Part 1: Bannings and Burnings in History

Hi Everyone!

I’m amazed that here it is the last few days of February and I hadn’t posted yet this month! I don’t know how the month escaped so quickly.

This is the last day of Freedom to Read Week that is Feb. 19-25 this year, and yesterday I read this list compiled (by Freedom to Read) which I am posting in two parts for you. I find it to be very interesting, and containing puzzling, tragic, and even some laughable decisions.

Bannings and Burnings in History

Some of the most controversial books in history are now regarded as classics. The Bible and works by Shakespeare are among those that have been banned over the past two thousand years. Here is [part one of] a selective timeline of book bannings, burnings, and other censorship activities.

259–210 B.C.: The Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti is said to have buried alive 460 Confucian scholars to control the writing of history in his time. In 212 B.C., he burned all the books in his kingdom, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library—and those were destroyed before his death. With all previous historical records destroyed, he thought history could be said to begin with him.

A.D. 8: The Roman poet Ovid was banished from Rome for writing Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). He died in exile in Greece eight years later. All Ovid’s works were burned by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, and an English translation of Ars Amatoria was banned by U.S. Customs in 1928.

35: The Roman emperor Caligula opposed the reading of The Odyssey by Homer, written more than 300 years before. He thought the epic poem was dangerous because it expressed Greek ideas of freedom.

640: According to legend, the caliph Omar burned all 200,000 volumes in the library at Alexandria in Egypt. In doing so, he said: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.” In burning the books, the caliph provided six months’ fuel to warm the city’s

1497–98: Savonarola, a Florentine religious fanatic with a large following, was one of the most notorious and powerful of all censors. In these years, he instigated great “bonfires of the vanities” which destroyed books and paintings by some of the greatest artists of Florence. He persuaded the artists themselves to bring their works—including drawings of nudes—to the
bonfires. Some poets decided they should no longer write in verse because they were persuaded that their lines were wicked and impure. Popular songs were denounced, and some were turned into hymns with new pious lyrics. Ironically, in May of 1498 another great bonfire was lit—this time under Savonarola who hung from a cross. With him were burned all his writings, sermons, essays, and pamphlets.

1524–26: Thousands of copies of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament were printed in Germany and smuggled into England, where they were publicly burned in 1526 on the orders of London’s Roman Catholic bishop. Church authorities in England insisted that the Bible would be available only in Latin and that only they would be able to read and interpret it. In 1536, as a result of a plot masterminded by the English, Tyndale was arrested in Belgium, tried for heresy, and strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels. A few of his translations were burned with him. Today, only three original copies of Tyndale’s New Testament survive.

1559: For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church listed books that were prohibited to its members; but in this year, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For more than 400 years this was the definitive list of books that Roman Catholics were told not to read. It was one of the most powerful censorship tools in the world.

1597: The original version of Shakespeare’s Richard II contained a scene in which the king was deposed from his throne. Queen Elizabeth I was so angry that she ordered the scene removed from all copies of the play.

1614: Sir Walter Raleigh’s book The History of the World was banned by King James I of England for “being too saucy in censuring princes.”

1624: Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was burnt in Germany by order of the Pope.

1616–42: Galileo’s theories about the solar system and his support of the discoveries of Copernicus were condemned by the Catholic Church. Under threat of torture, and sentenced to jail at the age of 70, the great scientist was forced to renounce what he knew to be true. On his death, his widow agreed to destroy some of his manuscripts.

1720: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Spanish Catholic Church.

1744: Sorrows of Young Werther by the famed German author Goethe was published in this year and soon became popular throughout Europe. The book was a short novel, in diary form, in which a young man writes of his sufferings from a failed love affair. The final chapter of the book drops the diary form and graphically depicts Werther’s suicide. Because a number of
copycat suicides followed the publication of the book, the Lutheran church condemned the novel as immoral; then governments in Italy, Denmark, and Germany banned the book. Two hundred years later an American sociologist, David Phillips, wrote about the effect of reporting suicides in The Werther Effect.

1788: Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from the stage until 1820—in deference to the insanity of the reigning monarch, King George III.

1807: In Paris, French police entered the room in the asylum where the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned and seized several of his manuscripts, including the manuscript of his latest novel, The Days at Florbelle. The police claimed that the notorious libertine’s novel was blasphemous and obscene, and Sade never saw it again. After Sade died in 1814, his younger son, anxious to restore the Sade family’s name, asked the Ministry of Justice to burn The Days at Florbelle and any other manuscript like it. The authorities obliged. But one police officer saved one notebook: it outlined the story and briefly described a few characters and incidents.

