How Two 9th Century Travellers Stumbled Into ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ (and Did They?)

George Sael’s book sale catalogue of 1792, title page snippet (taken from Eighteenth Century Collections Online)

Saturday, July 27th, 2019, for Friday no. 41

In 1792, George Sael (c.1761 – c.1799) tried to sell an old book. Well, this was nothing out of the ordinary so far, as selling old books was part of Sael’s job. He was a London printer, bookbinder, bookseller, and sometime author of edifying publications such as his Moral biography; or, the worthies of England displayed: containing the lives of persons eminently distinguished for their virtues and talents[1] and other works for the use in instruction or education. Sael sold old and new books at his book shop in N° 192 Newcastle Street, the Strand, and as was usual, he issued sales catalogues to advertise the collection he had on display, which according to these catalogues amounted to a total of 20.000 volumes in 1792.[2] At the end of the 18th century this was rather on the low end of volumes on the shelf of a commercial second-hand seller, where some of Sael’s competitors issued catalogues announcing “One Hundred Thousand volumes, in various Languages and Classes of Learning”.[3] To market his stock, Sael thus introduced short descriptions of several of the works he had in store into his catalogue, something lacking in most other similar advertisements. Perhaps this was also due to the range of customers that he usually served, which included public schools and middle-class families, and not only a rather well-educated clientele as many of his fellow booksellers. Maybe he took not all of his customers to be familiar with the volumes on his shelves already.

Not just any old book

Now the particular old book which I am concerned with here was one which was given an explanatory paragraph, something not all of the works in his catalogue were dignified with. That it ended up on the list at all testified to its standing, because Sael made it very clear that he had not listed all his stock:

Sael, Sael’s Catalogue for 1792, p. 49.[4]

The item in question was about 60 years old, not very old for the average used book circulating in 18th century Britain, but the majority of books Sael offered were of a more recent date (although he also had much older volumes in store). It was an English translation of a French work, and in case you are wondering by now how this links up with my research project after all, it was a copy of the 1733 English version of Eusebe Renaudot’s Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine of 1718.[5] The English translator had remained anonymous when the book was printed, and had confined himself to translate the French original rather without the amendments typical for 18th century translations.[6] The result was quite a success, and from what I have seen up until now I am inclined to presume that it was the most-read of all of Renaudot’s publications in 18th century England. One of the copies of this work had now ended up on Sael’s shelves in 1792, and he took pains to advertise it in a most interesting manner.

Sael, Sael’s Catalogue for 1792, p. 46.[7]

Of sales and claims

First of all this of course was a clever move to sell the book. By linking it up with Edward Gibbon’s (1737–1794) enormously popular History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire Sael could hope to sell his copy of the Ancient Accounts of India and China free-riding on the other publications’ success. Yet this strategy does not seem to have worked out the way it should. At least not as far as can be seen from Sael’s catalogues, for he advertised it in almost exactly the same way again in 1794.[8] No catalogues of Sael’s seem to have survived from after 1794, so I don’t know whether he sold it later on. In any case he had estimated it rather high with the 5 shillings he charged for it, as it usually was advertised for around 3 shillings at the time.[9] Given that he described the copy as extraordinarily fair, this must not have been an unreasonable pricing after all, as a good fitment could fetch quite a high premium in a title.

But if I cannot say anything about Sael’s success in selling this copy, what about the seriousness of the claim he made about the connection to Gibbon?

Well, this is easier to do as it I can just look it up. And doing so reveals some interesting things. The first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1770,[10] and it actually featured one quotations from Renaudot.[11] So far, so good, had it not referred to a completely different publication, Eusèbe Renaudot’s Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum of 1713.[12] Gibbon referred to the Ancient Accounts of India and China for the first time in the fourth volume, printed in 1788.[13] Yet it may be doubted, I think, if this particular reference (footnote 70, see green markings) really constitutes the “several particulars” Sael was speaking of.

Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4, 1788, p. 75.

There is however a second reference to the Ancient Accounts within the same volume, and it would be the last Gibbon was ever to make in the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It was to a rather more ‘curious’ passage, as Gibbon used Renaudot’s accounts to back up an argument which he had found in Montesquieu’s l’Esprit des Loix:

A French philosopher (199) has dared to remark, that whatever is secret must be doubtful, and that our natural horror of vice may be abused as an engine of tyranny. But the favourable persuasion of the same writer, that a legislature may confide in the taste and reason of mankind, in impeached by the unwelcome discovery of the antiquity and extent of the disease (200).

Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4, 1788, p. 409–410.
Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 4, 1788, p. 410

The accompanying footnote 200, where Renaudot’s edition is listed as providing evidence to support Gibbon’s rather bleak inference from Montesquieu’s claim – something I’m quite sure the abbé Renaudot would certainly not have approved of, neither Gibbon’s argument nor Montesquieu as its source – is interesting insofar as it indicates that Gibbon was aware enough of the complicated history of the Anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine to know the controversies around it, of which I have already written something in an older post. By acknowledging them, Gibbon effectively undermined Sael’s claim to the usefulness of Renaudot’s account as such.

Finally, of forgetting

So where does this take me? It provides a glance into some ‘curious particulars’ of the end of the 18th century which seem quite interesting to me. First of all, Sael obviously neither trusted the name of Renaudot nor the title of the publication nor the copies’ alleged material qualities enough to sell the book off on their own, but he chose to qualify it by a reference to an author and work which were more recent and more popular, and perhaps still present enough in the back of the mind of his customers to entice them to buy the Ancient Accounts – 1788 was only four years ago in 1792, and in 1790 there even had been a new edition of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire.[14] And even as Sael did advertise it this way, he either himself had not read his Gibbon very carefully, or he speculated on customers who had not read their Gibbon carefully enough to spot the mismatch between the advertisement and the actual publication.

What got a bit lost in this discussion were the two Muslim travellers who had left behind the account which Renaudot had translated in 1718. They really did not make their way into the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as Gibbon only referred to Renaudot’s commentaries, and not to the text itself. From a point of view centring on structural forgetting, it looks like as if Renaudot for a larger British readership without a special background in Oriental learning, as it was called back then, was forgotten enough in 1792 to only be attractive when coupled with a reference to a recent publication, although the allusion was in fact misleading. For someone like Edward Gibbon, who commanded the necessary learning, the situation might be quite different, and he would quote a work like the Historiarum Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum 17 times where he would quote the Ancient accounts of India and China, by two Mohammedan travellers only twice. This was quite the reverse of the situation as it was on the used book market, where I have met with 40 announcements of the Ancient Accounts on sale between 1735 and 1801 in English book sales catalogues compared to only three of the Historia Patriarcharum (in 1732, 1762, and 1790). If the frequency with which announcements of a particular work to be sold may serve as an indicator of it going out of fashion, it would point to Renaudot becoming structurally forgotten for the larger British audience in the 1780s. There is a first wave of sales in the 1760s, when the last of the first generation of owners would presumably die; a second wave around one generation later in the 1780s, when a second generation of owners might die. But the 1780s wave did not subside but hold on throughout the 1790s, and this might point to the booksellers not getting rid of the copies they had.

The interesting question would now be whether Gibbon had acquired his specialist knowledge about Renaudot’s Historiarum Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum as a British historian, or if it was due to his spell on the continent (in Lausanne, 1753–1758) or his flirtation with Roman Catholicism in the early 1750s, but that might be a story for some week to come.


[1] Sael, George. Moral biography; or, the worthies of England displayed: containing the lives of men eminently distinguished for their virtues and talents. Designed for the use of private families and public schools. Embellished with a fine engraving. London: George Sael 1798; and: Sael, George. Moral biography; or, the worthies of England displayed: containing the lives of persons eminently distinguished for their virtues and talents. Designed for the use of private families and public schools. Second edition, improved. Embellished with a fine engraving. London: George Sael [1798].

[2] Sael, George: Sael’s Catalogue for 1792, consisting of Twenty Thousand Volumes; including two Libraries lately Purchased; and many rare and curious Books, collected from various Parts of the Kingdom; with a choice Collection of the most esteemed modern Publications: The whole forming an extensive Variety of the best Authors in every Branch of Literature; many of which are in elegant Bindings. […] Which are now selling, for ready Money only, at the exceeding low Prices printed in the Catalogue. by G. Sael, Bookseller, at the English Library, Newcastle Street, Strand, London, Who gives the full Value for Libraries and Parcels of Books, or Books exchanged. Catalogues may be had at the Place of Sale; of Mr. Richardson, at the Royal Exchange; Messrs. Merrills, Cambridge; Prince and Co. Oxford; Mr. Poole, Chester; and of the principal Booksellers in every County Town in England. Those Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of G. Sael’s future Catalogue, in either Town or Country, may depend on receiving it, by favouring him with their Address before the Publication. Country Dealers, and all Public Schools, &c. supplied with all Publications whatever, on the lowest Terms, and with the utmost Dispatch. Orders for Exportation punctually executed. [London]: George Sael [1792].

