On 14th June 1966 the Vatican’s list of forbidden books was officially discontinued, put in a reliquary (a container for holy relics) and covered with a glass bell. Books could still be condemned as immoral by the Catholic Church but it signified an end to being excommunicated (i.e. spiritual damnation) for reading or distributing books that offended the faith or its morals.
Johannes Gutenberg published his Bible in 1455 and this event is thought to have marked the beginning of print history in the Western world. Previously, texts were copied by hand (manuscripts) but the printing press facilitated the mass production of books. As more books were written and reproduced, and came to be more widely disseminated, the spread of subversive and heretical ideas became more difficult to control. In particular, the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) that was initiated by the German theologian Martin Luther and continued by the French theologian Jean Calvin, generated a significant quantity of polemical works, or rhetoric that was strongly critical of Catholicism. For the purposes of preventing the corruption of ordinary Christians and helping the faithful to establish which books were immoral or which contained theological ‘errors’, the Vatican’s list, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), was first published in 1559 under Pope Pius IV. It went through 20 editions, with the last being published in 1948, under Pope Pius XII.
It is important to remember that this was not the only attempt to censor books at this time. European governments also sought to exercise control over printing: in England, the Stationer’s Company received a Royal Charter in 1557 and had the role of regulating the print industry. Only two universities and 21 printers operating in the City of London were licensed to print.
The Index of 1559 banned the complete works of 550 authors as well as some other individual titles. This blacklisting, particularly of work by some Protestant authors, meant that Catholics were denied access to important thinking even in non-theological subjects. Indeed, a large number of philosophers and writers that today are ‘household names’ have appeared in the Index. However, judgements about what constitutes immoral work changes and, over time, not only were new books added to the Index but some were deleted. For example, the opposition to heliocentrism (the astronomical model that places the sun at the centre of the solar system, first championed by Italian polymath Galileo Galilei) was completely dropped in 1835.
Some of the major intellectual figures whose works were in the Index include: Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543); French writer Voltaire (1694-1778); Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778); Scottish empiricist David Hume (1711-1776); and French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986).
Yet, there were some omissions that might be surprising. English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882); German revolutionary socialist Karl Marx (1818-1883); German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900); English writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930); and Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) are among those people whose work escaped the Index. Whilst the views expressed by such authors were unacceptable to the Catholic Church, their work was either considered heretical and therefore was automatically forbidden, or, did not meet the primary criteria for banning books: anticlericalism and immorality.