1807: Dr. Thomas Bowdler quietly brought out the first of his revised editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The preface claimed that he had removed from Shakespeare “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty”—which amounted to about 10 per cent of the playwright’s text. One hundred and fifty years later, it was discovered that the real excision had been done by Dr. Bowdler’s sister, Henrietta Maria. The word “bowdlerize” became part of the English language.

1843: The English Parliament updated an act that required all plays to be performed in England to be submitted for approval to the Lord Chamberlain. Despite objections by illustrious figures such as George Bernard Shaw (in 1909), this power remained with the Lord Chamberlain until 1968.

1859: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, outlining the theory of evolution. The book was banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Darwin had been a student. In 1925, Tennessee banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools; the law remained in force until 1967. The Origin of Species was banned in Yugoslavia in 1935 and in
Greece in 1937.

1859: George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede was attacked as the “vile outpourings of a lewd woman’s mind,” and the book was withdrawn from circulation libraries in Britain.

1864–1959: Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

1881: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (published in 1833) was threatened with banning by Boston’s district attorney unless the book was expurgated. The public uproar brought such sales of his books that Whitman was able to buy a house with the proceeds.

1885: A year after the publication of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the library of Concord, Massachusetts, decided to exclude the book from its collection. The committee making the decision said the book was “rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” By 1907, it was said that Twain’s novel had been thrown out of some library somewhere every year, mostly because its hero was said to present a bad example for impressionable young readers.

1927: A translation of The Arabian Nights by the French scholar Mardrus was held up by U.S. Customs. Four years later another translation, by Sir Richard Burton, was allowed into the country, but the ban on the Mardrus version was maintained.

1929: Jack London’s popular novel Call of the Wild was banned in Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1932, copies of this and other books by London were burned by the Nazis in Germany.

1929: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was banned in the Soviet Union because of “occultism.”

1929–62: Novels by Ernest Hemingway were banned in various parts of the world such as Italy, Ireland, and Germany (where they were burned by the Nazis). In California in 1960, The Sun Also Rises was banned from schools in San Jose and all of Hemingway’s works were removed from Riverside school libraries. In 1962, a group called Texans for America opposed textbooks that referred students to books by the Nobel Prize-winning author.

1931: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was banned by the governor of Hunan province in China because, he said, animals should not use human language and it was disastrous to put animals and humans on the same level.

1932: In a letter to an American publisher, James Joyce said that “some very kind person” bought the entire first edition of Dubliners and had it burnt.

1933: A series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists, and others. Included were the works of John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair, Stalin, and Leon Trotsky.

1937: The Quebec government passed An Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda, popularly known as the Padlock Act. The statute empowered the attorney general to close, for up to one year, any building that was used to disseminate “communism or bolshevism.” (These two terms were undefined.) In addition, the act empowered the attorney general to confiscate and destroy any publication propagating communism or bolshevism. Anyone caught publishing, printing, or distributing such literature faced imprisonment for up to one year without appeal. In 1957, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Padlock Act in a case called Switzman vs. Elbling. The court said that the act made the propagation of communism a crime; however, the court’s reason for striking down the law had less to do with the evils of censorship than with the division of powers between federal and provincial governments. The court declared that the power to pass criminal law belonged exclusively to Ottawa, so Quebec’s Padlock Act was ultra vires and unconstitutional. Only two justices raised the issue of censorship in this case.

1953: The Irish government banned Anatole France’s A Mummer’s Tale (for “immorality”), Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Across the River and Into the Trees (for “immorality”), all the works of John Steinbeck (for “subversion” and “immorality”), all the works of Emile Zola (for “immorality”), and most works by William Faulkner (for “immorality”).

1954: Mickey Mouse comics were banned in East Berlin because Mickey was said to be an “anti-Red rebel.”

1959: After protests by the White Citizens’ Council, The Rabbits’ Wedding, a picture book for children, was put on the reserved shelf in Alabama public libraries because it was thought to promote racial integration.

That’s all for this time and I will follow up with part 2 in a couple of days.

What do you think of this list? Any you agree with, or strongly disagree?

Thanks for reading, and … Creative Musings! 🙂


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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