[3] Lackington, James. Lackington’s Catalogue for 1792. Consisting of One Hundred Thousand volumes, in various Languages and Classes of Learning; Including many valuable Libraries Lately purchased. With many Articles but just published; A very large Number in an uncommon Variety of plain, elegant and superb Bindings. Also many scarce, old, and valuable Books. […] By J. Lackington, at his shop, No. 46 and 47, Chiswell-Street, Moorfields, London. Where Libraries or Parcels of Books are purchased on a new Plan, by which the Seller is sure to have the utmost Value in ready Money, or in other Books. *** Not an Hour’s Credit will be given to any Person, nor any Books Exported, or sent into the Country, before they are paid for. Catalogues may be had at the Shop, and of Mr. C. H. Lackington (Private House) No. 12, Charles-Street, St. James’s-Square; also of the following Booksellers; Barker, Russell-Court, Drury-Lane; Marsom, No. 187, High Holborn; Lunn, Cambridge; Merrick, Oxford; Gander or Hodges, Sherborne; Hazard, Bath; Rollason, Coventry; Deck, Bury; Haydon, Plymouth; Edwards, Norwich; Bulgin, Bristol; Fisher, Newcastle; and also at Freeth’s Coffee House, Birmingham. [N.B.] To prevent Mistakes, those who send for any Books are desired, besides the Numbers, to send the first Words and the Prices of the Article they want. *** Book-Binding done in the newest Taste and exceeding cheap. [London]: n.p. [1792]

[4]  Sael, George: Sael’s Catalogue for 1792, consisting of Twenty Thousand Volumes […] [London]: George Sael [1792], p. 49.

[5] Renaudot, Eusèbe (transl., ed.): Anciennes Relations des Indes et de la Chine de deux voyageurs mahométans, qui y allèrent dans le neuvième siècle, traduites d’arabe (par l’abbé Eusèbe Renaudot), avec des remarques sur les principaux endroits de ces relations. Paris: Jean-Baptiste Coignard 1718.

[6] Renaudot, Eusèbe (ed.), Anon. (transl): Ancient accounts of India and China, by two Mohammedan travellers. Who went to those parts in the 9th century; translated from the Arabic by the late learned Eusebius Renaudot. With notes, illustrations and inquiries by the same hand. London: Printed for Samuel Harding 1733.

[7] Sael, George: Sael’s Catalogue for 1792, consisting of Twenty Thousand Volumes […] [London]: George Sael [1792], p. 46.

[8] Sael, George: A Catalogue of an extensive Collection of curious Books: with ancient Manuscripts, Missals, and Authors of uncommon Rarity, collected with much labour from various Parts of the Kingdom, and some elegant Libraries lately offered for Sale; the whole forming a great Variety of scarce and valuable Works in every Branch of Literature. […] And are now selling, for Ready Money only, at the low Prices printed in the Catalogue, by G. Sael, Bookseller, No. 20, Newcastle Street, Strand, London, where the full Value is given for Libraries and Parcels of Books, or Books exchanged. Catalogues may be had at the Place of Sale; of Mr. Richardson, at the Royal Exchange; Mess. Merrils, Cambridge; Jones, Chichester; Cooke & Palmer, Oxford; Hodges, Sherborne; Whittingham, Lynn; Bancks, Manchester; Dyer, Exeter; Poole, Chester; Binns, Leeds; Lowe, Birmingham; Bull […] [London]: George Sael [1794], p. 57: “1078 Renaudot’s Ancient Accounts of India and China, by two Mahommedan Travellers, who went there in the Ninth Century, neat, 5s 1733 *Gibbon, in his Roman History, makes honourable mention of this book, from which he has borrowed several particulars relating to his History.”

[9] Cf. the following catalogues:

