John Donne's Biathanatos (1648)

Title Page of John Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 1. Title page of John Donne's 1648 edition of Biathanatos at the University of Victoria.

Portrait of John Donne

Fig 2. Portrait of John Donne from the National Portrait Gallery, London UK. NPG 6790. License.

Printers and Paradoxes

"For, although this Booke appeare under the notion of a Paradox, yet, I desire your Lordship, to looke upon this Doctrine, as a firme and established truth."

So ends the dedicatory epistle John Donne's son wrote to Lord Phillip Harbert when he sought approval to publish his father's highly controversial Biathanatos, a work named after the Greek word meaning a "violent death." Arguing against the presumed sinfulness of suicide—or self-homicide as this act was called in the seventeenth century—this book participates in the complex political and theological tensions of early modern London. The assertion of truth in this opening letter takes a bold and provocative stance, questioning knowledge during the Civil War (1642–1651) and a precarious time of censorship and religious conflict. 

Written by the influential John Donne (1572-1631), who also served as the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, Biathanatos existed only in manuscript form after the poet's death. The two earliest surviving versions of the book bear the dates 1644 and 1648, but many scholars believe these copies were both first printed in 1647 (Sullivan 63-4). The book would later be printed again in 1700, creating a history of printing that indicates the text had enough popularity—or notoriety perhaps—to inspire revived readership for over half a century. 

The edition of Biathanatos in Special Collections at the University of Victoria includes the 1648 date on its title page, situating it at a crucial time when the Civil War limited resources and heightened social and political conflict. Who would print and read such a controversial book at this time? It is impossible to know precisely who read Biathanatos, but the edition in Special Collections offers evidence that makes it possible to trace the types of readers who might have been drawn to it. This examination will show how the layout of each page speaks to the printer's imagined audience and how the introductory material that accompanies the main text illuminates Donne's ideal reader, even if he never intended to publish the work. The controversial book further reveals how authors, printers, publishers, and readers interacted in the seventeenth century and positions these individuals in conversation with one another.

The materiality of the book and its social context reveal the various types of readers imagined during the long process that brought Biathanatos from its manuscript to the printer and, finally, to a wider audience. Understanding how Biathanatos crafts an imagined reader is crucial not only for locating Donne's work in a vital theological conversation but also for examining how the materiality of the book reaffirms and echoes its arguments.

"All aspects of the text's physical form are capable of constituting meaning. Choices of paper, format, type, ornament, illustration, binding and page layout were made by one or more agents, singly or collaboratively."

(Bell 632)

List of Authors Cited in Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 13. First of four pages listing authors cited in the book.

Table of Contents in Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 14. A detailed list of parts, distinctions, and sections.

Citation and Evidence

Continuing the emphasis on legitimacy and authority, the book includes a paratextual list of authors cited in the work (see figure 13). The list spans four pages with double columns and includes 173 names, but it fails to inspire aesthetic attractiveness or engage readers through an explicit argument. Instead, the greatest impact of the list is its length and the sheer quantity of names—which readers may or may not have recognized—that can be used to support Donne's defence of suicide. The list implies that Biathanatos is grounded in strong textual evidence and partakes in a conversation with ancient and contemporary authorities, features that help persuade skeptical readers. This dialogue between writers, despite the fact that Donne died over a decade before its publication, legitimizes his arguments as it situates the work in an established scholarly context. Moreover, this type of list appears in other theological books, indicating that Biathanatos engages with an early modern tradition and style of argumentation.


A Distribution of this Book

The "Distribution" of Biathanatos follows the list of authors and resembles a modern table of contents (see figure 14). This paratext divides the three major parts of the main text into "distinctions" and smaller, numbered "sections." While similar content lists are used to give structure to other early modern books, the high level of detail in Biathanatos demonstrates how Donne carefully and deliberately constructs his arguments. His ability to identify and summarize every feature of the book in great detail, paired with the amount of time it would have taken Donne to annotate these arguments throughout the margins of the full text, indicates that he valued his work. The level of detail allows potential readers to see this value as well. Readers could, moreover, scan through the contents for arguments that were especially appealing and read sections selectively. Although a reader could only understand the full argument by reading the entire book, offering easier ways into the text ensures that the work will not simply overwhelm readers—an important consideration in such a dense and difficult book.

A paratext "constitutes a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that ... is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it."

(Genette 2)

Dedicatory Letter in Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 19. Beginning of the dedicatory epistle.

Detail of Authority on the Title Page of Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 20. Close up of the title page that states the book was approved for publication.

Licensing Date on Donne's <em>Biathanatos</em>

Fig 21. Licensing date printed on the final page of the text.

Death and Dangerous Books

i. Traces of Censorship and Regulation

This copy of Biathanatos is a plain quarto edition with few decorations or embellishments. Compared to expensive and elaborate books produced during the seventeenth century, it is hardly an attractive example. Yet it bears traces of early modern printing practices that speak to issues of censorship and government regulations of printing and publishing. During this period, publishing in England was regulated by the Stationers' Company. They controlled the number of printing presses and printers, managed copyright through the Stationers' Company Register, and started screening books in 1538 to "ensure that they were acceptable for publication" (Levy and Mole 82). Biathanatos was entered into the Stationers' Register on 25 September 1646 (Sullivan 63), but it shows other evidence of regulation as well. The dedicatory letter suggests that books needed approval from higher authorities; similarly, the title page includes the phrase "Published by Authority" in red ink—a colour signaling the importance of such approval—which could only be written on books that were deemed acceptable for print.

