THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

25 September 2019

How the Index Librorum Prohibitorum ended up on an illustrated magazine

Banned Books Week (22–28 Sept 2019) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to the number of challenges to books in schools, bookshops and libraries. The theme for 2019 urges readers to ‘keep the light on’ to ensure censorship doesn’t leave us in the dark. 

The lists known as Index Librorum Prohibitorum, first issued in 1559 by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are regarded as the earliest systematically kept records of prohibited literature. They were compiled after the Council of Trent, with the intent to ‘Counter-Reform’ the Catholic Church and to ban ‘immoral’ ideas coming from the Reformation.

The books listed were banned from being: published, sold, purchased, kept, translated, circulated, and read. The offenders were worthy of excommunication by the Catholic Church.

Title-page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum from 1564

Title-page of: Index Librorum Prohibitorum, (Salamanca,1564). 1365.d.1.

Published for four centuries, the Index included endless works of Theology, as well as Philosophy (Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, and many more), Science (Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Iohannes Kepler, Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande, Gerardus Mercator, amongst many), Literature (Giovanni Boccaccio, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas father and son, Victor Hugo, Giacomo Leopardi, John Milton, Georges Sand, Stendhal), but also History, Law, Medicine.

The last of the 20 lists was published in 1948, with some additions made in 1961: this issue bans the opera omnia of some notable authors of the 20th century: Gabriele D’Annunzio, André Gide, Maurice Maeterlinck, Alberto Moravia, and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as single works by Simone de Beauvoir, Nikos Kazantakis, and Curzio Malaparte.

Page from Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1948

Page from Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1948

1961 additions to the 1948 issue of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, HLR098.11

Quite interestingly, it is worth noting what was not banned. The increasingly political role of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith left Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx out of the Index, but banned works by the fascist ideologues such as Giovanni Gentile and Alfred Rosenberg.

The Index was suppressed with a papal document after the end of the Second Vatican Council, in December 1965. However, the wider public overlooked the news at the time. Ironically, a prominent Cardinal, Alfredo Ottaviani, had to give an interview to the popular Italian illustrated magazine Gente, to publicise this decision.

Cover of Gente, 13 April 1966

A typical issue of Gente from the period (no. 15, 13 April 1966) 

He explained that the Index no longer had juridical value, that the list was not going to be updated, and that it was going to be considered only a historical document.

The Index died because the role of the book had profoundly changed since its inception in the 16th century. The Index died because the publishing world had become too complex, impossible to keep up-to-date with. The Index died because new media were emerging. The Catholic Church will continue censoring ‘dangerous’ ideas, but nobody is going to be excommunicated for reading Sartre!

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

References / Further Reading:

Index Librorum Prohibitorum: SS.MI D. N. PII PP. XII. Iussu Editus ed. ([Vatican City], 1948). F8/4644

Jesus Martinez De Bujanda and Marcella Richter, Index Librorum Prohibitorum 1600- (Sherbrooke, [Québec], 2002) Index Des Livres Interdits; 11. YF.2018.a.21220

Giovanni Casati, L’Indice Dei Libri Proibiti. Saggi E Commenti. (Milan, 1936-39). 2709.c.12.

“Index Librorum Prohibitorum.” Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1948. 

The Library will be holding a number of events to mark Banned Books Week, and for more related posts, see our English and Drama and Americas blogs