The aims of this site are to offer an analysis of the phenomenon of book censorship in both the institutional and ideological context of the Catholic Church, and to provide a survey of some of the most notable titles that were included on the Index of Forbidden Books during its existence.
One of the results of the research that I’ve conducted on this topic was the discovery that there is at present no comprehensive, annotated bibliography for the contents of Index Librorum Prohibitorum at any stage of its existence. Though a satirist such as Joseph McCabe composed his now-rare volume, in part, on “the stupidity of the Index” (1931: 5), little has been written about exactly why the titles found on any given edition of this text were deemed forbidden in the first place. Even the master bibliographer of Catholic book censorship, J.M. de Bujanda, admits that our knowledge only goes so far without access to the documentation behind each interdiction (2002: 8). This is in large part because, as Una Cadegan explains, “The reasons for a book’s being placed on the Index were never made public, nor were the arguments made in the reports submitted by the consultors” (2013: 109). By long-standing tradition if not specific policy, the protocols of the Sacred Congregation of the Index — and later of the Congregation of the Holy Office — were and remain clandestine. As is the case of the process of selecting a new pope, these highest-level decisions are to this day made in secrecy and handed down as final and (in most cases) binding.
The question remains: Why were certain books placed on the Index and not others? Writing during the same 49-year era as many others cited on this site — after the 1917 Code of Canon Law was published but before the reforms of Vatican II were made fully public in 1966 — the Jesuit priest Harold C. Gardiner defines one important factor in determining the status of books: obscenity. “[Obscenity],” he wrote, “consists in the intrinsic tendency or bent of the work to arouse sexual passion, or, to put it more concretely, the motions of the genital apparatus which are preparatory to the complete act of sexual union” (1958: 64). As a rule of thumb, he cites Burke (1952): One full obscene chapter makes an entire book obscene (Ibid.: 66). This policy is explicitly addressed in Canon 1399 §9, which states the proscription against “books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics” (Woywod 1952, Vol II: 151). These more blatant cases of sexual obscenity must, then, be those exemplified in the condemned works of French authors like Stendhal (the nom de plume of one Henri Marie Beyle) and his lesser-known countrymen Ernest-Aimé Feydeau and Frédéric Soulié; all of their “amorous tales” (omnes fabulae amatoriae) are listed in the Index. Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary was condemned in 1864, evidently, because it not only dealt with sex but also suicide (among other transgressions). The infamous Venetian lothario and political intriguer Casanova (né Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt), too, must have been condemned in 1834 under the obscenity rule due to the expressly sexual nature of his memoirs. Again, however, the exact process by which any of these titles was proscribed remains unknown until such time that the corresponding documentation emerges.
While many cases of interdiction appear to be much more philosophically motivated (e.g., works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Spinoza) than due to sexual content or other forms of “obscenity,” the exact reasons for certain texts being condemned and censored can, at least with a reasonable degree of certainty, be discerned by the process of referring to the specific canons that they appear to violate according to the Code of Canon Law (Woywod et al. 1952). This is the calculus that I adhere to herein.
This site relies heavily on the monumental work of the aforementioned J.M de Bujanda of the University of Sherbrooke (Quebec) and his team of editorial collaborators. Their eleven-volume series Index des Livres Interdits (Index of Forbidden Books) represents decades of extensively researched bibliographic work on not only the Index as it existed between 1600 and 1966 (the focus of the almost 1,000-page eleventh volume, published in 2002), but furthermore those earlier and decentralized indices produced by, for example, the University of Paris or the Spanish Inquisition throughout the sixteenth century. The lengths to which de Bujanda et al. have gone to achieve the goal of documenting the minutiae of centuries of Catholic book censorship are nothing short of astounding. I highly recommend reading their work, and especially the eleventh and final volume from which I obtained so much essential information. Although written primarily in French, the bibliographic listings themselves (3,000-plus author entries and 5,000-plus individual title entries) are nevertheless relatively easy to interpret thanks to a user’s guide in several translations, including English. My hope is to build on this great tool to provide further analysis on select titles that I hope will represent a wide range of authorship, subject matter, and historical notability.
In addition to a synopsis of each book selected, I provide the following:
- A listing of, and any public-domain links to, the edition I reviewed. This is usually the most readily available English edition of the text, relative to my personal access to both digital and print editions and to which all in-text citations, e.g., “(37)”, refer;
- The original edition cited in the Index according to de Bujanda, et al. (2002) (sometimes the same as 1. — listed Idem — but most often not), as well as any public-domain links to the same;
- The date of interdiction by the Church;
- The presumed canonical violation(s) as determined by my analysis.
My goal for each title was to read it to such an extent that I understood both its general meaning, cultural import, and furthermore why, most likely, it was condemned by the Church.
In certain cases, I have had to rely on my less-than-perfect reading level in the original language if no translation was available — beyond English, I read Spanish and Portuguese quite well, followed by French at an intermediate level, Italian somewhat less so, Latin at a beginner’s level, and German as a mostly unknown commodity (but it rarely came up). My readings and analyses, when necessary, were supplemented with information or insight from scholars better versed than myself in either a given language or a text’s specific contents. Any errors in the final interpretation, however, are my own.