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The Philosophical Pearl

Every generation seems to have boasted the most elite of all polymaths: the last person to know everything. Some claim it was Aristotle, others credit Roger Bacon, and even the much more recent John Stuart Mill has been given the label. With the pace of knowledge creation in today’s research environment, it’s fair to say that no human will ever again know everything there is to know. Five hundred years ago, however, such a claim was a little more realistic.

Margarita Philosophica

One of the many woodcuts from Margarita Philosophica

In 1503, Gregor Reisch published his Margarita Philosophica. Reisch condensed everything he believed a student should know, taken largely from his own curriculum at the University of Freiburg, into the book’s six hundred pages. In short, he simplified the task of knowing everything (or at least everything worth knowing). His compendium of knowledge was a boon to the collective mind of Europe, important enough to be reprinted at least a dozen times in Reisch’s own century.

The Vail copy of Margarita Philosophica, one of the oldest books in the Vail Collection, was printed in Basel in 1508. The text is embellished with scores of fascinating, and sometimes pioneering, woodcuts, depicting everything from the creation of Adam and Eve to the anatomy of the human eye. This was a scholar’s book, intended for frequent use, and the extensive marginalia throughout the Vail copy betrays the heavy use this item has seen.