In 1239 Pope Gregory IX accused Emperor Frederick II of blasphemy, specifically of authorship of De tribus impostoribus, a treatise denouncing Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed as imposters. Frederick had not written such a book—at that time there was no such book—and the present volume is a study of the influence of this accusation over the centuries until finally unknown authors filled the vacuum in the eighteenth century and produced two versions of it, in Latin and French (the subtitle is thus not strictly true, but embodies the sensationalism running through the book). There is a map of the distribution of this work in the eighteenth century, but not all the questions raised by it are addressed. For instance, why is the work not found in Spain at all? In its title and subtitle itself arguably the expression of a kind of puffery, this book in fact is a fascinating study of a chapter in medieval and early-modern atheism.
The “Preface to the English-Language Edition (2012)” expresses certain ideas, questionable in themselves, but revelatory of biases running through the book. Thus [End Page 767] we are told that today the Treatise resonates more in the Anglo-phone world than on the European continent, and that this is because atheism is more freely debated in the former. Continental Europeans are more reticent about entering such arguments, the preface states, and practice a consensus, which affirms that all beliefs deserve respect, even when they defy the most basic level of rational thought:
You might say that Europe has forgotten the spirit of the Enlightenment…. This refusal to envision a rational critique of the three great monotheistic religions, or even to allow the debate, favors intellectual stagnation.(pp. ix–x)
Those who doubt the accuracy of such statements will find a good deal to quarrel with in this book.
The first chapter traces the history of the origin of the quarrel between Gregory IX and Frederick. Continuing ambiguity, imprecision, and overgeneralization are found in statements such as the following:
In some sense, medieval civilization can be called a civilization of imposture, to the extent that the general belief in the permanent intervention of supernatural forces of good and evil made the world a shadow theater where everyone and everything could be suspected of being a diabolical illusion.(p. 24)
Chapter 2, on the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, continues the rhetorical overkill and moralizing, telling us “that one might speak of these two centuries as a veritable ‘culture of imposture’” (p. 35). The jabs against religion continue. Remarking on the fact that “everyone” seemed to believe in the existence of The Three Imposters but that no one had seen the treatise, Georges Minois remarks, “The theologians had no need to see in order to believe” (p. 66). The third chapter is on “The European Elites and Religious Imposture (Seventeenth Century).” Because the argument is that “[t]he most elaborate version of the Treatise of the Three Imposters basically took up the complementary arguments of the two great destroyers of religion in the mid-seventeenth century: Hobbes and Spinoza” (p. 95), chapter 4 takes up the views on religion of these two and the Radical Enlightenment.
After centuries of existence as a rumor, the Treatise finally came to be, in various languages and forms, about 1700: this is the subject of chapter 5. Although all along Minois has introduced and discussed various passages that were to enter the Treatise of the Three Imposters, his last chapter finally turns to a sustained discussion of the contents of this work. There is an epilogue, two appendices, a glossary of names, and an index, but no bibliography. [End Page 768]