The Praise of Hell: A Clandestine Book

We, Scott and Aaron, had the pleasure of reading and describing a peculiar little book called The Praise of Hell from the 18th century. It is a rather unassuming little octavo, but it has surprisingly held fast to its secrets. On the one hand, the full title is a good indication of the high satire within this book: 

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“The praise of Hell: or, A discovery of the infernal world describing the advantages of that place, with regard to its situation, antiquity, and duration. With a particular account of its inhabitants, their dresses, customs, manners, occupations and diversions, in which are included the laws, constitution and government of hell with notes historical and critical to explain the whole. Translated from the French.”

On the other hand, the physical description of the book tells another story about the necessity of anonymity and cultural criticism. Due to its satyrical tone and its heretical content, The Praise of Hell, it is absolutely necessary for its authority to remain unknown. It is often attributed by Henry Cohen’s Guide de l’amateur de livres à vignettes du XVIIIe siècle, 2nd Ed. (Paris: P. Rouquette, 1873) to Jean Frédéric Bernard (d. 1752), yet Cohen does not cite his source for this authority.

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If this attribution is trustworthy, it is worth noting that Bernard is also notable for initiating comparative religious studies with Cérémonies et costumes religieuses de tour les peuple du monde, (1723-1743). 

Beyond any analysis of the text based on this context, a physical description is still more instructive about the context in which the text appeared. Because the pictures do not do the images justice, it is 18cm from corner to corner and 232 pages in length.

The book includes binding notes that describes its restoration history. Dated November 2004 by Meadland Bindery, the notes are as follows: “Conservation Treatment: Remove boards, discard original spine, retain title label, line spine with Jap. paper, replace missing headbands, repair worm holes with Jap. paper, reattach boards with linen, resew first signature with linen thread, line spine with acid-free paper, new book calf spine, lay original title label, new 22 kt. gold lines as original, repair inner joints with Jap. paper, leather dressing applied.”

There are marks of ownership on the inside front cover. This label is an applied paper with stamped border and reads, “R. MARE, PLYMOUTH.” These names, without further archival work in Plymouth, lend little to the history of this particular volume.

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We first only described this font as simply a roman, serifed font. As an experiment, we used the iOS app “What the font?” (http://www.myfonts.com/WhatTheFont/mobile/) to describe its typographic aesthetic even further. While the exact font cannot be named, Egyptia Round Bold is a good approximation for purposes of digitization.   

The book includes an unattributed frontispiece lithograph. The image appears to be specially made for book and represents a scene from the introduction:

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Once again, its statement of gatherings is rather routine and unexceptional. Its structure can be described as follows: A-I12, J-K12. However, the lack of watermarks is a further indication of its clandestine origin. The smallish size of this octavo indicates that the watermarks were possibly trimmed to obfuscate the paper maker and, by extension, the printer. Through an awareness of the print industry, this author is able to remain anonymous, even now. 

The resistance this text mounts against modern bibliographical tools and online archives demonstrates the durability of these anonymizing techniques printers. 

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