THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts categorized "Banned books week"

30 September 2016

‘The only censor is honesty’: Press Freedom and its Limits in Revolutionary Vienna

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For many who took to the streets in the European revolutions of 1848 press freedom and an end to government censorship were key demands. When these were granted – if only, as it often turned out, for a limited period – both the revolutionaries and their opponents took the opportunity to express their arguments and opinions in a torrent of printed material.

A look at the British Library’s collection of ephemera from Vienna during the period clearly demonstrates the importance of this aspect in the discourse of the revolution. Among the first publications to appear following Emperor Ferdinand’s promise of more liberal press laws on 15 March, were poems celebrating the achievements of the revolution, including Friedrich Gerhard’s ‘Die Presse frei’, which declares that now ‘The only censor is – honesty’. Like various other pieces dated on and around 15 March, it proudly claims to be the first uncensored work issued by its printer.

Wien Presse frei  11526
Friedrich Gerhard, ‘Die Presse Frei’ (Vienna, 1848), with the proud boast ‘Erstes censurfreies Gedicht’. British Library  
11526.f.46.(9.)

As well as poetry, there were prose declarations of gratitude. A ‘Manifest der Schriftsteller Wiens’, also dated 15 March, is signed by 27 writers who proclaim that they are ‘taking formal possession of the rights of a free press guaranteed by our most gracious monarch’. The first signatory, Ignaz Franz Castelli, later wrote a series of didactic pieces to educate the wider public about the gains of the revolution. In the first, ‘Was ist denn jetzt g’schehen in Wien?’ (1899.m.19.(170)), he calls freedom of the press ‘the most excellent of all freedoms.’

Castelli was neither a radical or an active revolutionary (he would spend much of 1848 in the quiet seclusion of his country estate). But he believed that wise and good citizens, now permitted to judge for themselves about the reading-matter on offer, would reject anything ‘unworthy’. Many conservatives were less optimistic, such as the anonymous author of the pamphlet Hoch lebe die Preszfreiheit! Nieder mit der Preszfrechheit, who praises the principle of a free press but bemoans the what he sees as, ‘insolent, salacious, lying, bilious and pernicious pamphlets’ appearing on the streets as a result of the lack of censorship.

Wien Pamphlets Preszefreiheit
Hoch lebe die Preszfreiheit! Nieder mit der Preszfrechheit
([Vienna, 1848]) RB.23.a.33764

This criticism was aimed at writers such as Sigmund Engländer, a more radical fellow-signatory of Castelli’s petition and editor of Wiener Charivari-Katzenmusik, one of the many new critical and satirical journals that sprang up in the course of the year. But despite the criticism thrown at them, these writers were in many ways the heroes and pioneers of the free press during the Revolution. Even if their satires were sometimes crude or potentially libellous, like opponents of censorship throughout the ages they were pushing boundaries, mocking sacred cows and raising the question of what could or should be said, a bolder and more creative approach to new freedoms than Castelli’s somewhat patronising and paternalistic lectures.

Wien Granaten-Fürst
Mocking sacred cows: a cartoon from October 1848 satirising the Austrian General Windischgrätz as ‘Grenade-Prince Bombowitz’ and a ‘long-nosed monster’ , October 1848, 1899.m.19.(172)

Writers like Engländer were inevitably diasppointed when the promised new press law was published. Lèse majesté, libel, treason or incitement to unlawful activity were still punishable by up to five years imprisonment, and the law demanded that all works must bear the name of an author, editor publisher or printer, who could be identified as responsible for any offence. In a skit on the new guidelines (1899.m.19.(153)), Eduard Leidesdorf posed a riddle: ‘Why was the Press Law rejected? Because no author, publisher or printer was named’ (as was often the case with official documents). By 16 August Engländer clearly thought things had got so bad that he added ‘A few days before the reintroduction of censorship’ to the masthead of his journal, and devoted the front page to an attack on the press law.

