Index Librorum Prohibitorum – The List of Banned Books

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum
(Venice 1564)

On June 14, 1966, the Roman Catholic Church abolished their famous list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or shorter simply, the Index, that had been installed almost 500 years ago. Actually, it was soon clear, that the written word could also be dangerous, especially if it can be published in large quantities. Once Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press and the printing process back in 1440 and new ideas were able to spread rapidly and in masses, the authorities soon were afraid that ‘dangerous thoughts’ might spread too far and gain too much popularity.

The very first to introduce censorship in book printing was Berthold von Henneberg (1441-1504), archbishop and electorial prince of Mainz, Germany. He became well know for his edict, issued in March 22, 1485, in which he introduced censorship for all books being translated from Greek or Latin into any other language. By that he tried to prevent the spreading of ideas and discussions beyond the realms of scientists, philosophers, and scholars into the broad public. In addition, Berthold ordered the Frankfurt city council to examine together with ecclesiastic authorities all printed books exhibited at the Frankfurt spring bookfair and, if necessary, to prohibit their selling. In order to put this in practice the electorate of Mainz together with the Imperial city of Frankfurt installed the first censorship agency of the world in 1486.

As the Church and also secular authorities had realized that the printing press was able to foster the spreading of unwanted thoughts and arguments, censorship soon became commonplace. For the same reason authorities prevented the translation of the Holy Bible from Latin into the people`s languages, because — according to Henneberg – ‘the order of the holy mass’ could be ‘desacrated’ by translating it into German.

Pope Leo X (1475-1521) emphasized this interdiction because he was afraid of a rampant dissemination of ‘aberrant faith’. If everybody would be able to read the Holy Bible, it will be desacrated and the exclusive supremacy of the clergy to interpret the holy scriptures will be in danger.

Preventive censorship, i.e. a careful examination of the writing by the censorship authority even before it was allowed to be printed, had been installed via a Papal bull by Pope Innozenz VIII (1432–1492), while repressive censorship, i.e. the interdiction of dissemination of already printed books via decrete or even confiscation, had been installed by Papal bull, too. The later by Pope Alexander VI. (1430–1503). For the purpose of censorship, every book that the Catholic church allowed to be printed carried a so-called ‘Imprimatur’ (latin for ‘let it be printed’) issued by the ecclesiastic authorities. Any contravention was inflicted with draconic punishments, such as extremely high fines, disbarment, or even excommunication.

In 1559 the famous Index librorum prohibitorum, the black list of banned books, was published for the very first time. And it lasted realy for almost 500 years until Pope Paul VI repealed it finally in 1966. What was on this famous list? If you take a look, you will find romantic novels of Honoré de Balzac, the famous Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, but also the works of astronomer Galileo Galilei, Heinrich Heine, philosopher Imanuel Kant or even existentialist Jean Paul Sartre – all of them very well known to you, because we have already reported about them here in our blog.

One of the major reasons for the abolition of the Index was besides others, that the Roman Catholic Church was not able to cope with the permanently growing masses of books being published in the course of the 20th century. Therefore, a careful but also prompt examination was not possible anymore. Besides, the continuation of the Index including its draconic punishments wasn’t up-to-date anymore.

At yovisto, you can lern more about censorship in the age of the internet in the talk by Dr. Ronald Meinardus on ‘Activism in Censored Countries‘.

References and Further Reading:


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