Abbreviated title
A tale of a tub
JSA Identification Number
Teerink/Scouten Number
ESTC Number
Copy and its Location
CUL , 7720.d.1580
Publisher and Printer
A tale of a tub. Written for the universal improvement of mankind. To which is added, an account of a battel between the antient and modern books in St. James’s library, Vol. , pp .
London, Nutt, John, 1704.


A Tale of the Tub was first printed on 10 May 1704, anonymously, and under the imprint of a trade publisher. John Nutt handled the distribution of the book and allowed his imprint to be used so that Swift’s connection with the text might be obscured. In a modern sense the publisher of Tale was in fact Benjamin Tooke, Jr (1671–1723), an important printer of Swift’s works and papers belonging to Swift’s employer, the diplomat and author Sir William Temple (1628–1699). Tooke arranged the publications of the third part of the Temple Miscellanea (1701), the third part of the Temple Memoirs (1709), the Project for the Advancement of Religion (1709), and Swift’s Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1711). Swift would later refer to Tooke in the Journal to Stella as ‘my bookseller’.

Swift left Trinity College Dublin in January 1689, spent some time with his mother in Leicester, and then took up residency at Moor Park, the home of Temple, son of the Swifts’ benefactor in Ireland, Sir John Temple. Until Temple’s death in January 1699, Swift acted as his secretary, amanuensis and, perhaps, as his emissary to the court of William III. In Temple’s library he read widely in political and ecclesiastical history, travel writing, French literature, and the classics. Here, in the mid-1690s, much of the Tale was conceived and written, including most notably the allegory of the three brothers representing the three main branches of western Christianity: Roman Catholicism (Peter), Anglicanism (Martin), and Dissenting Protestantism (Jack). Swift’s ‘An Account of a Battel between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James’s Library’ (popularly known as ‘Battel of the Books’) is an elaborate defence of Temple’s controversial attack on ‘modern’ branches of knowledge in his Essay upon the Ancient and Modern Learning (1690), which had incited rebuttals by William Wotton and Richard Bentley.

The two main elements of Tale were written at distinct periods of Swift’s life. The allegory on religion – the ‘Tale’ proper – was probably composed about 1695–6; the satire on learning was probably written from 1696 to late 1697, though significant revisions and additions were made between 1697 and 1704. Despite the long gestation of the text the 1704 printing is riddled with errors. In “An Apology For the &c.”, in the fifth edition of Tale (1705), Swift indicates that he originally gave his publisher a preliminary copy of the work, while he kept a blotted copy at his own hand and lent other copies to friends including one to Thomas Swift, his “parson cousin”. This third edition (corrected) appeared very soon after the first and second (corrected) editions of 1704. A fourth followed in May 1705. Over the next five years a handful of imitations and unofficial continuations, such as Edmund Curll’s notorious A Complete Key to the Tale of a Tub, flooded the market before the fifth edition of Tale appeared in 1710 with substantial changes.

References: Michael Treadwell, ‘Swift’s Relations with the London Book Trade to 1714’, Author/Publisher Relations during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Press, 1983), pp. 1-36; Marcus Walsh, ‘Text, “Text”, and Swift’s “A Tale of a Tub”’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 85, No. 2 (1990), pp. 290-303; David Woolley, ‘The Textual History of A Tale of a Tub’, Swift Studies, 21 (2006), pp. 7-26.