Book censorship

“On account of the great ease,” says M. Putter, “with which, after the invention of printing, copies of books could be multiplied and dispersed, it was necessary that some means should be devised to prevent a bad use from being made of this art, and to guard against its being employed to the prejudice of either religion or good morals, or to the injury of states. For this reason it was everywhere laid down as a general maxim, that no one should be allowed to establish a printing office at pleasure, but by the permission and under the inspection of government; and that no work should be suffered to go to press until it had been examined by a censor appointed for that purpose, or declared by a particular order to be of a harmless nature 1260.”

Many centuries however before the invention of printing, books were forbidden by different governments, and even condemned to the flames. A variety of proofs can be produced that this was the case among both the ancient Greeks and Romans. At Athens the works of Protagoras were prohibited; and all the copies of them which could be collected were burnt by the public crier 1261. At Rome the writings of Numa, which had been found in his grave, were, by order of the senate, condemned to the fire, because they were contrary to the religion which he had introduced 1262. As the populace at Rome were, in times of public calamity, more addicted to superstition than seemed proper to the government, an order was issued that all superstitious and astrological books should be delivered into the hands of the prætor. This order was often repeated; and the emperor Augustus caused more than two thousand of these books to be burnt at one time 1263. Under the same emperor the satirical works of Labienus were condemned to the fire, which was the first instance of this nature; and it is related as something singular, that a few years after the writings of the person who had been the cause of the order for that purpose shared the like fate, and were also publicly burnt 1264. (In a manner somewhat similar the works of Ben. Arias Montanus, who assisted to make the first catalogue of prohibited books in the Netherlands, were afterwards inserted in a catalogue of the same kind). The burning of these works having induced Cassius Severus to say, in a sneering manner, that it would be necessary to burn him alive, as he had got by heart the writings of his friend Labienus, this expression gave rise to a law of Augustus against abusive writings 1265. When Cremutius Cordus, in his History, called C. Cassius the last of the Romans, the senate, in order to flatter Tiberius, caused the book to be burnt; but a number of copies were saved by being concealed 1266. Antiochus Epiphanes caused the books of the Jews to be burnt 1267 ; and in the first centuries of our æra the books of the Christians were treated with equal severity, of which Arnobius bitterly complains 1268. We are told by Eusebius, that Diocletian caused the sacred Scriptures to be burnt 1269. After the spreading of the Christian religion the clergy exercised against books that were either unfavourable or disagreeable to them, the same severity which they had censured in the heathens as foolish and prejudicial to their own cause. Thus were the writings of Arius condemned to the flames at the council of Nice; and Constantine threatened with the punishment of death those who should conceal them 1270. The clergy assembled at the council of Ephesus requested the emperor Theodosius II. to cause the works of Nestorius to be burnt; and this desire was complied with 1271. The writings of Eutyches shared the like fate at the council of Chalcedon; and it would not be difficult to collect examples of the same kind from each of the following centuries.

We have instances also that, many centuries prior to the invention of printing, authors submitted their works, before they were published, to the judgement of their superiors. This was done principally by the clergy; partly to secure themselves from censure or punishment, and partly to show their respect to the pope or to bishops. It however does not appear that this was a duty, but a voluntary act. In the year 768, Ambrosius Autpert, a Benedictine monk, sent his Exposition of the book of Revelation to Pope Stephen III., and begged that he would publish the work and make it known. On this occasion he says expressly, that he is the first writer who ever requested such a favour; that liberty to write belongs to every one who does not wish to depart from the doctrine of the fathers of the church; and he hopes that this freedom will not be lessened on account of his voluntary submission 1272.

Soon after the invention of printing, laws began to be made for subjecting books to examination; a regulation proposed even by Plato, and which has been wished for by many since. It is very probable that the fear under which the clergy were, lest publications should get abroad prejudicial to religion, and consequently to their power, contributed not a little to hasten the establishment of book-censors. The earliest instance of a book printed with a permission from government, is commonly supposed to occur in the year 1480; and Dom Liron, a Benedictine monk, is perhaps the first person who made that remark. He is the author of a work called Singularités Historiques et Litteraires 1273 ; in the last part of which, where he speaks of the Heidelberg edition of the book Nosce te ipsum, in 1480, he says, “This is the first publication I found accompanied with several solemn approbations and attestations in its favour.” The same thing is said by J. N. Weislinger, one of the most illiberal defenders of the Catholic church, in whose work, entitled Armamentarium Catholicum 1274 , there is an account of that book. He there tells us in Latin, without mentioning Liron, “This is the first book which I have seen, subjected to the examination, reading, and approbation of the clergy;” and in the opinion of Mercier, it really is the oldest. It has four approbations (in Latin); the first and last of which I shall here insert (in English), as they will serve to show the foolish pride of the clergy at that period:—“I Philip Rota, doctor of laws, though the least of all, have read over carefully, and diligently examined, this small work, Nosce te; and as I have found it not only composed devoutly and catholically, but abounding also with matter of wonderful utility, I do not hesitate, in testimony of the above, to subscribe my name.... I Mapheus Girardo, by the divine mercy patriarch of Venice and primate of Dalmatia, confiding in the fidelity of the above gentlemen, who have examined and approved the above-mentioned book, do testify that it is a devout and orthodox work.” There were, therefore, censors at this early period who gave their opinion of books without reading them.

