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Intellectual emancipation during the Early Enlightenment: the ambitions of a pioneering periodical from Rotterdam


Rotterdam was one of the cities of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces and in those days already a major seaport and trading centre. From July 1692 till the end of 1704 this city witnessed the birth of a Dutch-language periodical that played a major and invaluable role in spreading scientific news among a new readership. The pages of this periodical were teeming with the ideas of the greatest minds of those days – John Locke, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Fénelon, Balthasar Bekker, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Richard Simon – and their innovative way of thinking. The intention was not only to promote these ideas among an intellectual elite, but also to disseminate them among a much wider circle of interested people that had hitherto been denied access to the cultural and spiritual life in Europe. The periodical in question was designed as a non-specialist medium, but was nevertheless of sufficient scientific caliber to be properly considered as a variant of the then already existing scientific press pur sang.

      The seventeenth century had been an era of uniformly accelerated scientific activity, accompanied by a comparable growth in book production with a marked tendency towards specialization. The means of communication, in particular correspondence, in use by scholars and lettered men, members of the international Respublica Litteraria or the République des Lettres, to make themselves heard across all national borders, had begun to fall short of its purpose. Books were piling up and specialization produced a staggering diversity of subjects. A solution was offered by means of periodicals that summarized important publications and supplied information on leading men of science and major initiatives. They were periodicals of a general scientific nature, not specialized or scholarly journals. Last mentioned journals were founded as well, but their high level of specialization made them inaccessible for outsiders, no matter what degree of learnedness they boasted in their own fields. The general scientific journal was more or less free of such disadvantages. From 1665 onwards the Journal des Sçavans appeared in Paris, soon followed by an English-language scholarly periodical and, much later, by a comparable journal in Latin. The formula proved to be a clear success. Remarkably enough it took quite a while for the United Provinces to produce a similar periodical. After all, a considerable share of the European book production originated from the province of Holland, and Dutch booksellers sold their products to customers far beyond the limits of their small country. The Republic has been described as the intellectual warehouse of its time, considering the fact that virtually every book was available there as a result of the relatively tolerant governmental climate that permitted much that was prohibited elsewhere. What an attractive perspective for a journalist to have such a wealth to write about! Huguenot and exile Pierre Bayle, professor in Rotterdam, was astounded to find the Republic lagging behind in this respect and improved the situation by founding the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres in 1684. It was to be the first of a long series of French-language intellectual journals from Dutch soil. After Bayle’s initiative no less than seven years had to pass before the Republic could welcome the arrival of a similar journal in Dutch.

Read the complete essay here.

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