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Contours of the Premodern World

Tartarians and Heliopolitans in a Little-Known Book at the James Ford Bell Library

By July 14, 2022September 16th, 2023No Comments

Guest post by William Poole of New College, Oxford

The James Ford Bell Library holds a copy of a rather mysterious little book, published in 1689. It is a duodecimo of not quite two hundred pages, titled A Voyage into Tartary, containing a curious description of that country, with part of Greece and Turky; the manners, opinions, and religion of the inhabitants therein; with some other incidents, and it claims to be by one “M. Heliogenes de L’Epy, doctor in philosophy.” It is fairly uncommon: the English Short Title Catalogue recognizes only thirteen surviving copies, of which three are in the United States; and surprisingly few literary historians have noted its existence.

Frontispiece showing imposing woman in a shaft of light, with small child handing her a box of coins; others looking on. Also title page.

The frontispiece and title page of A Voyage Into Tartary by Heliogenes De L’Epy (London, 1689). Bell Call # 1689 sLe.

This is because A Voyage into Tartary is a book that at first sight looks like a genuine seventeenth-century travel account. Its narrator, Heliogenes, first tours parts of Greece and Turkey, describing them quite accurately in a manner corroborated by other travelers. Heliogenes then proceeds further east in the company of two friends and a fierce dog, some guides, and a translator. Various mishaps deprive Heliogenes of all his companions, one by one, until he comes to a remote location in “Tartary.” There he discovers, to his great surprise, a civilization of Greek-speaking philosophers, borderline atheists who give homage to the Sun, live in common and without the use of money, and who regard Christianity, when it is explained to them by Heliogenes, as spurious, filing Heliogenes’ New Testament among the books of “mythology” in their state library. These Greek-speakers, living in the perfectly constructed city of “Heliopolis,” turn out to be the descendants of the Athenian philosophers who had abandoned Athens after the death of Alexander the Great, heading east in search of a new life. Heliogenes lives among them for a time, and recounts various anecdotes about life in this enlightened polity, before returning home.

text from "A Voyage Into Tartary."

The obligations of children and ideas about education in Heliopolis.

Text image concerning the New Testament and curiosities.

One of the passages concerning the Heliopolitans’ confusion regarding the New Testament; textually connected with the curiosity collection.

Now even though A Voyage into Tartary can be found listed in some bibliographies under “travel literature,” this is all obviously made-up, a familiar tactic of utopian fiction at the time, which always starts out as a “real” voyage, corroborated by (because in fact copied from) other accounts from the time, but gradually shading into more and more obviously fictional territory. The author of this example is very likely a graduate, and a fairly recent one, skilled in Greek, and a remarkable free-thinker, one who creates and obviously approves of a society from which both Christianity and capitalism have been excluded. This is a vision obviously indebted to Thomas More’s foundational Utopia (1516), but whereas More’s Utopians profess themselves willing to embrace Christianity, the Heliopolitans of this account—who think the universe has existed from eternity, and who also have embraced heliocentrism since their earliest days—have no time for the concept of revealed religion. Indeed, as their discoverer confesses, “All the while that I convers’d with them, I could not find that they had any Notion of God after our manner.” This is very strong stuff for 1689.

Image of text: poem in Greek and English.

A hymn to the Sun, sung by the Heliopolitans. I have left my hand in the picture to give a sense of the size of this small book.

Monsieur Heliogenes sounds somewhat suspicious, and indeed there was clearly no such person. “Heliogenes” (“Sun-born” in Greek), a Frenchman, claims to have written his travel narrative in French, started publishing it in that language, interrupted the edition to go travelling again into the East, and returned to find his work translated into English, and ready to be published in that language. But in fact the work, despite its pretense to translation, is surely written by an unknown Englishman. His knowledge of Greece and Turkey is based on reliable sources, but his understanding of the Far East is rather shaky: he talks in terms not of China and the Kangxi Emperor, but of “Tartary” and the “Great Kam” (i.e. Khan), obvious and rather sloppy anachronisms by this date. His real interest is in carving out a suitably remote space for his utopian speculations, here expressed as a kind of classicist’s fantasy, not the only utopia of this age to set its sights on Ancient Greece as a culturally preferable world. As an eighteenth-century owner has written on the title-page of a copy in the library of All Souls College, Oxford, next door to my own college in Oxford, “Ingeniosè haud verè”— “smart, but not true.” A reader from the same period annotating the copy now in the Bodleian Library was somewhat blunter: “A novel writ by an Atheist.”

Image of text: author advertising his skills.

The author, “Heliogenes de L’Epy,” advertises his skills.

Who was “Heliogenes de L’Epy?” He dedicates his work to the Earl of Clanricarde, a real member of the Irish gentry; and he also advertises his services to English readers as a private tutor and physician, living “in Beauford Building’s in the Strand behind the Fountain Tavern, over against the Crown,” a genuine London address at the time. But this is all part of the hoax: “Heliogenes” is simply an etymological gesture towards the sun-worshippers of his Tartarian utopia, and “de L’Epy” is not a real French name. I wonder whether it is actually just an anagram for an English name, in which case Pedley is the only plausible solution. Now there was a family of Pedleys at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in the period, and John Pedley, who matriculated in 1684, before pursuing a legal career and finally becoming MP for Huntingdon in the early eighteenth century, might be one possibility—were it not that his life seems otherwise incongruously dull. So for now we just do not know who the real author was.

“Heliogenes” remains something of a mystery, but his voyage-turned-utopia deserves to be more widely remembered, and I hope that readers in the James Ford Bell Library will now find both motive and opportunity to do so.

William Poole is John Galsworthy Fellow in English at New College, Oxford, where he is also the Senior Tutor and the Fellow Librarian. His interests lie in early modern literary, intellectual, and scientific history.

Anne Good

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