most complete reference work about Islamic history and letters in the West. Writing in French, d'Herbelot drew on an impressive variety of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts that he had read in Florence and in Paris. This article examines the Bibliothèque Orientale's idiosyncratic organisation, which has elicited comment over the centuries, and investigates whether it restricted the book's reception, as has sometimes been claimed. The book's peculiar form is explained by comparison with the Bibliothèque Orientale's most important source, the bibliography of the seventeenth-century Ottoman scholar Katib Çelebi: his work not only provided much of the Bibliothèque Orientale's content but inspired its organisation as well. Antoine Galland's previously unstudied manuscript additions to the Bibliothèque Orientale show how this collaborator of d'Herbelot understood the work as a guide to the literary history of recent Muslim peoples. The Bibliothèque Orientale remained a valuable resource for understanding Islamic topics well into the nineteenth century, as demonstrated by the marginalia of prominent European scholars of Arabic, including Johann Jacob Reiske. More than this, the Bibliothèque Orientale offered a unique view of Timurid, Safavid and Ottoman literary culture—an unusual emphasis among European scholars, who tended to be more interested in the early centuries of Islam. D'Herbelot's achievement compels us to take seriously the ability of the Catholic scholarly culture of late-seventeenth-century France to study a foreign intellectual tradition.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Harvard Society of Fellows

Publication date: December 1, 2016

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