What’s in a title[page]? Or Spinoza – the return…

Detail from false titlepage of Spinoza's octavo Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp Coll BC15-g.10)

Detail from false titlepage of Spinoza’s octavo Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp Coll BC15-g.10)

Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus with 'false' spine title (Sp coll BC15-g.10)

Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus with ‘false’ spine title (Sp coll BC15-g.10)

Just imagine for a moment that you’re a respectable god-fearing Dutch gent living in the late 17th century. You’re at a friend’s house on a social call. He leaves the room briefly and you – incorrigibly nosey – can’t help but peruse his bookshelves a little (come on – we all do it!) You pick up a chamberstick and approach the book press, carefully holding the flickering flame up to the handwritten spine titles. A big fan of the Dutch humanist Daniel Heinsius, you spot a nice octavo copy of his Operum historicorum handsomely bound up in vellum, which you take down to inspect. You view the titlepage… Ah, the second edition. A recent Leiden publication. Then you turn the page to start reading the text. Hmmm… But something’s wrong… Wait a minute, this isn’t Heinsius! This doesn’t seem right at all! In fact, this text is downright heretical! It’s Spinoza!! (cue dramatic music) Duh duh Duuuuuuh!

Well, perhaps the hammy scenario wasn’t wholly necessary but there is something fascinating and curiously dramatic about false titlepages. They encourage us to pause and try to imagine the context of their creation: Why was it done? Of what was the author or publisher afraid? What were the penalties for getting caught? Why go to all the trouble? Well, in a previous blog I’ve discussed the curious story surrounding the 1670 publication of Benedict Spinoza’s incendiary Tractatus theologico-politicus (TTP). However, that blog didn’t tell the whole story since Spinoza’s publisher Jan Rieuwertsz, spurred on by quick sales, continued to publish the work secretly despite widespread clamour and censure. Spinoza and Rieuwertsz took precautions: 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. By 1673 Rieuwertsz made the decision to publish an octavo edition. And, perhaps moved by piecemeal censorship limiting access to existing  quarto copies; or, perhaps by fears that an octavo (usually more affordable, therefore more accessible, than quarto) would incense the authorities even more, he decided to take the extra precaution of publishing it with a completely false titlepage.

False titlepage to Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp Coll BC15-g.10)

False titlepage to Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp Coll BC15-g.10)

Three separate fakes were selected, each purporting to be written by a well-respected contemporary figure: medical works by Professor Francis de la Boe Sylvius, a collection of surgical treatises by esteemed Spanish doctor Francisco Henriquez de Villacorta and lastly, the works of the late Dutch poet and classicist Daniel Heinsius. It’s fair to say that the plan backfired spectacularly! Ecclesiastical authorities, who variously described the TTP as “monstrous”, “abominable” and “as obscene and blasphemous a book as … the world has ever seen”, had been baying to have it officially banned since early 1670. However, the Church bodies had power only to recommend prohibition – power to ban rested with the secular authorities (the States of Holland in The Hague), which kicked the issue into the long grass by tasking a committee to consider the matter. As such, the TTP remained legal (if frowned upon) throughout 1671 and 1672. But pressure continued to build, with local town authorities cracking down on the work and ratcheting up the pressure on the States. The discovery of the false titlepages was the last straw – a deception which seemed to alarm the secular authorities even more than anonymous publication. They issued a decree in December 1673 directing the High Court to “take care that the above named writings be immediately seized and suppressed everywhere in this province that they are available”. The TTP – with and without its false titlepages – was now officially banned.

Surviving copies of the octavo editions are now reasonably rare. Our copy was apparently owned by two different Berlin-based reformed clerics, Johann Hermann Gronau (1708-1769), and Georg Heinrich Oelrichs (1728-1799) before being owned by someone called C. A. Bergman. It was bought (probably in Germany) by Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856), Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, and was purchased for the University of Glasgow, along with the rest of Hamilton’s library in 1878. Manuscript notes on the preliminary pages indicate that it was known to be a clandestine Spinoza publication from a fairly early date, yet the spine title still describes the work as by Heinsius.

Anonymously published text Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp coll Bm4-i.14)

Anonymously published text Tractatus theologico-politicus (Sp coll Bm4-i.14)

I’d like to finish off by highlighting another item that I discovered while answering the original enquiry upon which this blog is based. Published anonymously and without publisher details in Lund, Sweden in 1685, and bearing the title Tractatus theologico-politicus, I initially thought I’d uncovered another 17th-century copy of Spinoza’s work. Indeed, I wasn’t alone – copies in several libraries throughout Europe attribute the work to him and a reprint, with authorship attributed to him is offered for sale online through a major retailer. But on closer examination, things aren’t what they seem. The text isn’t by Spinoza at all but is a reprint of a fifteenth century work, Rodericus Zamorensis’s (i.e. Sánchez de Arévalo) Speculum vitae humanae, printed in Rome in 1468. So why the deception? Why not publish it as Zamorensis’s Speculum? Was the Speculum subversive in some way? And if so, why draw attention to it by re-labelling it with another notorious title?

Well, in truth, I don’t know the answer. Do you? Although ‘Tractatus theologico-politicus’ can simply be translated as ‘Theological-political treatise’, I can find only one other contemporary work that used these words in this formation. At this date the title TTP must have been incontrovertibly associated with Spinoza. Therefore, my best guess is that a shrewd publisher decided to cash in on the title’s notoriety by using it (with, admittedly, a different subtitle) to generate interest in their product. I’m not suggesting, necessarily, that this work was directly passed off as Spinoza’s but perhaps that the cachet/notoriety of the TTP was used as a marketing ploy to help sell what was actually a 200-year-old text? Maybe…

Regardless, not everything is always what it appears to be.

Categories: Special Collections

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