In a classic paradox of bureaucracy, the Banned Books Index only really took off when its original task became impossible. As early as the 17th century, Robin Vose recounts in his new history of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – established in 1559, revered and cursed for four centuries as “the Index” – it was widely believed that the censorship of literature, strict sense, was no longer possible. The ubiquity of printers, ease of transport and concealment, and the large number of new books all made most texts available, most of the time, to those who had time and money to spare. The Index of Banned Books could practically not ban.
In other words, as Vose explains, the Index’s image of proto-totalitarian control was more or less illusory. The reality, as the censors strove to give practical form to noble church edicts, was improvised, inconsistent and unclear. Obscene texts did not appear anywhere in the Index during the first century; in the 19th century they predominated. Vernacular Bibles raised little initial concern. Later, even excerpts from Scripture justified ecclesiastical obstinacy. Vose’s book, more than the story of a document, is the story of an idea.
Or several ideas. Cardinal Bellarmine, inquisitor, scholar and future saint, saw the Index as part of the dialectic of the Counter-Reformation: a double-edged sword, 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 challenging universal papal sovereignty, a late-medieval theory Controversial age among theologians but (predictably) loved by popes. . Sixtus, energetic and unscrupulous, had realized that the Index could shape Catholic doctrine as well as apply it. Local franchises have made their own tweaks to the roll call of the damned, some in defiance of Roman standards, articulating their own take on truth — and falsehood.
The Iberian inquisitors, monitoring the communities of Arabs and Jews who had been forcibly converted and of dubious piety, turned the Index into a vade mecum for culture. genocidists. The Talmud was banned or permitted only in edited form; Books in the Arabic language were purely and simply banned. When Spain and Portugal sent armies to colonize the New World, the Index went with them. The nascent dialogue with Native American religions was strangled in the crib.
Purity stifled practice. With the inquisitors banning native translations of scripture, barely catechized native believers were prone to fundamental theological errors – and thus, in sinister and circumambulatory logic, justifying the original censorship. The process of intellectual calcification set in motion by the Index justified such paranoia, Vose notes: the censors who looked for the lie invariably found it. With each iteration of the Index, prohibitions proliferate, and increase begets increase: a perpetual machine of prohibitions.
Vose is a cautious and careful narrator, careful to point out that the Index was created by intellectuals – inspired by scholars and led by popes who were “the very image of an Enlightenment intellectual”. In a world where science, religion, politics – and the occult – were much closer than they are today, the Index played a role, Vose suggests, roughly analogous to that of peer review. modern peers. The church that created the index was surprisingly open to debate, discussion and even – in special circumstances – dissent. The same could not be said for the church created by the Index.
As the French Revolution set off a chain reaction of revolts and reforms, the old regime collapsed across Europe, and the temporal power of the church with it. The Inquisitors found their power circumscribed and the Index lost its teeth. Confined physically to the Vatican, its authority restricted to the minds of the faithful, a humiliated papacy entrenched itself in a fog of denunciation. As the boundaries of the Catholic world shifted and shifted again, the Index was given a new assignment – on the front lines of the war against the modern world.
In the 20th century, the Index swelled in length – André Gide and Graham Greene joined the lists – and in influence. The sheer weight of precedent and the quasi-dogmatic brilliance of the Index preemptively reduced Catholic theological disputes. Doom had gone from a choice to a choice – the only choice that mattered. The Index, created to protect the Catholic Church, had finally conquered it. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, when most of the main theologians of the Church were subject to proscriptions of various kinds, the Index experienced an ironic apotheosis. In 1966, by the solemn order of the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Censor was himself censured. Not with a bang, you might say, but with a footnote.
Vose’s clear and concise book is a valuable account of a force that has invisibly shaped the modern world. It’s also a mature look at the messy realities of censorship and control — tendencies that can’t always be avoided, but perhaps should be the subject of suspicion, scrutiny, and resentment. The Index can no longer ban, but it can still warn.