8 Forbidden Books That Still Rewrote History
We hear a lot about censorship in the news today but it’s nothing new. In fact, the word comes from the Latin word censeo, which means to assess. Almost as soon as the printing press was introduced to the West in 1450, those in power began banning books that challenged the status quo or their grip on power. But the banning of books is a tale as old as time and has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Books and scrolls that weren’t outright banned were often censored into oblivion or simply burnt. But thankfully knowledge is a tricky thing to suppress once it’s out, which is why we’re able to bring you a list like this. Arguably any book that is banned is important by its very nature.
1. The Author of Theologia Summi Boni Was Forced To Burn His Own Book
The Medieval theologian Peter Abelard didn’t exactly have an easy life. He’s most well-known for his love affair with a fellow philosopher and writer, Heloise, which ended with his castration. But another low point was likely being forced to burn his life’s work, the Theologia Summi Boni. In 1121 he was summoned to the Council of Soissons where his book was condemned as heresy by the Church (a common theme in this article, unfortunately).
Essentially Abelard’s interpretations of traditional Christian dogma were too rationalistic. In his work, he used dialectical reasoning and philosophy to explore theological questions. This approach challenged some traditional theological methods and interpretations. His views on the nature of God and the Holy Trinity were also more than a little unorthodox. The Church was not happy.
Abelard already had his fair share of enemies within the Church and his work was the final straw. At the Council of Soissons, Abelard was forced to publicly burn his own work, an act of utter humiliation. To add insult to injury he was then sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Medard (which he promptly escaped).
Sadly, while Abelard survived, most of his work did not. Thanks to medieval book burnings all we have left today are fragments, excerpts, and references to his writings that have been preserved in the works of later theologians and scholars. Despite the Church’s best efforts, some of Abelard’s work managed to influence later thinkers, a noble legacy.
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2. Ovid and His Ars Amatoria- Censored By Augustus
The Romans got a lot of things right and one of these was the establishment of impressive public libraries in the late first century BC. Before this, the Empire had been home to vast private collections of texts, but these libraries seriously helped spread important texts and the knowledge held within.
During Augustus’ reign, the Temple of Apollo, the Atrium of Liberty, and the Porticus of Octavia all functioned as impressive public libraries. But this doesn’t mean Rome was free of censorship, anything but. Augustus liked to know exactly what kind of information the libraries were disseminating.
18th century French engraved portrait of Ovid. (Public Domain)
For reasons lost to history, Augustus had the Roman poet Ovid exiled in 8 AD. He then banned his saucy Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love") from public libraries. Thankfully, he failed to ban the book completely (it was incredibly popular) and those pesky private collectors managed to squirrel some copies away.
Ovid continued to be a thorn in the Emperor’s side, writing from his exile, “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". The good news is that the Ars Amatoria has survived pretty much intact and today is available for study and appreciation in its entirety.
3. The Manichaean Texts Have Been Banned Repeatedly
The Manichaean texts were religious writings associated with Manichaeism, a dualistic and syncretic religious movement founded by the prophet Mani in the 3rd century AD. Like many religious texts that came before and after them there have been several attempts throughout history to ban the Manichaean Texts, mainly by the Romans.
Diocletian appears to have been the first Roman Emperor to have taken a dislike to the religion. During his reign, he ordered the rounding up and burning of not just the Manichaean Texts, but the religion’s leaders too.
A 14th-century illustration of the execution of Mani. (Public Domain)
Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine, wasn’t a fan either, which is ironic since he started out as a Manichaean. In around 400 AD 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." It turns out the early Christians were just as big on book burnings as those that came later.
But the texts weren’t just banned in the Roman Empire. While the religion initially found support in the Persian Sassanian Empire, it was ultimately declared as heresy by the leaders of Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion of Persia, and the Manichaean Texts were censored.
Likewise, after spreading to Asia and China via the Silk Road, collections of the Manichaean Texts were banned after being declared heretical. In 923 AD in Abbasid, Baghdad collections of the texts were once again burned for being, you guessed it, heretical.
