Monthly Archives: September 2011

Index, Imprimatur, and Banned Books Week

September 24 marked the beginning of Banned Books Week, a yearly celebration of the freedom to read.  Books in Special Collections are no stranger to banning and censorship – most were subject to some form of official approval, and many were banned at some point in their history.

Censorship and the License to Print

Imprimatur in Il maritaggio delle mvse: poema drammatico by Giovanni Giacomo Ricci (Venice, 1633).

Imprimatur in Il maritaggio delle mvse: poema drammatico by Giovanni Giacomo Ricci (Venice, 1633).

The printing press presented a new set of challenges to authorities who wanted to control the spread of ideas.  In 1485, in the birthplace of printing, the archbishop of Mainz issued a censorship decree that imposed a licensing requirement on the printing of all vernacular texts.  In 1515, Pope Leo X extended that decree to all translations to and from Latin, placing such texts subject to licensing and clerical review in order to keep the faithful from falling into error.[1]

By the seventeenth century, book publication in most European countries was regulated by a licensing board made up of Church or state officials.  Fail to get a license to print, an imprimatur, and your book was effectively banned.  Legitimately printed books featured the imprimatur prominently, often on the verso of the title page.

Title page from Nucleus historiæ ecclesiasticæ by Christopher Sandius (Amsterdam, 1676), with a false imprint.

Title page from Nucleus historiæ ecclesiasticæ by Christopher Sandius (Amsterdam, 1676), with a false imprint.

Of course, books were still printed without a license – and these often included a false imprint, to make it look like they had been printed somewhere else.  Printers used this bit of subterfuge to publish texts seen as subversive, heretical, or immoral.[2]

The book on the right is a work by Christopher Sandius promoting Arian and Socinian beliefs.  It was published in Amsterdam by Christoph Petzold.   However, Petzold issued it with a false imprint identifying a publisher in Köln.  The false imprint protected Petzold, and to some extent Sandius as well, and it enabled the publication of beliefs condemned by Protestant and Catholic authorities.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Underground publications like that of Sandius presented a challenge to religious and state officials: censorship wasn’t enough to keep dangerous ideas out of public circulation.  Authorities responded with outright bans of books already in print.

Title page of Philip II's edict concerning prohibted books (Antwerp, 1570)

Title page of Philip II's edict concerning prohibted books (Antwerp, 1570)

Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, and countries ruled by Catholic monarchs, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) provided a definitive guide for what was legal reading material, and what wasn’t.  The Index was first endorsed by Pope Pius IV in 1564 during the Council of Trent (it’s sometimes called the Tridentine Index because of this).  In 1569, with the Pope’s sanction, the Duke of Alba issued a supplement to the Index, adding more titles to the list.

Special Collections has a version of the Index accompanied by an edict issued by Philip II of Spain.  This version of the Index was released in 1570 in response to an uprising in the Netherlands, a territory Spain had recently acquired.  Issued in French, Dutch, and Latin, Philip’s Index was meant to eradicate political protest and Protestantism in the Netherlands, a goal he never achieved.  It’s interesting to note that this Index was printed by the renowned Christopher Plantin.  Modern scholars have discovered that Plantin himself was involved in surreptitious printing of heretical and scientific texts.

First edition of Galileo's Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632)

First edition of Galileo's Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632)

The Index was updated and re-issued periodically, and authors were added or removed as opinion changed.  Galileo Galilei’s heliocentric Dialogo, for example, was condemned as heretical and banned shortly after its publication in 1632; by 1758, however, works dealing with heliocentrism were removed from the Index.  Pope Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966.

Book Banning Continues

Book banning was certainly not limited to the Index, and it has been practiced in the United States for hundreds of years.  In 1650, only twelve years after the first printing in North America, Puritans in Boston held the continent’s first book burning.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, United States Customs and the U.S. Post Office regularly confiscated shipments of books under the auspices of anti-obscenity legislation, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Voltaire’s Candide, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In schools and public libraries, attempts to ban books continue.  Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned periodically in American schools since its publication, as have childhood favorites such as James and the Giant Peach and A Wrinkle in Time.  This summer, a high school in Republic, Missouri, drew national attention for banning Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  For more information about current attempts to ban books, see Mapping Censorship from the Banned Books Week website.

Read More

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.  New York : Cambridge University Press, 1980, c1979.

Heresy and Error: The Ecclesiastical Censorship of Books, 1400-1800.  Digital exhibit, Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, 2010.

Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas.”  J Am Acad Relig (September 2006) 74 (3): 593-614. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfj117

Joan Stack, ed., The Art of the Book: Manuscripts and Early Printing, 1000-1650.  Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, Board of Curators, c2003.

[1] Eisenstein, 347.

[2] Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, printers also used false imprints to pirate popular works and turn a quick profit – but that’s another story.

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What’s the oldest item in Special Collections?

We get this question a lot – and we posed it as a multiple-choice trivia question this week on our Facebook page.  Now it’s time to reveal the answer.   Which is the oldest item in Special Collections?

And the winner is… The Mesopotamian Clay Tablet

Cuneiform tablet, ca. 2500 B.C.E.As far as we know, this cuneiform tablet dates to around 2500 B.C.E., making it the oldest item held in Special Collections (it predates the next oldest item, an Egyptian scarab seal, by about 500 years).

This tablet is one of eight held in the Special Collections department.  Although the other seven tablets have been translated, this one has never been deciphered.  If you read any of the ancient Near Eastern dialects, we’d love to hear from you!

For more information about the cuneiform tablets in Special Collections, see the online exhibit Cuneiform Tablets: Records of Ancient Mesopotamia see the list on our website [digital exhibit retired; link updated 11/10/2014].

What about the other options?

