Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Banned Books Week - Censored Books in Ancient and Medieval Times #BannedBooksWeek

Today I'm going to take a look at five books which were censored in the ancient and medieval worlds. It seems the act of banning books has been around for a very long time. What a shame that over a millennium (and longer) has passed, yet the attempt to ban books is still going on. So much for a modern and enlightened society.

It's important to remember that publication possessed a different form before the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. However, textual censorship and book burning were still prolific in the Mediterranean region in premodern times.

Abelard - burned his own book in 1121 CE. It must have been some traumatic experience to be forced to burn your own book. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Abelard, medieval philosopher and theologian, was forced to do by the Council of Soissons in the twelfth century. Book burning in this time period was a highly public event and Abelard was forced to burn his book on the Holy Trinity. He was also imprisoned in the Abbey of St. Medard. He did manage to escape and he continued to teach in Troyes.

Ovid in Exile, by Romanian painter Ion Theodorescu-Sion, 1915. 

Ovid - exiled in 8 CE. Rome's public libraries did not open until late in the first century BCE Under Augustus's reign, the Temple of Apollo, the Atrium of Liberty and the Porticus of Octavia were thriving public libraries. The emperor had control over the content of the libraries. In 8 CE, he sent the poet Ovid to exile and banned Ovid's Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love") from public libraries (Ovid's other works were still available though). From his place of exile, 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 Book III


Sappho - burned in 1073 CE. The legendary poet of Lesbos lived in the seventh century BCE (born around 615 BCE). However, her writings were not burned until the year 1073 when Pope Gregory VII allegedly called for the action to be taken in Rome. What is left of Sappho's works can be read here, or read about the translated Sappho fragments at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard.

Leaf from a Manichaean Book. Khocho, Ruin K. 
8th/9th century AD. 
Painting on paper. 17.2x 11.2 cm. III 6368. 

Manichaean Texts (297 or 302 & 923 CE) The texts of the followers of Mani, the Manichaeans, were ordered to be burned, along with their leaders by the emperor Diocletian (r.284-305 CE). It is said that the bishop Augustine was also not a fan. Speaking out against these followers, he wrote (in 400 CE) 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."

The Sibyl of Cumae by Elihu Vedder

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 sacris faciundis.
In ancient Rome, the quindecimviri were the fifteen (quindecim) members of a college (collegium) with priestly duties. The Greek verses were first brought to Rome probably during the reign of the King Tarquinius Priscus, the infamous fifth king of Rome (r.616-579 BCE), or possibly during the reign of the last regal period king, Tarquinius Superbus (r.535-509 BCE). The story goes that a woman approached to sell him nine scrolls. He refused her price. The woman went away and proceeded to burn three of the nine books. She then came back, asking again the same price as before. Once again, Tarquin rebuffed her and she burned three of the remaining six. One last time did she come back and again asked the same price for the remaining three, the same price she originally pitched to Tarquin for the nine scrolls. By this time, Tarquin became worried. He asked Rome's religious augurs what he should do. They told him the scrolls were a gift from the Gods and he should buy them -- so he bought them. Allegedly, the remaining scrolls were eventually burned by Stilicho at the beginning of the 5th c. CE. The lesson here might be...always buy a book from a persistent lady. (Sound legit to me 😉)


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  1. Interesting post. I didn't realize they were banning books so darn early.

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