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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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