Sadly, all this means scholars believe the vast majority of the Manichaean Texts have been lost. Fragments have been found here and there, most notably in the early 20th century in the Egyptian oasis of Fayyum. What is left has stopped the Manichaean tradition from fading into history completely, giving us fascinating insights into their beliefs, traditions, and rituals.
4. The Sibylline Books and the Christianization of the Roman Empire
The Sibylline Books were a collection of ancient prophetic writings or oracles attributed to the Sibyls, female seers, and prophets in ancient Greece and Rome. These books were considered highly sacred and were consulted in times of crisis or significant events.
Woodcut illustration of Amalthea (the Cumaean Sibyl), Tarquinius Superbus and the Sibylline books. (kladcat/CC BY 2.0)
In the 6th century BC, the Roman king Tarquin the Proud is said to have purchased the original three books of the Sibylline oracles from a mysterious woman who claimed to be a Sibyl. These books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and were consulted by Roman authorities during times of national calamity.
In 83 BC, a fire damaged the Temple of Jupiter, and the Sibylline Books were partially destroyed. To restore them, additional books were collected from various sources, making a total of nine books. These books continued to play a role in Roman religious and political life.
However, in the early 5th century AD, during the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the Sibylline Books were deemed pagan and heretical. The Christian Emperor Theodosius II ordered them to be burned in 405 AD. This marked the end of the ancient Sibylline Books, and their content remains largely lost to history.
The burning of the Sibylline Books represented a significant moment in the transition from pagan antiquity to the dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire, leading to the suppression of pagan practices and beliefs. A sign of what was to come.
5. Dante’s The Divine Comedy Offended Powerful People
While it’s not unusual for authors to include their grudges in their works, Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet, took it to the next level when he wrote “The Divine Comedy”. Composed between 1308 and 1321 and consisting of three parts " Inferno," " Purgatorio," and " Paradiso" this epic poem is considered one of the most significant works of world literature. This is impressive when one considers it was once banned by the Church.
Dante’s Paradise as depicted by Gustave Dore. Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean. (Public Domain)
The poem recounts Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, guided by the Roman poet Virgil and his idealized love, Beatrice. It’s a complex allegorical work that explores themes of sin, redemption, and the divine order. These themes meant that in the 14th Century elements of "The Divine Comedy" found themselves on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books, a list of texts deemed heretical or dangerous to the faith.
It didn’t help that the work served as a critique of the Church’s hierarchy with Dante depicting several former popes and political rivals as residing in hell. His exploration of themes such as divine justice, redemption, and the human condition challenged prevailing religious and societal norms. The whole text was really aimed at annoying the establishment as much as possible.
The Church never officially banned The Divine Comedy, but it did consider the poem to be forbidden and did its best to suppress it for several centuries. Thankfully, the poem endured and continues to captivate audiences. Dante's vivid and symbolic descriptions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, as well as his use of the Tuscan dialect, contributed significantly to the development of the Italian language. His work transcended its banishment to become a cornerstone of Italian literature and a symbol of artistic freedom.
6. The Satyricon by Petronius, Too Saucy to be Allowed
The Satyricon is a great example of the dangers of censorship. It’s a famed and celebrated work written by the Roman author Petronius in the first century AD. An early example of satire, it offers a fascinating, and hilarious, glimpse of the hedonistic and decadent society of Imperial Rome through the escapades of its characters, primarily the roguish Encolpius and his companion, Ascyltus.
The work is a mixture of prose and verse and follows the pair’s adventures and misadventures, which usually involve a fair amount of sexual and scatological humor. It’s probably unsurprising that it’s been censored throughout history.
The first round of censorship came pretty much as soon as it was written. Suffice it to say Rome’s rich and powerful didn’t enjoy having Petronius poke fun at them. The work’s saucy content, racy humor, and satire of Rome’s elite quickly led to the work being heavily censored. Thankfully, some copies still remained, almost intact.
Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, Christian Authorities also disliked the work and its irreverent portrayal of Roman excesses and its critique of societal norms. While the Satyricon was never outright banned, it was censored and the church made sure that it was kept in the shadows, considered unfit for scholarly or public consumption.