  • Booth & Son: A Catalogue of Books, containing more than Twenty Thousand Volumes, including the Libraries of the Rev. John Brooke, D.D. Rector of Colney; the Rev. C. Topping, M.A. Vicar of Bradenham; and the Rev. J. Arnam, M.A. Rector of Postwick; and several other Collections; […] Which are now selling, 1789 (for ready Money) at the Prices in the Catalogue, by Booth and Son, Booksellers, Market-Place, Norwich. Catalogues to be had of Mr. Law, Ave Maria Lane, and Messrs. Wilkie, St. Paul’s Church Yard, London; the Booksellers in Lynn, Yarmouth, Bury, Cambridge, York, &c. and at the Place of Sale. [Norwich] [1789], p. 58: “1892 Renaudot’s Ancient Accounts of India and China, neat, 1s 6d 1733”.
  • Robson, James. A Catalogue of Books, comprehending many Libraries, particularly that of Robert Butler, Esq. and a General Officer, lately Deceased; Also the valuable Articles at the Pinelli Sale, intended for Abroad. Many capital Books of Prints, Natural History, Manuscripts, an Missals, finely illuminated. The whole in excellent Condition […] Which are now selling (1791) at the Prices affixed, for Ready Money only, by James Robson, Bookseller, in New Bond-Street. [N.B.] The full Value given for any Library or Parcel of Books. Catalogues, Price Six-pence, may be had at the Place of Sale; of Mr. Davis, Holborn; Mr. Law, Ave-Maria Lane; and Mr. Sewell, Cornhill. [London] [1791], p. 218: “6810 Renaudot’s Ancient Accounts of India and China, 3s 1733”
  • Simco, John: A catalogue of books, prints, and books of prints, For 1792. Consisting of a great variety of curious articles, Selected from the valuable Libraries which have been sold during the last Winter; consisting of antient Mss. and missals, illuminated on vellum and paper; capital books of prints, histories of counties, black-letter books, &c. […] The books are now selling, for ready money only, the price of every book printed in the catalogue, By John Simco, book and print seller, No. 11, Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Catalogues (price Sixpence) may be had of the following Booksellers, S. Hayes, No. 332, Oxford Street; Egerton, Whitehall; Sewell, Cornhill; Cook, Oxford; Merrills and Lunn, Cambridge; and Archer, Dublin. The full Value given for any Library or Parcel of Books, also Books exchanged. [London] [1792], p. 92: “2344 Renaudot’s (Eusebius) Ancient Accounts of India, and China, 3s 6d 1738”.
  • White, Benjamin & White, John: A Catalogue of an extensive and curious Collection of Books in every Language, and Class of Literature; containing two entire Valuable Libraries, and many costly Articles of Natural History; with a good Collection of Law Books. […] The sale will begin on Monday, the 13th of February, 1792, by Benjamin White and Sons, Booksellers, at Horace’s Head, in Fleet-Street, London. N.B. The Lowest Prices are marked in the Catalogue, and in the first Leaf of every Book. Catalogues may be had at the Place of Sale; also of Mr. Richard White, Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer, No. 76, Oxford-Street, opposite the Pantheon, and at Mr. Harris, Printseller, Sweeting’s Alley, Cornhill. [London] [1792], p. 343: “10916 Renaudot’s ancient Accounts of India and China, 4s 6d 1733”.
  • Edwards, James: A Catalogue of Books, in all Languages, and in every Branch of Literature, collected from various Parts of Europe. […] Now on Sale at J. Edwards’s, No. 77, Pall Mall, London. The Prices are printed in the Catalogue, and marked in the first Leaf of each Book. MDCCXVI. [London] 1796, p. 312: “7665 Renaudot’s Ancient Accounts of Persia [sic] and China, 3s 1733”.
  • Todd, John: J. Todd’s catalogue for 1794. A catalogue of a most valuable and curious collection of prints, drawings, books of prints, &c. amongst which are the entire collection of Marmaduke Tunstall of Wycliffe, Esq. lately deceased to which are added a select collection of books, in all languages, and in every class of literature, including the principal Part of the library of The late Right Hon. Lord Viscount Fairfax, Of Gilling Castle, in this Country, And several other Libraries and Parcels of Books lately purchased. The Whole will begin to be sold extremely Cheap, at the Prices printed in the Catalogue, on Monday, March 17, 1794, for Ready Money only, and continue on Sale till Christmas next, By J. Todd, Bookseller, Stationer, and Printseller, in Stonegate, York. – The full Value for Libraries, Parcels of Books, and Prints, in Ready Money. Catalogue, Price 1s. may be had of Mr. Johnson, Bookseller, St. Paul’s Church Yard, London, and at the Place of Sale. [York] [1794]: p. [174]: “5263 Renaudot’s Ancient Accounts of India and China, neat, 2s 1733”.

[10] Gibbon, Edward. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. By Edward Gibbon, Esq; Volume the first. London: printed for Strahan & Cadell 1776, p. 508–509: “Three bishops were consecrated by the hands of Demetrius, [509] and the number was increased to twenty by his successor Heraclas (162).” For note 162 see p. lxxiv: “[Notes on the fifteenth Chapter] (162) For the succession of the Alexandrian bishops, consult Renaudot’s History, p. 24, &c.”

[11] Gibbon, Edward. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. By Edward Gibbon, Esq; Volume the first. London: printed for Strahan & Cadell 1776, p.

[12] Renaudot, Eusèbe: Historia Patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum A D. Marco Usque Ad Finem Saeculi XIII: Cum Catalogo Sequentium Patriarcharum & collectaneis Historicis ad ultima tempora spectantibus; Inseruntur Multa Ad Res Ecclesiasticas Jacobitarum Patriarchatûs Antiocheni, Aethiopiae, Nubiae & Armeniae pertinentia, Paris: Fournier 1713.

[13] Gibbon, Edward: The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. By Edward Gibbon, Esq; Volume the Fourth, London: printed for Strahan and Cadell 1788.

[14] Gibbon, Edward: The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. By Edward Gibbon, Esq. A New Edition. London: printed for Strahan and Cadell, 12 vols., [1790].


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