Book Burning and Censorship in History: Historical Accounts of Literary Destruction Begin in the Ancient Era

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Countless ancient texts have been lost because their existence posed a threat to prevailing views, often religious. Book burning and censorship continues in modern times.

The phrase, “Give me 26 lead soldiers and I will conquer the world,” has been attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Karl Marx. It is an affirmation that the pen is mightier than the sword. Throughout history, however, the written thoughts of mankind have been subject to divergent philosophic and religious beliefs that saw existing writings as a threat. Today it is called “book burning” or censorship. At other times in human history it was heresy. Regardless of the reasons given, great works of ancient and modern thought have been lost because new movements strove to eradicate writings deemed dangerous.

Destroying Records of the Past

Historians of the Ancient Near East point to Nineveh as a repository of one of the first libraries. Nineveh was the capital city of the hated Assyrians. Incessant warfare ultimately led to the destruction of Nineveh at the time the Medes and the Persians ended Assyrian domination of the greater Middle East region. The library was destroyed with the city, perhaps viewed as an extension of Assyrian religion. Scholars believe the library contained over 12,000 texts, many of which have been recovered through archaeological endeavors.

Although the Nineveh library was most likely burned because it was a part of the palace grounds, this was not true of the most famous of all ancient libraries located at Alexandria, Egypt. Estimates of the library’s holdings range from 400,000 works to 900,000. The library endured through the early Roman Imperial period but after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th Century CE, it deteriorated. Part of the reason rests with Egyptian Christians that had a long history of zealotry.

When Christians destroyed the temple of Serapis, their anger resulted in the destruction of the Museion or House of Muses. In the process, many library texts were burned. Muslims conquered Alexandria in the 7th Century, but according to Philosophy of Religion Professor Camden Cobern (deceased), there is no evidence to support the commonly held view that Caliph Omar burned the library in 641 CE.

Books Threaten Shared Values and Control

Historian Carlo Ginzburg recounts the saga of a 16th Century miller whose desire to read books caused his eventual execution after a trial by the Inquisition (The Cheese and the Worms, Penguin Books, 1985). Once the Christian Church dominated religious thought and practice in Western Europe, available texts were strictly controlled. St. Jerome’s Vulgate defined the canon of scripture and any conflicting writings were banned. This continued throughout the Middle Ages. At the 16th Century Council of Trent, Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was burned and the Catholic Church began a more rigid evaluation of books.

But book burning was not unique to the Catholic hierarchy. Reformer Martin Luther sanctioned the burning of Jewish sacred writings when Jews refused to convert. In the 20th Century, the Nazis celebrated their victory of achieving dominance in the German government by burning the writings of Jewish scholars in a Berlin bonfire. This infamous “book burning” has been captured on film and recreated in several movies.

The Threat to Religious and Social Values

Even in the United States, certain books have been deemed inappropriate, removed from libraries, and banned from public school reading lists. In Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” Marian the librarian is accused of advocating “dirty books” like Rabelais and Balzac. In reality, however, books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye have been censored by local school boards in more recent decades.

Historically, evidence suggests that book burning and censorship derives from acute religious convictions of particular societies and communities seeking to preserve a belief system and viewing non-acceptable writings as threats. It is an extension of the debate between Darwin’s Origin of the Species and creationism in Genesis. Like Ray Bradbury’s “fireman” in Fahrenheit 451, book burning is the ultimate way to ensure control and the obliteration of opposing views.

Sources:

  1. Camden M. Cobern, “Alexandria,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Volume I, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939).
  2. Tony Perrottet, Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (New York: Random House, 2002)