Josephus in the hands of Sir Roger L’Estrange

Sir Roger L’Estrange is probably mainly remembered today for his activities as a journalist and violent pamphleteer for the court during the reign of Charles II.[1]  As with others of Charles’ partisans, there was a strong element of ingratitude in all this.  L’Estrange had fought for Charles I in the civil war, but had received a pardon in 1653 from Oliver Cromwell, after which he had prospered under the commonwealth.  He was made surveyor of the press by the king in 1662, although the king did not see any reason to pay him a salary.

But how many of us are aware that this controversial figure was also a translator, and produced a translation of the works of Josephus?

A contemporary portrait of Sir Roger L’Estrange.

Yet so it is; the work appeared in 1702.  Even more interestingly, he became involved in a copyright dispute because of it!

The facts may be found in an old article by A.W. Pollard, “Copyright in Josephus”, in The Library 30 (1917), p.173-6.  Curiously Oxford University Press modestly ask for $44 in return for 24 hours access to this 101-year old item, here.

In 1609 a certain Thomas Lodge, “Doctor of Physick”, produced a translation  of The famous and memorable works of Josephus, based on the Latin and French.  This went through a number of editions, and a new edition appeared in 1676, revised against the French translation of Arnauld d’Andilly.

In 1693 a bookseller named Richard Sare advertised a new translation, by none other than Sir Roger L’Estrange.  On the 3rd April a bill appeared, signed by a number of booksellers, threatening legal action!

it being the Resolution of the Proprietors of the present English Copy, to use all lawful Means to vindicate their Right, and recover Satisfaction for the Damages they shall sustain by this New Undertaking; they and their Predecessors having been in just and quiet Possession of the same for near One Hundred Years, and having expended above Eight Hundred Pounds in amending their Translation by a Learned and Ingenious Hand, and in Printing a large Impression newly finish’d, now upon their hands.

Sare issued his own bill the next day, stating his intention to go on with it and disparaging the Lodge translation as “senseless”.

The new edition of Lodge did really exist, and really did appear in 1693, printed by Abel Roper, one of the signatories of the first bill.

The L’Estrange translation did not appear until nine years later, with the preface dated 28th January 1702, only a couple of years before L’Estrange’s death.  By that time the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary had come and gone.  The translator must have seemed like a ghostly figure from another age, as of course he was.

Pollard attributes the delay to bribery.  He points out that the owners of the Lodge translation had already made a substantial investment, even in their own terms, and paying off Sare or L’Estrange would have been worthwhile.  The claim to perpetual copyright in the translation is in keeping with the strange ideas of that age, and indeed was recognised by the old Common Law.  This somewhat vague right was reinforced, as was thought, by an Act of Queen Anne in 1710, giving copyright of 21 years exclusively to the publisher.

But what happened when the Queen Anne act expired?  There was a lawsuit, of course.  The essayist Augustine Birrell in “Authors in Court”[2], whom it is always a pleasure to read, recounts the matter.

These proceedings found their way, as all decent proceedings do, to the House of Lords — farther than which you cannot go, though ever so minded. It was now high time to settle this question, and their lordships accordingly, as was their proud practice in great cases, summoned the judges of the land before their bar, and put to them five carefully-worded questions, all going to the points — what was the old Common Law right, and has it survived the statute? Eleven judges attended, heard the questions, bowed and retired to consider their answers.  On the fifteenth of February, 1774, they reappeared, and it being announced that they differed, instead of being locked up without meat, drink, or firing until they agreed, they were requested to deliver their opinions with their reasons, which they straightway proceeded to do. The result may be stated with tolerable accuracy thus : by ten to one they were of opinion that the old Common Law recognised perpetual copyright. By six to five they were of opinion that the statute of Queen Anne had destroyed this right. The House of Lords adopted the opinion of the majority, reversed the decree of the Court below, and thus Thomson’s Seasonsbecame your Seasons, my Seasons, anybody’s Seasons.

Big money rested on all this.  Thomson the poet had sold his right for three of the Seasons to a certain Millar for a £242.  When Millar died in 1729, after selling the work for more than 40 years, his heirs sold the Seasons to a certain Beckett for £505.  Beckett himself sold the item also for more than 40 years.

All the same, claiming copyright on any English translation of an ancient author required quite a bit of impudence.

What did Sir Roger L’Estrange get for his translation?  For his folio volume of 1,130 pages, he received £300, plus a sixth part of the gross sales, plus 25 ordinary copies and 25 on royal paper.  The ordinary copies were priced at 25s, and the royal paper copies at  45s.  The edition was obviously a success, for a new edition in three volumes was accidentally destroyed in 1712 by a fire in the printer’s office.  There seem to have been reprints well into the 19th century.

I have not been able to locate a copy of L’Estrange’s work online.  It wouldn’t meet modern standards, I am sure.  But the tale is an interesting corner of the history of literature.

  1. [1]A short biography is here.
  2. [2]Res Judicatae, 1892, p.187, Archive.org here.