Knowledge is Power: The Swiss Federal Lexicon

Johann Jakob Leu, Allgemeines helvetisches, eydgenössisches, oder schweitzerisches Lexicon.

Printed by Hans Ulrich Däntzler, Zurich 1747-1795

It’s the dawn of a new era: the Age of Enlightenment. Things are becoming brighter, better and more beautiful than they have been in the dark ages, under the rule of the nobility and the clergy. These may have been the thoughts going through the minds of the intellectuals that were setting out to get rid of the antiquated customs of the nobility.

Education was their weapon of choice for defeating the autocracy. They believed that knowledge – beyond God and the creation myths – would make the world easier to understand. Access to this knowledge could not be limited to a ruling elite – it had to be available to all. After all, the liberals were convinced that this knowledge, in the minds of the people, would spark revolution in autocratic states. Although of course, back then, the term ‘people’ only extended to white men – even the most progressive Enlightenment scholars were still products of their time.

The Heyday of Lexicons

In order to organise knowledge in an easily accessible form, authors used the medium of the ‘Realwörterbuch’, i.e. lexicon or encyclopaedia. Unlike ordinary dictionaries, these works not only presented the translation of a term, but also detailed factual information.

So, if you wanted to learn the fundamentals of a certain subject, you’d find everything you needed in one of these lexicons. Their clear layout, with the terms structured in alphabetical order, meant that gaining knowledge became child’s play. Lexicons therefore became international best-sellers. For those who had spent more of their time trying to gain money rather than knowledge, these texts provided an opportunity to belatedly acquire the information they needed in order to keep up in learned societies and salons.

Probably the most well-known encyclopaedia project of that time is the famous ‘Encyclopédie’ edited by Denis Diderot. At the time of its publication, it was by no means the first attempt to collate the knowledge of the world. Writers of other nationalities had already compiled extensive lexicons in other languages.

The first volume of the example we’re presenting here, namely the ‘Eidgenössische Lexikon’ (‘Swiss federal lexicon’) published by Johann Jakob Leu in 1747, was issued a full five years before the first volume of the ‘Encyclopédie’. And, by that point, the tradition of lexicons already had a long history behind it. For example, the most famous and extensive German encyclopaedia the ‘Zedler’, with its 284,000 entries on 63,000 pages in 64 volumes, was already almost completed.

And that’s just three examples – there are many more. The mid-18th century was the heyday of lexicons, especially when they focussed on a specialist area. Lexicons were good business for publishers. One well-known Leipzig-based publisher listed no less than 20 different lexicons and encyclopaedias in his catalogue for 1741.

But the man who wrote the Swiss federal lexicon wasn’t interested in business. Whereas commercially appealing projects such as the ‘Zedler’ or the ‘Encyclopédie were financed through subscriptions, Johann Jakob Leu paid for both the research and the printing of the most important Swiss lexicon of the early modern period out of his own pocket.

So, who was the man who began and, more importantly, completed such an extensive project? And what spiritual background inspired him to embark on such a task?

City map by Matthäus Merian.

‘Limmat Athens’

Johann Jakob Leu was born in 1689 to a politically and economically influential Zurich family. At that time, the city’s economy was thriving. The Thirty Years’ War, which had hit many cities in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation hard, had left Zurich more or less unscathed. The Toggenburg War had reinforced Zurich’s position as a reformed trading city in the Confederation. The available capital, high returns, secure trade routes and low taxes gave Zurich merchants plenty of incentive and opportunities to accumulate great fortunes.

The wealthy city was also known across Europe as an intellectual hub where progressive minds discussed and published ideas, uncensored by the church or state. Naturally, this attracted a lot of independent thinkers. The German poet Wilhelm Heise marvelled at the fact that, of the 10,000 people living in the city at that time, around 800 were already published. In the 18th century – when publishing a book was a much more expensive and elitist affair – this was an incredible figure.

And here’s another figure that’s at least as impressive: by 1750, over 60% of the population in two thirds of Zurich’s parishes was able to read. Don’t forget that in the Habsburg Monarchy, for example, Maria Theresa didn’t introduce compulsory education until 1774!

So, there were also many people in Zurich who could read the books that were being written. As a result, Zurich’s book business boomed. The city had five major publishers with their own printing facilities, more than fifteen publishing houses and 27 smaller book shops. However, books were just one of the many ways in which new knowledge was imparted. Private salons were at least as important in this respect, and learned societies were even more so; in these societies, citizens of Zurich, as well as guests invited from abroad, discussed the latest trends in philosophy, historical research and science. There were thirty such societies in Zurich alone – the lion’s share of around 120 learned societies in Switzerland.

The star of Zurich’s academic scene was internationally renowned philologist Johann Jakob Bodmer, a contemporary of Johann Jakob Leu. He owed his fame to his translation of Homer and he was also (wrongly) celebrated in his time for discovering the epic poem ‘Nibelungenlied’ (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’).

Leu’s teacher was a scientist: Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, founder of palaeobotany, who is known primarily for his theory about the biblical flood. He interpreted fossils as the remains of creatures killed by the biblical flood. Although we may chuckle at this nowadays, it was a hotly debated theory in Leu’s time, even prompting Tsar Peter the Great’s attempt to lure Scheuchzer to St. Petersburg with a highly paid job.

