Madoc Cairns

The Index of Prohibited Books makes a fine reading list

The many authors whose works were once banned by the Catholic church include Milton, Montaigne, Gibbon, Voltaire, Flaubert, Moravia, Kant and Gide

A 1711 illustration from the Index, depicting the incineration of prohibited books by the Holy Ghost. [Alamy]

In a classic paradox of bureaucracy, the Index of Forbidden Books only really hit its stride when its original task became impossible. By the 17th century, Robin Vose relates in his new history of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – established 1559, venerated and cursed for four centuries as ‘the Index’ – it was broadly accepted that censoring literature, senso stricto, was no longer possible. The ubiquity of printers, the ease of transportation and concealment and the sheer number of new books all made most texts available, most of the time, to those with time and cash to spare. The Index of Forbidden Books couldn’t, practically speaking, forbid.

In other words, as Vose explains, the Index’s image of proto-totalitarian control was more or less illusionary. The reality, as censors scrambled to give practical form to high-minded ecclesial edicts, was improvisational, inconsistent and unclear. Obscene texts appeared nowhere on the Index for the first century; by the 19th century they predominated. Vernacular bibles incurred little initial concern. Later, even extracts from scripture warranted ecclesiastical obloquy. Vose’s book, more than an account of a document, is the history of an idea.

Obscene texts appeared nowhere on the Index initially. By the 19th century they predominated

Or multiple ideas. Cardinal Bellarmine, inquisitor, scholar and eventual saint, saw the Index as part of the dialectic of the Counter-Reformation: a double-edged blade, correcting Catholic abuses alongside Protestant errors. But after three decades of loyal service as a censor, the cardinal found himself on the Index, placed there by Pope Sixtus V. Bellarmine was condemned for disputing universal papal sovereignty, a late-medieval theory controversial among theologians but (predictably) beloved by popes. Sixtus, energetic and unscrupulous, had realised the Index could shape Catholic doctrine as well as enforce it. Local franchises made their own adjustments to the roll-call of the damned, some in defiance of Roman norms, articulating their own vision of truth – and untruth.

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