In this carefully detailed yet accessible study, Georges Minois presents an overview of a curious myth that eventually became a reality. This is the history of a fictitious treatise devised in the thirteenth century as political slander, whose notoriety grew until actual treatises began circulating to fill its role some four centuries later. It is a mystery story, tracing the shadowy, interconnected threads of a legend that proved significant in Western intellectual history and in the lives of real people. Minois rightly treats the subject as myth: the Treatise of the Three Imposters grew into an archetype, a signifier in the evolving discourse on religion, orthodoxy, and free thinking through various social and political contexts in medieval, early modern, and Enlightenment-era Europe.
In its various formulations, the Treatise of the Three Imposters represented a direct assault on religion by subjecting Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed to equal scrutiny, and dismissing all three as charlatans and frauds. Though the idea had precursors in the Islamic world, it appeared in the West as a pawn in the protracted power struggles between Rome and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1239, Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II of having asserted that the leaders of the three monotheisms were imposters, and from this point on, "the accusation became ritual: as soon as a thinker became dangerous, he was suspected of having written a treatise of the three imposters" (33). Over time a small army of writers and collectors searched for the treatise. Occasionally, reports surfaced by someone claiming to have seen a copy. The work became iconic, with little more known about it than that it was the apex of blasphemy and heresy. Accusations of authorship were often accompanied by imputations of homosexuality and other perceived depravities. The treatise became a blank template, the imagined contents taking on the shape of people's deepest anxieties.
The conflicting legends crystallized in seventeenth-century Holland, where an environment of free thinking and cosmopolitanism allowed copies of the treatise to circulate openly. Here, suddenly, there were actual texts: physical books in print. How long such works had existed prior to this--and in what forms, exactly--are impossible to say. Minois remains cautious and humble before the various possibilities, although the nature of the evidence he lays out speaks largely for itself: there is very little indication that anything except rumor existed prior to the mid-sixteenth century. Minois judiciously focuses more on the tangible evidence that remains, the extant physical books. The two main threads begin with a Latin version, De imposturis religionum breve compendium, purchased by Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1716, and a French one, La Vie et l'Esprit de Mr Benoît de Spinoza, published in The Hague in 1719. These two works, and a small cluster of others stemming from them, responded to the needs of a heterodox group of thinkers in northern Europe influenced by Spinozism and similar Enlightenment trends.
The works finally appearing under the brand of the Treatise--either by title or representation--hardly amounted to the incendiary manifesto that people had feared for so long. In fact they were brief, trite products, compilations of familiar arguments cobbled together from Spinoza and other writers. By this time the work had largely served its function as theological foil, and instead became commodity. Unscrupulous booksellers slapped the title onto mundane antireligious works, to increase sales. The Traité des trois imposteurs was finally placed on the Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books in 1783, but the actual treatises circulating never carried the cultural impact that the fictional one had long sustained. By this point, the field was already too crowded with all manner of libertine and secular ideas.
Through the centuries, the myth of the Treatise was something of a black hole, drawing in a wide range of tangential figures by its inescapable attraction despite there being nothing evident at its center. The story of this treatise intersects with the intellectual currents touching on a number of important thinkers: Ibn Rushd, Giordano Bruno, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Burton, Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Bayle. John Calvin expended effort to identify the author; Queen Christina of Sweden offered a large reward for anyone who could find her a copy of it; and Gottfried Leibniz was permitted to read on the spot, but not borrow, a copy of it jealously guarded in a personal collection. Niccolò Machiavelli was among many accused of being its author; Baruch Spinoza was among a select cadre who wound up unwittingly becoming one of its authors. This was the treatise that sparked--in the course of a verse refutation entitled Épître à l'auteur du livre des trois imposteurs (1768)--Voltaire's famous aphorism: "if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Minois implicitly portrays the treatise as something similar: for centuries it fulfilled a crucial element in European thought, first as a placeholder, then a constellation of physical writings. It was invented because it was necessary.
The history of the treatise is a history of a certain dogmatic attitude imploding slowly from within. The work thrived in an age of censorship, book burning, and imprisonment (or worse) for heterodox thinking. In the fictional work, defenders of traditional faith and the status quo created a straw man, which then proved to be a formidable enemy in absentia. But as Minois tells it, the vitriolic hyperbole deployed to attack threatening thinkers or political figures was, ironically, what helped create space for more explicit dissent. Imagined atheists were given voice--under the guise of disdainful opposition--as foils in the fraught discourse of science and religion. The listing of supposed blasphemies thought to be in the Treatise introduced, and over time normalized, increasingly open articulations of skepticism and atheism. People became desensitized to the idea that Moses and Jesus were political opportunists. When the "learned libertines" of seventeenth century France sought a protected space, and a veiled vocabulary, in which to explore all manner of irreverent ideas, the tradition of religious apologetic proved an ideal cover. They could expound upon the antireligious arguments in detail, while following them up with cursory refutations. The treatise became part of the complicated rhetorical games played by early modern free thinkers: "their writings were necessarily deceptive, since to fool the censors they resorted to contradictory dialogues, jest, derision, or false interrogation."
The role the Treatise has played in the history of ideas has raised some recent interest, as demonstrated by a collection of essays devoted to the subject running over five hundred pages  and a new edition of De tribus appearing in 2002.  Minois presents a unified summary of existing scholarship on the textual history of the treatise and a panoramic interpretation of its significance. The thrill of the hunt is palpably part of what fuels the author, who is not dismayed by complexity or by the limits of fragmentary evidence. (Almost a hundred and fifty pages in, after laying out a particularly dizzying maze of facts and surmises, he notes off-hand with charming sincerity, "The story would be too simple if it stopped there" .) Minois deftly concludes that the history of the treatise reflects the history of European rhetoric: "That is what makes this search so fascinating: seeing the ways that people try to tear down, or to justify, imposture by means of imposture, trickery by means of trickery, in a complex game of deception" (8). His metaphors are unassuming yet potent: "The theologians had no need to see [a physical copy] in order to believe. Nor were they disturbed by the thought that they were accusing sixteenth-century men of having written a phantom work that supposedly dated from the thirteenth century. They probably did not even wish for the work to be discovered, for, like the devil, it was more useful while remaining invisible" (66).
A spot check of the English translation against the original shows it to be shrewdly elegant as well as meticulously accurate. In his study Minois has crafted a fluid, coherent narrative out of fragmentary, interwoven, and conflicting threads running through many centuries. This is a textual history with implications running far deeper. Seen as a hoax, the treatise has some historical and literary interest. Seen as myth, it has much more. All of the figures who became fascinated with the chimerical treatise along the course of its history, it turns out, were themselves creating and shaping it despite themselves.
1. Silvia Berti, Françoise Charles-Daubert, and Richard H. Popkins, eds. Heterodoxy, Spinozism, and Free Thought in Early-Eighteenth Century Europe: Studies on the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (Dordrecht, Boston, and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996).
2. Raoul Vaneigem, L'Art de ne croire en rien, suivi de Livre des trois imposteurs (Paris: Rivages, 2002).