Adam Smyth has a very enjoyable LRB review of The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, by Georges Minois, translated by Lys Ann Weiss (Chicago, 2012). The book doesn’t sound great (“There are ways to articulate complexity, and Minois’s isn’t generally one of them”), but the review is a delight, full of lists of names:
Many accounts of imaginary books originate in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532), where, between the giants and the scatology, Rabelais describes the Library of St Victor in Paris – perhaps Europe’s earliest imaginary library. Among the volumes Pantagruel finds are The Codpiece of the Law; The Testes of Theology; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; Three Books on How to Chew Bacon; Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers; and The Spur of Cheese. Imaginary books get funnier when they collide with enumerative bibliography – bodiless texts meticulously pinned to a board – and Rabelais’s catalogue lists 140 titles, some of which, he tells us, ‘are even now in the presses of this noble city of Tübingen’.
The iterative wit of the phantom bibliography is at work in the best-known early English example: John Donne’s Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or The Courtier’s Library of Rare Books Not for Sale. Unpublished until 1650, Donne wrote the text between about 1603 and 1611, and it proved popular in manuscript with his coterie readers. It is a parody of guides to courtly behaviour – a turning on its head of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) – and lists 34 titles including Edward Hoby’s Afternoon Belchings; Martin Luther’s On Shortening the Lord’s Prayer; and The Art of copying out within the compass of a Penny all the truthful statements made to that end by John Foxe. ‘With these books at your elbow,’ Donne suggests, ‘you may in almost every branch of knowledge suddenly emerge as an authority.’
But the review gets really riveting when it comes to the focus of Minois’s book, De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Imposters: “‘an aggressive work, a frontal attack upon religion’, according to Minois’s always exuberant prose, which labelled as imposters the heads of the three great monotheistic religions, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and thus reduced the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran to beguiling tricks. [...] Between the 13th and the 17th centuries, De tribus circulated as a rumour and (in Minois’s words) ‘a sulphurous reputation’. Minois calls it a ‘virtual work’, but in the early centuries it was essentially an accusation” (of having been the author). The accusation was first directed by Pope Gregory IX against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, but was eventually “levelled at a who’s who of Renaissance Europe,” including “Bernardino Ochino, author of Disputa intorno (Basel, 1561), and ‘that villain and secretary of hell’ (according to Thomas Browne) who converted to all three religions in turn.”
The condemnations were accompanied by an even more frenzied hunt for the missing manuscript: rumours spread of texts circulating in Europe and De tribus was (in Minois’s phrase) ‘in the process of becoming a reality’. ‘People claimed to see the book everywhere,’ he writes. ‘They confused it with other books; they fabricated fakes, which others bought at the price of gold; and they did this while cursing the work.’ (In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton condemned ‘that pestilent booke’, ‘not to be read without shuddering’.) Minois delights in strange, Eco-esque vignettes of doomed book-hunting obsessives, like Christina, the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who criss-crossed Europe in the 1650s looking for De tribus, flinging out rewards for information. Her diplomat Salvius was rumoured to have tracked down a manuscript after a lifetime of searching but, according to his confessor, guilt overtook him and he burned his copy shortly before he died of ‘excessive sexual activity’.
De tribus had been a rumour since the 13th century, but in the early 18th century it became a reality, several times over: multiple versions were written, in print and in manuscript, in different languages. [...] A Latin manuscript, De tribus impostoribus, seems to have been in circulation in late 17th-century Germany. A Protestant minister called Johan Friedrich Mayer had a copy in his library, which brought agitated requests from readers, a few of whom were permitted to make copies. After Mayer died, and after much petitioning, Leibniz was granted permission to read the text, watched over by Mayer’s son. ‘The work consisted of 14 leaves and 28 pages in a small folio,’ Leibniz wrote in 1716. ‘One could read nothing more execrable, more impious, or even dangerous … The style is full … of affected gallicisms. The fourth page of the work has been almost entirely effaced with a pen, apparently because of the blasphemies it contains.’ This manuscript, purchased in 1716 by Prince Eugen of Savoy and now in the National Library of Vienna, appeared in print in 1753 in Vienna with the false date of 1598. [...] Some claimed there was a copy in Italian. Responses and refutations of De tribus began to appear too, as did denials on the part of those accused of writing them, including Peter Arpe, who nevertheless admitted to having ‘held … in his hand’ De tribus. At some point between 1712 and 1716, a forged letter from Frederick II to Otto of Bavaria began to circulate, purporting to confirm the 13th-century origins of the (in fact newly composed) text. Publishers began to use the title De tribus to stimulate sales in any vaguely heterodox book. ‘Where do all the copies come from of this book,’ the librarian Mathurin Veyssière de La Croze fretted in 1718, ‘until now unknown to the learned world?’
What a story! The Necronomicon is a piker by comparison.