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The Book as a Cultural Icon: 15th-16th Century

During the first 150 years of the printed book, some individuals and institutions quickly realized the power of the printing press to easily mass produce books. Both religious and state organizations were seeking ways to control both the content and dissemination of books. In addition, authors and publishers created works that would have long lasting impact.

Witchcraft Prosecution

malMalleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger was first published in 1487. Intended to educate magistrates on procedures to prosecute witches, it attempted to discredit skepticism about witchcraft. Although it was condemned for its unethical legal practices and contradictions of Catholic teachings, it became a popular book. The ease of reprinting provided by the new printing technology may have contributed to its popularity. According to Jeffrey Russell in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (1972),

"the swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin."

According to Henningsen (1980), the book took advantage of already growing intolerance and the increasing debate about the purity of faith.

Since that time, the book has been used as a tool to convict hundreds of people of witchcraft. It was used by secular courts throughout the Renaissance. Between 1487 and 1669, it was published sixteen times. It continues to be cited as a central book in the history of witch hunts.

The Index of Prohibited Books

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum or Index of Prohibited Books was a list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church. Early versions began to appear beginning in 1529. In 1559, the first Roman version known as the Pauline Index was approved by Pope Paul IV. A revised version known as the Tridentine Index authorized by the Council of Trent was also published. The Index marked a turning point in the Catholic Church's thinking about freedom of inquiry. The aim was to prevent the faithful from reading immoral books or works containing what were deemed by the church as errors. As a result, many scientific books were placed on the list because they didn't match with theology.

erasmusIn many cases, rather than naming individual titles, all the works of an author were forbidden. This was known as "opera omnia".

The Index was updated for more than 400 years with the 20th edition appearing in 1948. The Index was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a Dutch theologian. After his death, the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement blamed Erasmus for not being more critical of Martin Luther. All his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV.

The image on the right shows a censored book by Erasmus.

Often, prohibitions of the church and state followed each other. Once a work was placed on the Index, the author was often shunned or even jailed in some countries.

Privilege and Printer Restrictions

Privilege systems were an informal source of censorship by limiting a legal means to print. According to Rose (1993, 11),

"a further development in Venice at this time was the intertwining of the privilege system with censorship. The practice of seeking an imprimatur for a title from the Council of Ten had developed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in a haphazard way along with the development of the privilege.

The Stationers' Company in London received a Royal Charter in 1557 and controlled the right to print. This book production monopoly controlled copyright. By placing restrictions on who could print what, they were acting as censors. The French also controlled printing by placing restrictions on the import of all books.

Rose (1993, 15) states

"in the seventeenth century a gap was beginning to develop between the institution of stationers' copyright, which was based upon a traditional conception of society as a community bound by ties of fidelity and service, and the emergent ideology of possessive individualism. The regime in which stationers' copyright was born was what we might call a regime of regulation rather than a regime of property. The guild was concerned with the regulation of the book trade, and the state was concerned with the regulation of public discourse. Since both copyright and censorship were understood in terms of regulation of the press, it was difficult to think about them as separable practices. All through the seventeenth century, the booksellers were among the strongest proponents of censorship."

Formal Censorship

Throughout Europe, censorship declarations can be found. These edicts ranged from restrictions on translations to suppression of all works by a particular author.

try itTry It!
Select ONE of the following documents to explore. Think about the impact this rule had on the various players from the author and printer to the reader. Go to the Copyright History page for more choices:
Censorship Edict of the Archbishop of Mainz, Wurzburg (1485)
Appointment of Andrea Navagero as Literary Censor (1516)
Venetian Decree on Pre-publication Censorship (1527)
French Censorship Act (France) Commentary (1547)
Censorship Rules (Spain) (1558)
Electoral Saxon Printing and Censorship Acts from 1549 to 1717 (Germany) Commentary (1724)
Juan Curiel as Censor (Spain) (1752)
Austrian Statutes on Censorship and Printing (Germany) Commentary (1785)

Protestant Reformation

The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (shown below) by Martin Luther was published in 1517. This book came to represent an entire movement opposing the Catholic ideology and embracing what was perceived as Biblical truth.

The book became a cultural icon and served as a rallying call for those who were dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic church.


Bonfires of Vanities

burningBook burning occurred throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Since before the printing press, book burning was a common practice. For instance, followers of the Italian priest Girolama Savonarola publicly burned books deemed to be immoral including the works of Ovid and Boccaccio.

Known as "bonfires of vanities" these events often included other objects that might tempt one to sin such as cosmetics and games. The term later became part of popular culture being incorporated into works of historical fiction. Recently, these bonfires have been used in films, television, and even video games.

The image on the right from the 15th century is part of a painting by Pedro Berruguete (1450-1503) depicting a dispute between Saint Dominic of Guzman and the Albigensians in which books of both were burned with St. Dominic's books miraculously preserved. It reflects the importance that was placed on being on what was perceived as the "right side" of God's will.

During the Spanish Inquisition, many Hebrew Bibles and other Jewish books were burned.

Christian literature was also burned when deemed inappropriate or incorrect. For instance William Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament was burned in London in 1526.

The Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift and the Bishop of London Richard Bancroft banned verse satire in 1599. Known as the Bishop's Ban of 1599, it ordered works of satire by authors like Joseph Hall, John Marston, and Thomas Middleton to be burned. All histories and plays were required to be approved and no satire was allowed. Authorities were concerned about libel and sedition, however the ban wasn't enforced.

Burning Authors and their Books

During the 16th and 17th century, it was common for authors to be burned at the stake along with their books as heretics. Taking place during the time of the Roman Inquisition, Pope Paul II established the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition just a century after the invention of the printing press.

According to Bosmajian (2006, 23),

"This metonymic connection, along with the personification of books, when carried to the ultimate tragedy, sent authors to the stake with their books wrapped around their bodies; author and book went up in flames together. In death, author and book become one."

Spanish theologian Michael Servetus (c1509-1553) was known for his books on both theology and science. A remark in his translation of Ptolemy's Geographia was considered heresy. In 1553, he was burned at the stake as a heretic. The last known copy of his book was chained to his leg.

Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624) is another example of an author who was burned with his picture and books after being declared a heretic. In this case, he died of natural causes in prison in September of 1624, but his body removed from the coffin, dragged through the streets of Rome and burned along with this books in December of 1624.

These activities weren't confined to Italy. In Francisco Maldonado de Silva (1592-1639) was burned at the stake in Lima with this books tied around his neck. Known as an Auto de Fe, a dozen Jews were burned at the stake that day, the largest single group in history.

Authors weren't always burned along with their books. According to Bosmajian (2006, 23),

"All condemned authors, of course, have not been burned at the stake with their books attached to their bodies to be reduced to ashes. Other forms of punishment have been imposed on authors whose books were ordered to be set afire. Instead of being consigned to the same flames that consumed their books, authors and printers have been imprisoned, sent into exile, hanged and quartered, pilloried, and had their hands and ears cut off."

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Between 1536 and 1541, many monastic libraries and their books were destroyed. At Worcester Abbey alone, 594 of the 600 books in the library were destroyed. Many other libraries experienced similar rates of loss.


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