At the end of the book, the printer states when the license to print Biathanatos was granted, and the date 20 September 1644 can be seen in figure 21. Examining the complex history of this work's transition from manuscript to print, Sullivan suggests that the license was given on the basis of a manuscript copy Donne's son submitted in 1644. He adds that the delay in printing the book—from the licensing date to the likely printing date of 1647 for both early editions—indicates that Donne struggled to find a printer who would attempt a controversial text that would have also been difficult to print on account of its detailed marginal notes (Sullivan 63). Together, these printing obstacles reveal the complex legal and financial barriers that impacted the printing of early modern books. It is also important to note that this book was printed during the Civil War, when censorship was not as strongly enforced. What types of books were allowed to circulate in early modern England, and why was a controversial text like Biathanatos printed multiple times?

ii. Authority and Legitimacy

Translating a manuscript into print raises questions about the value of books and the cultural sense of authority imbued in printed texts. Since Biathanatos was published after Donne's death, does the author still have control over it? Or does the reader give the text its authority? While manuscript copies could be altered for particular readers, the printed book was reproduced in mass quantities with few variations. A sense of permanence is associated with the printing press: "The physical characteristics of type also introduced limitations as to what could be done with a text once it had been printed. With a written document, insertion, deletion, contraction, correction, and, to some extent, erasure are straightforward activities" (Bland 118). The impression of an unchangeable book implies a firmness in the ideas written in the document. The book becomes a "firm and established truth" in a very literal sense, particularly as the moveable type is "transferred to a galley and locked within a forme" (Bland 118). The language used to describe the printing process suggests that words are secured in both the press and on the page, indicating the definitiveness associated with print.

The sense of timelessness given to the printed book reaffirms the authority of Biathanatos. However, handwriting offers its own benefits that indicate why Donne would only circulate his book in manuscript form during his life. Levy and Mole observe that manuscripts are more intimate and flexible: "In addition to being more accessible, handwriting was a more intimate form of communication, as it was produced directly from the hand of the writer, not mechanically reproduced in identical (or nearly identical) copies" (113). A more intimate form of textual production aligns with Donne's interest in sharing a thoughtful and rigorous examination of theology with his readers. Furthermore, the ability to revise such documents would offer protection for Donne, whose position as the Dean of St. Paul's could have been jeopardized by theologically questionable arguments. 


I owe many thanks to my classmates and to Dr. Alison Chapman for their feedback and invaluable guidance throughout the many stages of this research. My work would not be possible without the support of Special Collections as well, and the incredible patience and kindness I received while working with Biathanatos. I would also like to thank Lee Anderson for offering his Greek and Latin translations for this project, and for encouraging a love for Latin that has opened a world of possibilities in my early modern research.


Works Cited

Bell, Maureen. "Mise-en-Page, Illustration, Expressive Form." The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 632-635.

Bland, Mark. A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Chartier, Roger. The Author's Hand and the Printer's Mind. Polity P, 2014.

Donne, John. Biathanatos. Humphrey Moseley, 1648. PR2247 B5 1648. Special Collections, University of Victoria Libraries, Victoria, BC. 2017.

---. Biathanatos. John Dawson, 1644.

---. Biathanatos. London, 1700.

---. Psevdo-Martyr. Walter Burre, 1610. BX1492 D6. Special Collections, University of Victoria Libraries, Victoria, BC. 2017.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cambridge UP, 1997.

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Yale UP, 2011. 

Kuzner, James. "Donne's Biathanatos and the Public Sphere's Vexing Freedom." ELH, vol. 81, no. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 61-81. doi:10.1353/elh.2014.0002.

Levy, Michelle, and Tom Mole. The Broadview Introduction to Book History. Broadview P, 2017.

Milton, John. Areopagitica. London, 1644. 

Pendergast, John. Religion, Allegory, and Literacy in Early Modern England, 1560-1640: The Control of the Word. Ashgate, 2006.

Slights, William. Managing Readers: Printed Marginalia in English Renaissance Books. U of Michigan P, 2001.

Sullivan, Ernest. "The Genesis and Transmission of Donne's Biathanatos." Library: A Quarterly Journal of Bibliography, vol. 31, no. 1, 1976, pp. 52-72. doi:10.1093/library/s5-XXXI.1.52.


Works Consulted 

Bland, Mark. "Jonson, Biathanatos and the Interpretation of Manuscript Evidence." Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51, 1998, pp. 154-182. JSTOR,

Brayman Hackel, Heidi. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2005.

Como, David. "Print, Censorship, and Ideological Escalation in the English Civil War." Journal of British Studies, vol. 51, no. 4, October 2012, pp. 820-857. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1086/666848. 

Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints. Thams and Hudson, 1986.

Hadfield, Andrew, editor. Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England. Palgrave, 2001.

Peacey, Jason. Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution. Cambridge UP, 2013. 

Wheale, Nigel. Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660. Routledge, 1999.

Woodford, Benjamin. "Developments and Debates in English Censorship during the Interregnum." Early Modern Literary Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2014, p. 1-21. Literature Online,



John Donne's Biathanatos (1648)