I should have considered these instances as the oldest information respecting book-censors, had I not been induced by M. Eccard, the learned amanuensis belonging to our library, to look into the Literary Weekly Journal of Cologne, for the year 1778. In that work I found an ingenious account, by an anonymous author, of the early state of printing in that city, and of two books printed almost a year sooner than 1479, with the approbation of the public censor. The first is Wilhelmi episcopi Lugdunensis Summa de Virtutibus; at the end of which are the following words:—“Benedictus sit dominus virtutum, qui hoc opus earundem felici consummatione terminari dedit in laudabili civitate Coloniensi, temptatum, admissumque et approbatum ab alma universitate studii  civitatis praedictae, de consensu et voluntate  spectabilis et egregii viri pro tempore recteris ejusdem, impressum per Henr. Quentel.” The other book is a Bible, with the following conclusion:—“Anno incarnationis dominice millesimo quadringentesimo LXXIX  ipsa vigilia Matthaei apostoli. Quando insigne veteris novique testamenti opus cum canonibus evangelistarum et eorum concordantiis in laudem et gloriam sancte et individue trinitatis intemerateque virginis Marie impressum in Civitate Coloniensi per Conradum de Homborch, admissumapprobatum  ab alma universitate Coloniensi.”

The oldest mandate for appointing a book-censor is, as far as I know at present, that issued by Berthold, archbishop of Mentz, in the year 1486, and which may be found in the fourth volume of Guden's Codex Diplomaticus 1275.

In the year 1501, pope Alexander VI. published a bull, the first part of which may form an excellent companion to the mandate of the archbishop of Mentz 1276. After some complaints against the devil, who sows tares among the wheat, his holiness proceeds thus: “Having been informed, that by means of the said art many books and treatises containing various errors and pernicious doctrines, even hostile to the holy Christian religion, have been printed, and are still printed in various parts of the world, particularly in the provinces of Cologne, Mentz, Triers, and Magdeburg; and being desirous, without further delay, to put a stop to this detestable evil ... we, by these presents, and by authority of the Apostolic chamber, strictly forbid all printers, their servants, and those exercising the art of printing under them, in any manner whatsoever, in the abovesaid provinces, under pain of excommunication, and a pecuniary fine, to be imposed and exacted by our venerable brethren the archbishops of Cologne, Mentz, Triers, and Magdeburg, and their vicars-general or official in spirituals, according to the pleasure of each in his own province, to print hereafter any books, treatises, or writings, until they have consulted on this subject the archbishops, vicars, or officials above-mentioned, and obtained their special and express licence, to be granted free of all expense, whose consciences we charge, that before they grant any licence of this kind, they will carefully examine, or cause to be examined, by able and catholic persons, the works to be printed; and that they will take the utmost care that nothing may be printed wicked and scandalous, or contrary to the orthodox faith.” The rest of the bull contains regulations to prevent works already printed from doing mischief. All catalogues and books printed before that period were to be examined, and those which contained anything prejudicial to the Catholic religion were to be burned.

In the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was ordered by the well-known council of the Lateran, held at Rome in the year 1515, that in future no books should be printed but such as had been inspected by ecclesiastical censors.

In France, the faculty of Theology usurped, as some say, the right of censuring books; but in the year 1650, when public censors, whom the faculty opposed, were appointed without their consent, they stated the antiquity of their right to be two hundred years. For they said, “It is above two hundred years since the doctors of Paris have had a right to approve books without being subjected but to their own faculty, to which they assert they are alone responsible for their decisions 1277.”

[In no country of Europe does the liberty of the press prevail to such an extent as with us, the only vestige of censorship being the censor for the drama. In Rome the same strictness prevails as ever, but a brighter day seems dawning. In Germany the censorship is excessively severe, especially in Austria, Bavaria, and Prussia. However, most of the prohibited works are printed in Switzerland, Hamburg, or Leipsig, and there being a very large demand for such works, they may be had of almost any bookseller in every principal town. To put a stop to this, the present monarch of Prussia, professedly  a liberal, placed under ban all the works issued by the firm of Hoffmann and Campe of Hamburg, because they published the political poems of Hoffmann von Fallersleben. Caricatures are, as the reader may suppose, subject to as strict a law, and no H.B. could be tolerated there.]


1260  Der Büchernachdruck nach ächten Grundsätzen des Rechts geprüft. 1774, 4to.

1261  Diogenes Laert. lib. ix. 52.—Cicero de Nat. Deor. lib. i. cap. 23.—Lactantius De Ira, ix. 2.—Eusebius De Præparatione Evang. xiv. p. 19.—Minucius Felix, viii. 13.

1262  Livius, lib. xl. c. 29.—Plin. xiii. 13.—Plutarchus in Vita Numæ.—Lactantius de Falsa Relig. i. 25, 5.—Valer. Max. i. cap. 1, 12.

1263  Sueton. lib. ii. cap. 31.

1264  The whole circumstance is related by Seneca the rhetorician, in the introduction to the fifth, or, as others reckon, the tenth book of his Controversiæ.

1265  Taciti Annal. lib. i. c. 72. Bayle, in his Dictionary, has endeavoured to clear up some doubts respecting the history of Cassius and Labienus. See the article Cassius.

1266  Tacit. Annal. lib. iv. cap. 35.

1267  Maccab. ii.

1268  Adversus Gentes, lib. iii.

1269  Hist. Eccles. 1. viii. cap. 2. Suidas says the same.

1270  Socrates, lib. i. cap. 6.

1271  Digestor, lib. x. tit. 2, 4, 1.

1272  Baillet, Jugemens des Sçavans, 4to, i. p. 26.

1273  Paris, 1738–40, 4to, vol. viii.

1274  Argentinæ 1749, fol.

1275  Codex Diplomaticus. Franc. 1758, 4to, iv. p. 460. An account of the establishment of a book-censor at Mentz may be found also in G. C. Johannis Rerum Mogunt. i. p. 798.

1276  The whole bull may be seen in Baronii Annales Ecclesiastici tom. xix. Colon. 1691, p. 514.

1277  Baillet, Jugemens des Sçavans, i. p. 19.