It was only during the Renaissance, as people became more open-minded and interest in classical texts was revived that the book began to resurface (although some were still concerned by its sexual context). Sadly, it was a case of too little too late. The work’s censorship over the years means that the majority of it has been lost and scholars believe only around one-third of the text has survived to the modern day.
7. The Three Books of Occult Philosophy, an Unsurprising Ban
It really feels like if you call your book “The Three Books of Occult Philosophy” you’re just asking for the Church to step in. But that’s exactly what Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (a German polymath, philosopher, theologian, and occult writer of the Renaissance period) did.
Written in 1533, the work delves deeply into the realms of magic, astrology, and the occult and it was met by both admiration and condemnation upon its publication. Most of the condemnation, of course, came from the Catholic Church.
The book is divided into three volumes with each exploring a different aspect of the mystical and esoteric. Volume one deals with natural magic, the second with celestial and ceremonial magic, and the third with elemental and planetary magic. These volumes draw from a wide range of sources, blending elements of Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, and Jewish Kabbalah into a comprehensive system of occult knowledge.
The Catholic Church was wary of Agrippa's work due to its perceived challenge to established religious and theological doctrines. His writings, which advocated the idea that the human will could influence and control natural and supernatural forces, were seen as heretical and subversive.
Image of a human body in a pentagram from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's ‘Libri tres de occulta philosophia.’ (The Three Books of Occult Philosophy). Symbols of the sun and moon are in center, while the other five classical "planets" are around the edge. (Public Domain)
As a result, "The Three Books of Occult Philosophy" faced bans and condemnations, and Agrippa himself encountered opposition from religious authorities. However, his work had a lasting impact on the development of Western esotericism and influenced later thinkers and practitioners of the occult. Despite its troubled history with the Church, Agrippa's work continues to be studied and revered by those interested in the mystical and occult traditions of the Renaissance.
8. Tyndale Challenged the Church’s Monopoly with His Translation
When it comes down to it, banning or censoring books is all about power and there is no better example of this than William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament. This work marked a pivotal moment in the history of the English Bible. In the early 16th century, Tyndale's passion for making the Bible accessible to the common people clashed with the religious authority of the time.
The first page of the Gospel of John from the New Testament of William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), published in 1526, the first English translation of the New Testament from the original language. (Public Domain)
During this time, the church had a stranglehold on the Bible. All copies were written in Latin and pretty much the only people who could read Latin were priests. Tyndale hated this state of affairs and aimed to provide an English version of the New Testament directly from the original Greek text, rather than relying on Latin interpretations controlled by the Church. It was a direct challenge to the Church's monopoly on religious authority.
Tyndale had thousands of copies of his New Testament printed in Germany and smuggled into England. The Roman Catholic Church did what it always did when it didn’t like something and declared Tyndale’s work heretical. This led to London's Catholic bishop ordering the public burning of these English New Testaments in 1526, attempting to suppress their circulation.
But the Catholic Church was only getting started with Tyndale. Thanks to a plot masterminded by the English wing of the Catholic Church, Tyndale was captured in Belgium in 1536 and charged with heresy. His sentence was especially grim. He was strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels. To add insult to injury, copies of his work were burned alongside him.
Today, the survival of only three original copies of Tyndale's New Testament underscores the immense sacrifice made by Tyndale to ensure that the Bible could be read and understood by ordinary English-speaking people, contributing significantly to the development of the English language and religious reform.
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Sadly, banning books hasn’t gone away over the years. If anything, in recent years it feels like the practice is on the rise again. These days we don’t only have to worry about the banning of books, we have censorship on the internet to worry about as well. While it was once only religious authorities and governments who could censor and ban, we can now add large corporations to the list.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Censorship isn’t just dangerous, it’s also often a waste of time. Tell people they’re not allowed to read something, and human nature dictates that a good number of them will sniff out a way to access it. The fact we’re even able to write about the above texts is proof of this. Censorship has never been particularly easy and modern technology has made it even harder. We have all the information we could ever need at the press of a button; history teaches us it should stay that way.
Top image: Forbidden books were burned. Their authors exiled, imprisoned and even killed throughout history. Source: de Art/Adobe Stock
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