Special Collections holds five copies of the work Tractatus theologico-politicus, printed in Hamburg by Heinrich Künrath in 1670. Or so it would seem. Despite the claims of the title page, none of these volumes was printed in Hamburg; nor by Künrath; nor even – in some cases – in 1670! The truth is a good deal more complicated and interestingly sheds some light onto the dangers of writing and publishing subversive religious material in the mid 17th century.
Tractatus theologico-politicus is a treatise by the Dutch philosopher Baruch (or Benedictus de) Spinoza (1632-1677) examining the Bible and the role of religion, expression and government. In it he makes a claim for freedom of thought and expression and the separation of philosophy and religion in order to allow for these freedoms. He justifies this view by attacking traditional ideas on Scripture, miracles and divine prophecy, arguing that religious ‘prophets’ possessed no knowledge beyond ordinary mortals and that the Bible should be studied as an historical document rather than as divine revelation. During this period, the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, toleration of religious expression was greater in cities like Amsterdam than perhaps anywhere else in the world (a policy Spinoza – born into an Amsterdam Jewish family who fled from persecution in Portugal – was defending). Yet despite this, his work was widely seen as ‘beyond the pale’: religious authorities saw it as an attack on the basic doctrinal functions of the Church; secular authorities, as an assault on public order and morality. The work – described by one critic as “a book forged in hell” – became one of the few books to be officially banned in the Netherlands during this period.
Documents tell us that Spinoza was surprised by the vitriol of the attacks but clearly the clandestine way in which the Tractatus was published suggests that he (and his publisher) were savvy enough to realise that it might cause offence. The first edition (of which we hold 2 copies) was published in Amsterdam by Spinoza’s close friend Jan Rieuwertsz in late 1669 or early 1670 (*see update at end). Precautions were taken: first publishing in Latin, so limiting access to only the serious and educated; secondly, withholding author details; and lastly, publishing with a false imprint location and publisher. Rieuwertsz – one of over a hundred publishers at work in Amsterdam at the time – was well known as a man associated with publishing dangerous or inflammatory material that others might avoid. Despite the fairly relaxed approach to pre-publication censorship in the Dutch Republic, he recognised the importance of discretion. Just the previous year, in 1669, Spinoza’s friend Adriaan Koerbagh had died in prison following arrest for heresy after his published work struck the wrong note with the Church authorities. He made the fatal mistake of printing his name on the title page, and of publishing in Dutch, thus making ‘his blasphemies’ accessible to the general (and impressionable) public. Rieuwertsz was clearly aware of the risks he took publishing incendiary work such as the Tractatus: his bookshop was called In het Martelaersboeck (In the Book of the Martyrs) – perhaps a subtle hint towards the risks attendant to his publishing activities!
Despite the ‘hot’ critical reception the Tractatus received, it quickly became a bestseller. In part, this seems to be down to Rieuwertsz because despite the ban he continued to print new editions throughout the 1670s – each time taking the precaution of disguising the work with a false title page. Special Collections holds two further editions of the Tractatus, both with a ‘Hamburg 1670’ imprint but both dated by bibliographers to post-1677. We hold two copies of one, and a single copy of the other.
To learn more about the fascinating work, its author, its reception and its influence have a look at Steven Nadler’s A book forged in hell: Spinoza’s scandalous treatise and the birth of the secular age.
*Update, May 2013* – While Spinoza’s friend Jan Rieuwertsz undertook publication, the job of printing was outsourced to a hitherto unknown press. Following a recent comparison of typography, printer’s ornaments and decorative capitals some Dutch book history students have identified the mystery printer as one Israel de Paul (1630 – 1680), a man who apparently specialised in printing controversial texts, but of which few (identifiably produced by him) survive.