Portrait of Johann Jakob Leu

Johann Jakob Leu

Thus, Johann Jakob Leu was exposed to a stimulating environment from a young age and, at the age of 15, he was inspired to publish an extensive biography of Zurich-born antistes Johann Jakob Breitinger. This wouldn’t be his only work. Leu wrote many important books. He is said to have made his decision, to write a lexicon containing everything there was to know about the Swiss Confederation, at the young age of 17. He did so after meeting the aged Basel historian and lexicographer Johann Jakob Hofmann, whose lexicon was rarely used. Hofmann had made the mistake of writing it in Latin. By that time, only a small proportion of the educated elite still had a good command of Latin. Leu would do a better job.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Initially, Johann Jakob Leu studied both laws, which was a basic requirement for entry into the upper grades of civil service in the early modern period. He graduated and went on his Grand Tour, during which he visited the capitals of Protestant Europe. After his return to Zurich, he joined the civil service.

There’s no need to list every stage of Johann Jakob Leu’s career here. Suffice to say, he was talented and hard-working and his fellow citizens rewarded his achievements with increasingly senior positions. In 1749, he became ‘Seckelmeister’, a role that was essentially a combination of finance minister and president of the National Bank.

After all, though we can only briefly touch on Leu’s most important initiative here, we ought to mention that our lexicon writer was also a co-initiator and the first president of the famous Zurich Zinskommission (‘interest commission’), which we know as Bank Leu. Although this was a state institution, it acted independently of the municipal financial administration. It enabled public and private investors in Zurich the opportunity to invest their money profitably. From 1755, its managing directors brokered Zurich capital to creditworthy states and entrepreneurs abroad.

Johann Jakob Leu crowned his career in 1759, when he was elected mayor. By that time, this busy man had already published his most important books. These not only included the aforementioned biography, but also legal works, for example an extensively annotated new edition of Simmler’s federal constitutional law, as well as a four-volume compendium of Swiss private law. These books remained standard works for decades and prepared Leu brilliantly for the Swiss federal lexicon.

The ‘Eidgenössische Lexikon’

Between 1747 and 1765, Leu published the first lexicon devoted exclusively to Switzerland, which was completed through to the last volume. It comprised 20 volumes of quarto size. On 11,368 pages and in (an estimated) 20,000 key terms, it presented readers with all the information available about Switzerland. It is the largest and most complete lexicon about the Swiss Confederation published in the early modern period.

The lexicon was completed 21 years after the first edition was finished. Zurich-born pharmacist Hans Jakob Holzhalb published six supplementary volumes that were still planned and announced by Leu himself.

Readers of the Swiss federal lexicon will find a wealth of information: biographies of prominent figures and genealogies of the most important families. The lexicon lists the various members of the Swiss Federation – in and outside modern Switzerland, abbeys, monasteries, mountains, valleys, lakes and spas, as well as legal and political terms. Leu provides information on history, well-known Swiss products, trade and national customs.

Of course, the quality of information is debatable. Some authors accuse Leu of being more efficient than perfectionist, more of a collector than an independent researcher. You may well wonder whether this is still a reproach that carries any weight outside of the academic world.

Obviously, an individual who published such a comprehensive work would have had to rely on others to gather the information. And therefore, no entry could have been better than the material available to Leu. For much of this work, he drew upon the rich book collection of the Zurich Bürgerbibliothek (‘citizens’ library’). He was perfectly positioned for this, as he was its librarian from 1710 and its president from 1758.

Leu also gathered a great deal of material during his travels, which he frequently undertook on behalf of the city of Zurich. And when he wasn’t able to travel somewhere himself, he would send his son Johannes or ask his politician friends to gather the information he needed from their home cities.

One particularly useful aspect of Leu’s work is the many verbatim copies of charters that no longer exist today, as well as the detailed lists of names of office-holders. The Swiss federal lexicon records these sources with a level of reliability and objectivity that makes it a valuable – if not, in some cases, the only – source for historians.

Leu’s genealogical articles, on the other hand, are somewhat problematic. For their content, he drew upon what the members of the families in question sent to him. Of course, this information was anything but objective. The families provided Leu with whitewashed versions, which he usually adopted without checking, though he often abridged them.

And it was precisely these genealogies that drew the most criticism from Leu’s contemporaries. To the potential customers, who were recruited from most noble Swiss families, this was the most important thing. And these readers reacted very emotionally. After all, who would want to bring home a lexicon that prioritised your rival family over your own or, even worse, didn’t mention your family at all!

We don’t know whether this was actually the reason why Leu’s Swiss lexicon was slow to sell. In any case, in 1775, i.e. 10 years after the final volume was published, the author’s son Johannes Leu was still having to look for buyers to whom he could sell the last 30 complete editions.

The importance of Johann Jakob Leu’s work wasn’t fully appreciated until the national-minded historians of the 19th century came along. But it was still the most important reference work on old Switzerland for over a century.

Today, we have great respect for this lexicon, which was produced by a man with enough achievements to his name for three biographies. He rose to the highest state office in his homeland. He was substantially involved in the establishment of a financial institution that flourished for more than 200 years. And he created a lexicon that remained unrivalled for a century and is still used by historians to this day.


Other things you might be interested in:

A digital copy of the Swiss federal lexicon is available on e-rara.

We have discussed another lexicon with a long tradition here: Benjamin Hederich’s “Mythological Lexicon”.

Also up on Bookophile: Johann Jakob Bodmers „Historic stories in order to find out more about the way of thinking and the morals of our ancestors”.

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