"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Top 5 Ancient And Medieval Censored Books To Read During Banned Book Week

The tactic of banning books is, to quote Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time. Yet it is rarely an effective method for halting the spread of information. The word censura (“censorship”) comes from the Latin verb censeo, which means to assess. Although publication took a different form prior to the printing press’s introduction to the West in 1450, there was still a great deal of textual censorship and numerous instances of book burning in the premodern Mediterranean. Here are just a few:

Statue of Abelard at Louvre Palace in Paris by Jules Cavelier (Image via Wikimedia).

5. Abelard (Burned his own book in 1121 CE): There can surely be nothing so painful as an author than being forced to burn your own book. This is precisely what the medieval philosopher and theologian Abelard was forced to do at the Council of Soissons in the twelfth century. As with many instances of book burning, it was a highly public act wherein he was forced to burn his book on the Holy Trinity. He was also sentenced to imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Medard, but he escaped to Troyes and continued to teach. Abelard may be best known for his love affair with Heloise (herself an exceptional philosopher and writer) and impromptu castration, but having to burn his own book publicly likely added insult to injury.

4. Ovid (Exiled in 8 CE): Although there were many private collections of books in the city, Rome’s public libraries did not open until the late first century BCE. During the reign of Augustus, the Temple of Apollo, the Atrium of Liberty and the Porticus of Octavia thrived as public libraries in Rome; however, the emperor still maintained control over the libraries’ contents. In 8 CE, he banned the poet Ovid to exile (a sentence called relegatio) and kept his racy Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) from public libraries — though his other works appear to have remained available. From his exile on the Black Sea, Ovid wrote: “I come in fear, an exile’s book, sent to this city: kind reader, give me a gentle hand, in my weariness: don’t shun me in fear, in case I bring you shame: not a line of this paper teaches about love” (Tristia 3.3).

 3. Sappho (Burned in 1073 CE): Although the famed poet of Lesbos was born around 615 BCE it was not until over a millenium and a half later, in 1073, that Pope Gregory VII allegedly called for her writings to be burned in Rome. Rumors also circulated that bishop Gregory of Nazianzus had earlier ordered her poetry to be burned (in c.380 CE), but I can find no merit to this malicious rumor. The late antique Gregory in fact enjoyed and often paraphrased Sappho in his own poetry, making the later Gregory of the 11th century the likely culprit if there was in fact a mass burning of Sappho’s poetry at all. Regardless, you can read what we have left of her works here or read about the newly translated Sappho fragments here.

Most of Sappho's poetry is preserved in manuscripts of other ancient writers or on papyrus fragments, but part of one poem survives on a potsherd.[24] The papyrus pictured (left) preserves the Tithonus poem (fragment 58); the potsherd (right) preserves fragment 2.
An ostrakon that preserves fragment 2 of Sappho. Although most of her poetry was preserved on papyrus or in manuscripts from other writers, pot sherds also served as writing surfaces in antiquity (Image via Wikimedia).

(NB:  I should here state that the transition from the use of the scroll to the codex in the later Roman empire means that most earlier “book burnings” or “book bans” were actually more of a scroll burning or ban, but for alliteration’s sake, let’s just go with “book.”)

2. Manichaean Texts (297 or 302 & 923 CE): Under the emperor Diocletian (r.284-305 CE), the texts of the followers of Mani, the Manichaeans, were ordered to be burned, along with their leaders. The bishop Augustine wasn’t a fan either, and in a polemic around 400 CE against these followers, he wrote that the Manichaeans should, “burn all [their] parchments with their finely ornamented bindings; so you will be rid of a useless burden, and your God who suffers confinement in the volume will be set free.” As Dirk Rohmann has written in his new book, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, early Christians often spoke of books as a kind of body that demons could inhabit. What better way to kill these demons than to burn them? In the Near East, bags of “heretical” books of the Manichaeans, along with a portrait of Mani, were also burned in 923 CE. This was in Abbasid Baghdad, according to medieval Islamic historian Abu’l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi.

1.The Sibylline Books (Prophecies burned in the 6th c. BCE and 5th c. CE): The utterances of the Sibyl of Cumae were kept at Rome and overseen by the quindecimviri. The Greek verses had originally been brought to Rome either during the reign of the King Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome (r.616-579 BCE), or the last regal period king, Tarquinius Superbus (r.535-509 BCE). When a woman approached him to sell him nine scrolls, he refused her price. The woman went away and burned three of the nine books and then came back, asking for the same price as the first. Again, she was rebuffed and again she burned three of the remaining six. A final time she came back and asked for the same price for the remaining three as the nine scrolls originally pitched to Tarquin. This time, Tarquin was worried and asked Rome’s religious augurs what he should do. They replied that they were a gift from the Gods and he should buy them — so he did. Although the remaining scrolls were allegedly burned by Stilicho at the beginning of the 5th c. CE, the lesson here is to always buy a book from a persistent lady.
These are just a few instances of book burning or censorship in antiquity, but there are of course many more. I am sure I will receive mail about not including the Bible or other religious texts burned at various times, but the point here was to show that book censorship was usually a quite futile act. It frequently involved a public display in order to advertise the disdain of a group of people or of the state, but such tactics have only rarely kept works from being read completely. Book burning was much more detrimental to authors and their works in an era before the printing press — no doubt — but banning books was more a symbolic act than an effective censorship tactic. In fact, it usually makes us want to read the book even more.

Cumaean Sibyl, fresco painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) Rome, Vatican
 Cumaean Sibyl, fresco painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) Rome, Vatican (Image via Wikimedia).

Sarah E. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.

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