Wiener Charivari 16 August
Wiener Charivari. Katzenmusik
no. 31, 16 August 1848. 1899.m.19.(248)

But as early as April, when the press law was first published, an article in Der große Peter had printed a satirical ‘letter from Metternich’ in which the former Chancellor claims that the new law is a better means of preventing free speech than his own system of censorship. In fact Der große Peter is almost exclusively focused on questions of press freedom and press law. In its opening number, the editor claims to have discovered an ingenious way of avoiding taxes levied on political periodicals issued more than once a month: he will re-name the journal for each day of the month, making it ‘thirty newspapers instead of one!’. However, only one further issue was published, under the title Der Stutz-Peter. While very short-lived periodicals were typical of the period, in the case of Der große Peter it is possible that the whole exercise was a satire on the press law and never intended to be a genuinely long-running publication.

Grosse Peter 1
Der große Peter
, no. 1, 9 April 1848. 1899.m.19.(202) 

Radicals might have thought that the 1848 press law was too draconian, but far worse was to come. Following a second revolutionary uprising in October 1848, Vienna was besieged by the Imperial army under General Windischgrätz. In a series of ultimatums to the city, Windischgrätz demanded the banning of all newspapers and periodicals (with the exception of the long-established Wiener Zeitung, which was only to print official proclamations). When the army finally gained control of Vienna on 31 October, this was reiterated, and the printing, posting and circulation of broadsheets and pamphlets also forbidden. Gradually newspapers began to reappear, mostly established and conservative titles. Only one of Vienna’s new satirical journals survived: Johann Franz Böhringer’s Die Geißel, the only one to have been on the side of the establishment throughout. In 1849 a new and stronger press law was introduced, and press censorship continued in Austria until the proclamation of a republic in 1918.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author, curator Christian Algar on the ‘corrected’ Il Decamerone, curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity, The Book Banner who inspired Banned Books by curator Alison Hudson and Banned From the Classroom: Censorship and The Catcher in the Rye by curator Mercedes Aguirre.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

  BannedBooksWeekLogos

26 September 2016

Il Decamerone – “Corrected” by Rome

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Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, Humanist, orator, narrator and ambassador, father of the Italian novel, is one of the greatest storytellers known. He composed Il Decamerone (The Decameron)  in the mid-14th century and it  was first circulated in manuscript form in the 1370s. Despite being one of the most meddled-with texts to have endured, its ‘Frame story’ structure – ten tales told by each of ten people gathered together for a fortnight – has become canonised as a model for literary prose. Two texts in particular, one prepared by Ruscelli in 1552 and one by Salvati in 1587, are notorious for their meddling emendations. The Decameron is also widely known for its erotic components and it has quite unfairly led to its author and his work bIl eing associated with ‘obscenity’.

A common perception is that it is this supposed obscenity which has led to the book having been banned and suppressed here and there by the usual powerful groupings of offended sensibilities. The Roman Catholic Church did indeed ‘ban’ The Decameron but knew that they could not simply obliterate such a well-known and widely circulated work; the 15th and 16th centuries saw an estimated 192 printed editions alone. Faced with the Reformation, the Catholic Church needed to defend itself and reconsolidate its position of authority. To this purpose, one of the several measures taken by the Council of Trent was to create a commission to assemble and manage a list of forbidden books resulting in the fabled Index Librorum Prohibitorum which  identified books which were heretical, anti-clerical or explicitly sexual.

But how was the Church to manage The Decameron? Quite craftily was how. In the early 1570s, under the leadership of Vincenzo Borghini, a team of clerical scholars in Florence set about emending its text. They cloaked their expurgations by trying to convince people that they had kindly corrected existing editions, enhancing the language and in the process arriving at the ‘true’ text written by Boccaccio; original authorial intent had been revealed, “By Order of the Inquisition”.

So in 1573 the Florentine printers Giunti issued Il Decameron ... Ricorretto in Roma, et emendato secondo l'ordine del Sacro Conc. di Trento, et riscontrato in Firenze con testi antichi & alla sua vera lezione ridotto da' deputati…

Decameron 1573 tp C.7.a.8. The title page of the 1573 Florence edition of Il Decameron (C.7.a.8).

Borghini’s approved edition implied that manuscripts of The Decameron had been mischievously distorted to include outrageous slights against the Church and its servants. The erotic elements, the ‘obscenity’, often key to a tale’s plot and meaning, remained but all the references to the clergy had been removed. The crux of the problem for them was the dignity of the Roman Catholic Church and they managed it by simply removing references to priests, monasteries and so on; generic terms served their purpose with nuns becoming ‘ladies’ or ‘dames’, abbesses becoming random figures of aristocracy.

