The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Secret History (of a publication)

Yes. As our readers quickly reported, this month’s mystery image is the imprint on Procopius’s The secret history of the court of the Emperor Justinian.

In fact, it is the imprint of the very first English translation of Procopius’s Secret work.

title page of Procopius's Secret History
Title page of the first English translation of Procopius’s Secret History

The history behind the Secret History is a tale in and of itself. Procopius of Cesarea was a legal advisor (and chronicler) associated with the Roman Emperor Justinian’s court in the middle of the 6th century. He was long known to have written both The Wars of Justinian, a chronicle, and The Buildings of Justinian, a (probably commissioned) panegyric to the Emperor’s construction projects. However, for centuries there were a few scattered references to another work by Procopius. A work so scandalous that Procopius did not dare officially publish it in his lifetime. This third work remained a mystery until the early 1620s, when a scholar working in the library of the Vatican came across a Greek manuscript, copied sometime in the 14th century. It was, it turned out, Procopius’s literal secret work.1 The scholar, Nicoló Alamanni, then translated the work into Latin (heavily edited, as some of the accounts were too scandalous for even 17th century audiences) and published it Lyon in 1623.

The Latin edition was certainly known in England shortly after its publication, as Sir Thomas Ryves wrote a defense of Justinian that was published in London a mere three years later.

Title page of Sir Thomas Ryves's defense of Justinian
Title page of Sir Thomas Ryves’s defense of Justinian (Folger STC 21477).

However, the English language translation did not appear for another almost 50 years; this anonymously translated work appeared in 1674, and unleashed a veritable flood of “secret histories.” Here at the Folger, we have nearly 80 books published between 1674 and 1724 with the words “secret history” in the title.2

So who, then, opened the floodgates of English-language secret histories? Who was behind the translation and publication of Procopius’s Secret History? These questions bring us straight back to the image of the imprint in last week’s mystery, and straight to the heart of the real mystery surrounding this publication: who translated it? who was willing to put forth the time, expertise, and money to make this publication exist?

The lack of translator’s name associate with the work is, while frustrating, not uncommon for the period. So that leaves us to look at the imprint for clues to those responsible for the publication. Unfortunately, in this case, they are nearly as scant.

The name “John Barkesdale” appears only once in Hamnet, and only once in ESTC as well: both on the record for Secret History. However, keeping in mind the flexible nature of early modern spelling, a search for “John Barksdale” (sans the extra E)3 yields more fruitful results.4

A search of Hamnet yields two other items for which Bark(e)sdale is listed as the bookseller: one, an unapologetically royalist tract from 1682 entitled Aurea dicta. The gratious words of King Charles I. of glorious memory: for the Protestant religion of the Church of England. (149- 083q); and the other, The Minister of Cirencester’s address to the dissenters of his parish. (149- 625q)5

The other Bark(e)sdale imprints in the Folger collection, on 149- 083q and 149- 625q
The other Bark(e)sdale imprints in the Folger collection, on 149- 083q and 149- 625q

Now, clearly there is a slight hitch in the works: both of these imprints list Barksdale as operating out of Cirencester, some 90 miles west northwest of London. Was this the same person, then?

Plomer’s Dictionary of Booksellers and Printers, 1557-1775 was the only source in which I could find Barksdale recorded.6 Plomer certainly accepts that Barksdale-in-London and Barksdale-in-Cirencester were the same person, and a search of ESTC records supports that theory. Of the twenty results, eight give Barksdale’s location as London (indeed, all but one places him at the same “Five Bells at Newstreet” location that the Secret History imprint lists). Conveniently, these imprints all fall between 1674 and 1679; from 1680 onwards, all imprints for John Barksdale locate him in Cirencester.

ESTC results for Barksdale
20 results in ESTC for “Barksdale” in the publisher field.

There are certain consistencies in the books Barksdale sold in each location, making it likely that they were, indeed, the same person. Featured among those books were ones by one Clement Barksdale, a clergyman well known in Gloucestershire, and best known for his translations of Hugo Grotius.7 The relationship between the two Barksdales is unknown, but the consistency with which John sold Clement’s books lends support to a familial relation, and their dates suggest John as a son or nephew of Clement.

It’s tempting, then, to pin the translation of the Secret History on Clement. Afterall, he was translating Grotius around the same time, and there soon was a strong relationship between Clement’s books and John Barksdale’s bookshop. Was the publication of the anonymously translated Secret History an attempt to jump-start John’s shop? Were there deeper political motivations behind the translation?

Perhaps the only things that can be said for certain about the 1674 English translation of Procopius’s Secret History are these: that it was printed for John Barksdale, and that it launched an entire genre of literature. Beyond that? There is as much mystery around the English version as there was around the original text.

164- 529q text start B1r

  1. For a more detailed account see God’s Librarians: The Vatican Library enters the twenty-first century. The New Yorker, January 3, 2011.
  2. For further discussion of secret histories, particularly of the Stuart court, see Bannet, Eve Tavor. “‘Secret History’: Or, Talebearing Inside and Outside the Secretorie.” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1/2, 2005. pp. 375-396.
  3. I feel like there ought to be a specific term for “letter in the middle of a word” but I couldn’t find one. Does anyone know of something that would fit?
  4. And, as one reader pointed out, makes a great case for controlled vocabulary, to mitigate this sort of issue!
  5. This is a good place to note that Barksdale’s name, in addition to being a poster child for controlled vocabulary, is a perfect test case for the use of wildcard characters in searches: these are special characters used to represent unknown letters in a word. The character used varies by database. In Hamnet, a ? is used to represent zero or more characters, so searching “Bark?dale” in the publisher/printer field will yield all three results in one search; in ESTC, the internal wildcard character is an * — “Bark*dale” searched as publisher yields all 21 results at once.
  6. Plomer, Aldis, Bushnell, et al., Dictionary of Printers and Booksellers who were at work in England, Scotland and Ireland 1557-1775. Bibliographical Society, 1977.
  7. John Coffey, ‘Barksdale, Clement (1609–1687)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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