Words can be dangerous. Though we tend to think of censorship and book banning as modern phenomena, the prohibition of books has existed since the creation of the written word. In honor of Banned Book Week, I want to take a quick look back at censored books in history.
Traditionally the people who banned books considered the words within them to be morally or politically destructive. These writings threatened the power structures of their given societies, and those societies recognized this threat early.
Rome established its first Office of the Censor, a position overseeing public morality, in 443 BC, and Qin Shi Huang, the ruler who consolidated the Chinese Qin Dynasty, is said to have burned Confucian writings beginning in 221 BC.
Though ancient societies frequently banned writings, the invention of the printing press and the subsequent explosion of the number of books resulted in increased restrictions on literature. In 1559, Catholic Pope Paul IV ordered the creation of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). Over the next 400 years, popes issued new editions of the work, and the most recent version was produced in 1948. The Indexes listed books banned either because of their morally corrupt contents or because they imperiled an established ideology. The lists featured works by authors such as Sartre, Voltaire, Rousseau, Gide, Kant, Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, and Pascal.
In general, the 16th century was a ripe one for censorship. In 1563, French King Charles IX asserted that books could only be printed with royal approval, and other European rulers followed suit. This allowed them to control both the artistic and political productions that surrounded them.
Censorship continued as European nations began their imperial conquests. During its invasion of the Mayan Empire, Spain and its inquisitorial officers attempt ed to obliterate the Maya Codices. These folding books were written in Maya hieroglyphic script and described history, culture, and religious convictions of the Mayan people. When explaining his reasons for destroying the books, Bishop Diego de Landa (1524-1579), the leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, asserted that the books “contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil.” Only 4 codices survived the purge.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, however, popular opinion began to turn against book banning. John Milton’s 1644 speech “Areopagitica” to the English Parliament defended the idea of freedom of speech, and other writers and philosophers of the day supported similar ideas. Change did not immediately occur, however, as is apparent by the King Charles II’s 1683 orders to burn the entire contents of the library at the University of Oxford. Eventually views shifted, and in 1766, Sweden became the first country to eliminate censorship laws and codify freedom of the press. Other European countries soon began to enact similar changes.
Despite the creation of laws protecting freedom of the press and freedom of speech, books and other written works were still frequently banned. During the 1800’s, Colonial governments kept a close eye on the works published within their domains in order to squash struggles for freedom, and writers for Japan’s first daily newspaper, Yokohama Mainichi, were often arrested or suppressed during the 1870’s. Libraries and schools also banned books for their corrupt contents. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, was first banned by the Concord Public Library of Massachusetts in 1885, the very year of its US publication.
Looking back at the history of banned books highlights both how carefully people have tried to control the written word and how much knowledge we have lost through those attempts. Many previously banned works such as those by Galileo, Voltaire, and Shakespeare have survived their censorship, but many others are now only dust. How much history was lost by the destruction of Maya Codices, Confucian texts, and a thousand other works beside that? What ideas do we not know that we’ll never know?
This was all just a very brief overview of a global history of book banning and censorship, and if any of it interested you, I encourage you to go explore the subject further. There is a lot of wonderful information available on it. If you know of any particularly good sources, please list them below! I’d also love to know more.
Pedro Guibovich Perez. “The Lima Inquisition and Book Censorship, 1570-1820.” http://search.beaconforfreedom.org/about_database/peru.html.
Inga Clendinnen. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Robert Darnton. Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014.
Claire Fallon. “6 Historical High Points Banning Books,” Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/23/historical-high-points-book-banning_n_5863804.html.
Anne Haight. Banned Books: Informal Notes on Some Banned Books for Various Reasons at Various Times and in Various Places. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1970.
Hans J. Hillerbrand. “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74:3, 2006: 593-614.
Rebecca Knuth. Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2006.
Mette Newth. “The Long History of Censorship.” http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/liste.html?tid=415&art_id=475.
Donald Thomas. A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England. New York: Praeger, 1969.