Banned Books Week always brings out some wild stories about books being banned for outrageous reasons. My favorite has always been the one about Fahrenheit 451 being banned because it's about the horrible and detrimental act of book burning. I have no idea whether it's true that a book was censored because it was about censorship, but it's a clear sign of the kind of idiocy and irony we have come to accept. And my joyful reaction to that story is, I admit, a type of intellectual Schadenfreude.
But whenever I hear these stories, and especially during Banned Books Week, I am always left wondering who it is that is doing the banning. What people or groups claim to have the authority to keep other people from looking at words on a page?
So I thought this week, I would explore the question and offer some answers.
One group that bans books is the Roman Catholic Church. Or rather, they have banned books in the past, but they don't anymore.
The Church's need to ban books didn't really take hold until a few rather important things came together:
- Literacy among the laity grew enough that limiting their literature would make a difference.
- People began writing things that the Church disagreed with.
- Literature became easier to produce and distribute.
Gutenberg developed his printing press in the mid-1400s. As the fledgling printing industry grew, so did the availability and affordability of books. So much for #3.
The availability of books, combined with other social and political changes, led to an overall increase in scholarship and literacy among the general population. That takes care of #1.
People have been writing heretical things since forever, but many of them either went unnoticed or simply petered out. That wouldn't happen in 1517, when Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, leading to the Protestant Reformation and, ultimately, to the beginning of the Catholic Church's history of banning books.
In the mid-1500s, during the rise of Protestantism, a number of high-profile Catholic clergy left their posts and sided with the Protestants. This included Bernardo Ochino, the head of the Capuchin Order and one of the most popular preachers in Italy, who fled in 1542. Even then, publishers knew that scandals sell books, and so Swiss printing presses began putting out his writings en masse. Worried that he might lose more followers to Protestantism, Pope Paul III banned from Italy the works of Ochino and many others who had changed sides.
|Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564).|
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For a number of reasons, including that it pissed of Venetian merchants, the Pauline Index lasted only a few years. But in 1564, following the Council of Trent, the Tridentine Index was published. Like its predecessor, the purpose of the Tridentine Index was to stem the growth of Protestantism, but by banning all works of some Protestant scientists, the index also stymied the growth of scientific discourse and exploration. It also led to a lucrative underground market in forbidden texts.
The Tridentine Index would be the model for the official banned book list until Pope Leo XIII's Index Leonianus in 1897.
The Index was updated and corrected from time to time. The last edition of it — either the 20th or 32nd edition, Internet sources disagree — was published in 1948 and listed 4,000 titles. In 1966, under Pope Paul VI, the Index was discontinued. The Church can still issue an admonitum on a book, warning the pious that a book might be dangerous, but such a decree does not bear the power of ecclesiastical law.
|Pope Paul VI pretending|
to smoke a cigarette.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Let me put it plainly so there is no misunderstanding by people looking for an argument: The Catholic Church no longer bans books, and hasn't for 50 years.
The various Indexes contained the names of a lot of the scientists and philosophers you would expect to find: Kepler, Kant, Descartes, Mill, Darwin. However, these men wrote about subjects that contradicted official Church canon, so it is perhaps understandable that they make the list. But a number of well-known fiction writers have made the list as well:
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Daniel Defoe
- Alexandre Dumas
- Gustav Flaubert
- André Gide
- Graham Greene
- Victor Hugo (specifically Les Misérables)
- George Sand
- Jonathan Swift
Find out more about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum at the Beacon for Freedom of Expression, and you can see the complete list of banned books from the 1948 Index at Cégep du Vieux Montréal.