In the early years of the twentieth century, Catholic libraries in Germany adopted modernized methods of organization to simplify their use: the arrangement of books by subject, alpha-numeric classifying systems, and card catalogs. The adoption may not seem like much, but in the structure and practice of Catholic knowledge the change was fundamental. How did this revolution come about and what did it betoken?
In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world.
Knowledge has long garnered the attention of historians, although their explicit focus has been primarily on science, scholarship, and professional or technical expertise. For a long time, a progress-obsessed notion of society’s inexorable scientification underlay this research interest. Processes of descientification or tendencies to marginalize knowledge received little attention. This lack of attention was also apparent for those forms of knowledge that guided practical and moral behavior or that were considered religious.1