The British Library has three copies of this ‘corrected’ edition.  One  exposes clearly the motivations of the Church expurgations and emendations. A century after its publication another scholar called Marco Dotto systematically went through it annotating the pages: re-inserting the censored details and re-correcting Borghini’s emendations. Dotto wrote a short explanatory essay voicing his outrage at the mutilation of Boccaccio’s great work by the ‘scalpel’ of the Inquisition. He viewed himself as a ‘physician’ repairing their butchery, healing it and restoring the text to its true, we could say, rude health.

Decameron Day 3 story 1 annotated Day Three, Story One (Masetto, gardener at a convent) annotated by Marco Dotto. ‘Garden of Ladies’, or Convent? (C.7.a.8)

The story of Masetto of Lamporecchio told by Filostrato on Day Three is a favourite tale from The Decameron and illustrates  how the book has been meddled with. Masetto, a handsome young man, schemes to get a job as a gardener at a convent by pretending to be deaf and dumb. Two nuns talk of what they have heard rumoured to be the best pleasure a woman can get and scheme to meet Masetto in the garden’s woodshed. Other nuns witness this and insist on their share also. One day, the Abbess passes Masetto, spent and asleep on a bank in the garden. The wind happens to blow his shirt up and reveals all his glory to the head of the convent; consumed with desire she takes him to her quarters believing she can sleep with the young gardener with impunity as, deaf and dumb, he can tell no tale. All this is draining for Masetto so he decides to reveal he is cured. It is claimed as a miracle, nurtured by his tending the convent gardens. We can see how Dotto’s annotations restore the expurgated ‘munistero di donne’ used by Boccaccio which the clerics had rendered as ‘giardino di damigelle’. Borghini frequently anonymised particular named locations to protect reputations and often removed them entirely to places in France.

The last uncensored Decameron of the 16th century was printed in 1558 and with so many early editions it is interesting to make comparisons between them. Here we can see a folio with the start of Masetto’s story in an edition printed in Venice by Manfredo Bonelli in 1498. The text and the woodcuts faithfully assert the setting as a convent and its characters as nuns.


Decameron Day 3 story 1
 Masetto of Lamporecchio in the ‘Garden of Ladies’, Day Three Story 1. (C.4.i.7)

But censorship comes from many sources, individual sensibilities may be offended as much as organised, institutional interests; a fact that can be seen in this mid-15th century manuscript of The Decameron where the concluding sentiment on Masetto’s tale, has been heavily censored and obscured by another hand.

Decameron Add MS 10297
Censored mid-15th century manuscript (Add MS 10297 f.46r)

Such are the fascinations with obscenity and censorship, the simple fact that Boccaccio is one of the greatest storytellers ever to be printed can be in danger of being overlooked. We can celebrate this year’s Banned Books Week  by appreciating a good read of unexpurgated editions of this great collection of stories; though it can be fun to read the censored efforts too. But do remember that original authorial intent should never be taken for granted – sometimes it is wrested away by the operations of power and can be lost forever because of some individual’s  or organisation’s disapproval and assault.

Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections.

Decameron storytellers C.4.i.7
 The storytellers; the woodcut illustrated title page of Manfredo Bonelli’s Decamerone o ver Cento Nouelle, Venice, 1498 (C.4.i.7)

References/further  reading:

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Translated with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (London, 1972). X.908/23609

Pisanus Fraxi, Bibliography of prohibited books. Index librorum prohibitoru (3 Vols) (New York, 1962). RAR 808.803

David Wallace, Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron. (Cambridge, 1991)YC.1991.a.4224

Giuseppe Chiecchi, Luciano Troisio, Il Decameron sequestrato: le tre edizioni censurate nel Cinquecento. (Milan, 1984) ZA.9.a.636 (4)

Giuseppe Chiecchi, “Dolcemente dissumulando”: cartelle laurenziane e “Decameron” censurato (1573)(Padua, 1992)./WP.16966/53     

Giuseppe Chiecchi (ed.),  Le annotazioni e i discorsi sul Decameron del 1573 dei deputatii fiorentini. (Rome, 2001) YA.2003.a.9884

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

BannedBooksWeekLogos