This was a tough question, because all of the items were the oldest in one way or another.  More information below.

The Hebrew Scroll

Hebrew scroll, seventeenth centuryIf you guessed that the scroll represents the oldest book form in Special Collections, you were right!  The scroll predated the codex (the form we usually associate with a book nowadays) by thousands of years.

In most of the Western world, the codex replaced the scroll gradually, from around 300 to 500 A.D.  However, among Jewish communities, the scroll retained its place as the primary form for storing and transmitting information.  Jewish congregations still use temple scrolls produced to strict specifications in their rituals of worship.

Although it’s old, this parchment scroll is far from ancient.  It dates from the 1600s, contains the Book of Ruth, and was probably not produced for temple reading.  It fits conveniently into the hand, the perfect size for personal study.

The Latin Manuscript Codex

Priscianus, De Constructione, ca 1150This manuscript copy of De Constructione by Priscianus dates to around 1150 A.D.  Although Special Collections holds manuscript fragmePriscianus, De Constructione.  Binding, 15th century.nts that are older, this is the oldest complete book in the collection.  It is a work on grammar, written in Latin with passages in Greek.

The binding of this manuscript was done later than the text, but it is also interesting because it’s a good example of a fifteenth-century German binding in blind-tooled pigskin.  The back board still shows discoloration from the former site of a metal clasp.

The Egyptian Papyrus Fragment

Papyrus fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, ca. 1100-1150 B.C.E.Dating from approximately 1500-1100 B.C.E., this fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead isn’t the oldest item in Special Collections – but it is the oldest piece of writing on papyrus in Special Collections.

Papyrus is a plant that grows along the marshy banks of the Nile River, and the ancient Egyptians used it to make a paper-like substance for writing.  Papyrus became one of Egypt’s main exports and was used throughout the ancient world, in Greece, modern-day Turkey, and the Middle East.


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“Simple in vocabulary while majestic in effect”: 400th anniversary of the King James Translation of the Bible

The most published book in the world celebrates its 400th anniversary.

King James Bible 1611. Title page

Soon after March 24th 1603, when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the English crown, a crowd of Puritans approached him with their petition. They requested that all traces of Catholicism were removed from the Church of England service. Upon thorough consideration of their request the King rejected the whole document and even threatened to “harry the Puritans out of the land, or else do worse”.

But he surprisingly agreed to commission a new translation of the English Bible — a last-minute added wish by one of the Puritans, known as Dr. John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi College in Oxford. The 47 translators were selected based exclusively on their scholarly reputation without regard of religious convictions, thus about a quarter of them were Puritans.

Though it is officially called the Authorized Version, King James never technically authorized this new translation of the Bible into English. It is possible to assume that this version which is now firmly connected with the King’s name was called “authorized” in opposition to the two preceding attempts made by the early dissidents – Wycliffe and ill-fated Tyndale. This translation meant to play an important role in uniting all Protestant Englishmen despite their religious differences, the endeavor started by Elizabeth I with The Act of Uniformity in 1559.

Dedication to the King

As Leland Ryken puts it: “The King James style is a paradox: it is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect. However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant.” *

These words capture well the impression King James Bible makes on all who love the English language.

Perhaps nothing influenced the English and eventually American literature and literary language more than KJB. Edmund Wilson thought that “other cultures have felt its impact, and none — in the West, at least – seems quite to accommodate to it. Yet we find we have been living with it all our lives”**

Small wonder: first [pilgrim] settlers in America were people of the Bible, and many early American towns carry Biblical names, such as Salem, Mass, 1626; Bethel, Conn, 1700; Shiloh, NJ, 1705; Ephrata, Penn, 1732; Nazareth, Penn., 1740;  Emmaus, Penn.,1740; Bethlehem, NH, 1774, etc. Seven towns named Galilee, fifteen named Trinity, fourteen – St. Joseph, including one in Missouri; as well as St. Mary, MO — one of the nineteen American towns with this name.

Everyday idiomatic usage is replete with hidden or obvious direct quotations from the KJB. Here are a few common examples:

At his wit’s end – Psalms, 107:27

God save the king – The First Book of Samuel, 10:24

My brother’s keeper – Genesis, 4:9

The land of the living – Job, 28:13

The root of the matter– Job 19:28

Fell flat on his face — Numbers 22:31

The salt of the earth– Matthew 5:13

Labor of love — Thessalonians 1:2, 1:3:

A two-edged sword—Proverbs 5:4

White as snow — Daniel 7:9:

A drop in the bucket — Isaiah 40:15

A wolf in sheep’s clothing — Matthew 7:15

Woe is me – Job 10:15

Beat swords into ploughshares — Isaiah II

In the twinkling of an eye1 Corinthians 15:52

Sign of the times — Matthew 16:3

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41

You reap what you sow — Galatians VI

Physician heal thyself — Luke 4:23

Man does not live by bread alone — Deuteronomy 8:3

A broken heart — Psalms 34:18

It’s better to give than to receive — Acts 20:35

Good Samaritan — Luke 10:30/33

Feet of clay — Daniel 2: 31-33

Don’t cast your pearls before swine — Matthew 7:6,

A voice crying in the wilderness– John 1:23

Awake and sing– – Isaiah 16:19

We also encounter these quotations in our everyday lives, as I did while at the ALA conference in Philadelphia last year where I took this picture.

“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10) – The Liberty Bell in the Liberty Bell Center, Philadelphia.


*Leland Ryken. How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time. WSJ, August 27, 2011

**Robert Alter. Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Princeton U Press, 2010.

John Bartlett. Familiar Quotations: A Collection of passages, Phrases and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. Boston, 1855.

Highway 70 from Columbia, MO to St. Louis.


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