Abbreviated title
Battel of the books
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.


Often referred to narrowly as A Tale of a Tub, this book contains two further texts, only one of which is mentioned in the full title, A Full and True Account of the Battel, Fought last Friday, between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library or, as it is more widely known, the ‘Battel of the Books’. The third is A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit.

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 ‘‘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.

Even though the ‘Bookseller’ claims it was written in ‘the Year 1697’, composition of the ‘Battel of the Books’ must have taken place after the first publication of Bentley’s Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris in the second edition of Wotton’s Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning – published in July – and continued until some date after the publication of Boyle’s Examination […] (1698), which is the latest element of the controversy mentioned in the ‘Battel’ itself. The prefatory notice entitled ‘The Bookseller to the Reader’ was evidently written shortly before the first publication of the ‘Battel’ in A Tale of a Tub (1704). Charles Boyle had been raised to the Irish peerage as the fourth earl of Orrery following the death of his brother in August 1703. The Dispute was ‘on Foot’ not only in 1697, but through 1698 and 1699, and indeed, in Temple’s ‘Some Thoughts upon Reviewing the Essay’, through 1701. 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.

Daniel Cook