By Emma Schnieder, Summer Associate
September 28, 2020
“The Index Librorum Prohibitorum” - what a mysterious and dangerous name for a list of books! It just sounds like something that exists in the “Forbidden” section of Hogwarts. However, it was very real from 1529 until 1966 (you read that correctly). This list of prohibited books was curated by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, an extension of the Catholic church, and officially established by Pope Paul IV in 1559. The Index consisted of works of literature that were deemed heretical or contrary to morality and Catholics were forbidden from reading them without permission. This rule was enforceable within Papal States or in countries where the leader was Catholic.
A little history to set the stage of this Index’s creation: Queen Elizabeth has just taken the English throne after her older sister, Mary (of the bathroom mirror chant fame), dies. Elizabeth pledges to no longer punish those based on their religion, however the primary religion of England would switch from Catholicism to Protestantism - the ultimate power move! As could be expected, other nations such as Spain, France, and Scotland immediately rebelled against this decision and the Vatican backed their efforts. This war was meant to return the primary religion of England back to Catholicism, hopefully by placing Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, on the throne. Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t happen.
This is where the Index Librorum Prohibitorum comes into the spotlight. By creating a list of works that Catholics were banned from reading, it would allegedly prevent scientists and Protestants from spreading their word and drastically altering the numbers of the Catholic church’s members.
So what was banned throughout the years? Early on anything written by someone who identified as a Protestant was blacklisted entirely, even if the work itself had nothing to do with religion whatsoever. Books on subjects like botany or law were denied from Catholic Readerships. Eventually this process of banning went beyond the role of the papacy and in 1571 the “Sacred Congregation of the Index” was formed to fill the list with “heretical” writings. However, if the work could be “fixed” the Congregation could suggest corrections to the author in order to prevent the book from being completely banned and listed. Ultimately, it was still the Pope who had to approve what was added to the list over the years. From 1917-1966 the Congregation went under a new name: The Holy Office.
The Holy Office operated much the same as it had prior to the name change, except what was being banned was not resigned to works written by Protestants. Now any piece of writing that was allegedly filled with heresy, sexual explicitness, or deemed immoral were added to the list. Authors like Nietzsche were not added to the list. Since the authors were known atheists, the church members could assume the works to be banned by the Church. The banning also took a political turn in the 1940s and works written by prominent members of the Nazi Party were also added to the list. The final edition of the Index was published in 1948 and contained 4000 titles. The Church quit producing the Index in 1966 and effectively abolished it.
Some notable titles that were listed in the Index through its existence were: All works by John Calvin, Milton’s Paradise Lost, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, almost the entirety of Voltaire’s work, everything by David Hume, Rousseau’s Social Contract, all novels by Balzac, all of Alexander Dumas’ novels, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
The Index has been relegated to being known solely as a historic document, however it has held a lasting impact since 1966. Many of the books mentioned in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum continue to be challenged today for similar reasons as to when they were challenged originally. There is also the myth surrounding the well-known Vatican “Secret” Library. While there is no direct correlation between the index and the library, they are often linked together in conspiracy theories discussing the Vatican’s relationship with published works.
This is just an extremely brief list and history, a quick search on the internet will satisfy your curiosity about more books. So, if you want to feel like a powerful historian - give a little look into the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, it is such a strange and interesting document chronicling the history of literary works and banning. If you want to feel like an edgy English scholar in the 1500s, read some of the books listed in the Index, do it for Queen Elizabeth I!
- “Index Librorum Prohibitorum,” On Censorship, accessed July 15, 2020, http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/liste.html?tid=415.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Index Librorum Prohibitorum,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., July 20, 1998), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Index-Librorum-Prohibitorum.
- Cardinal A. Ottaviani , “Notification Regarding the Abolition of the Index of Books,” Notification regarding the abolition of the Index of books, 14 June 1966, 1966, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19660614_de-indicis-libr-prohib_en.html.