The Power of Books- A History of Censorship, Banning and Burning

The history of book censorship is one of constant flux – books once deemed acceptable are being banned, and books previously banned are once again becoming acceptable. Whilst book banning mirrors trends within society, in this article I will attempt to assess the commonality between all banned books, and what this says about society. In 2011, the National Library of Scotland opened an exhibition on the topic of book banning, separating books into themes based on the explanations for their banning. These topics were religion, politics, sex, and society, and it is through these themes that I shall seek to identify unifying features.   

Historian Richard L. Darling in his article, ‘Censorship – an Old Story,’ argues that censored stories are, ‘stories of evil suppressed by those who believe that ideas not held by the majority are necessarily evil.’ Nowhere is this principle truer than in the case of religion. Whilst Pope Gelasius would make one of the first attempts for large-scale book censorship from 492 CE to 496 CE, book censorship would only really take off in the early modern period. According to scholarship, the 1559, Index Librorum Prohibitorum, marked ‘the turning point for freedom of enquiry in the Catholic world.’ While it is fair to argue that the Index did have large-scale impacts, being in use until 1966, it would be more correct to argue that the Index was indicative of two turning points, rather than being a turning point of its own. Those water-shed moments being the advent of the printing press in the 1450s and the Reformation of 1521. Arguably, the increased censorship of works could be seen as a counter-reformation movement intended to sharpen the ideas of Catholicism. However, it is more likely that the banning of books was through fear of a change in the social order rather than theological laxity. Whilst many books were banned on theological grounds, such as Calvin’s Judicial Lexicon of Imperial and Cannon Law, banned in 1659, and Benedictus Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico politicus which looked at the similarities between the Bible and the Torah (as such becoming one of the most controversial books of the early modern period), there are often additional reasons for banning. The banning of Dante’s De Monarchia in 1585 exemplifies a fear of change, perhaps over the need to protect Catholicism. Whilst the book does discuss theological topics, its most controversial and fear inducing argument is the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church’s theocratic interpretation of power – an interpretation that could have led to an end to the power of the Roman Catholic Church. The church also banned books of a purely political nature, such as Hobbes’ Elementa Philosophica de Cive, which was banned in 1647. Whilst these books were all banned by the church on religious grounds, they were not banned for the maintenance of religion. Instead, they were banned because of the Catholic Church’s fear of their power to change the status quo. 

Politics is the next theme that the National Library of Scotland considers. Political power treads a fine line with censorship, at some points protecting freedom of speech and alleviating the pressure of censorship, and at others partaking in mass censorship to maintain social order. Whilst book censorship for this reason is reminiscent of many dystopian fictions such as Fahrenheit 451, it is important to remember their grounding in historical events. The most pertinent example of such acts, and one which inspired many dystopian novels is Hitler’s regime, which would burn 25,000 books in Munich in 1933 on the grounds of the books being ‘un-German’. Much like the Catholic Church in the early modern period, the aim of the Nazi book purge was to eliminate dissenting views and to create, in the words of Goebbels, ‘the phoenix of the new spirit.’ Book censorship however has always been present; as argued by Richard L. Darling ‘it must be as old as recorded literature, perhaps older.’ The oldest case of book burning is the 221 BCE burning of a Chinese library upon the founding of the Han Dynasty. This instance has much in common with the Spanish control of book imports into their new colonies, notably in Peru. Whilst the control of imports is much more banal than the burning of whole libraries, both forms of book censorship were performing the same function: to limit dissent within new societies. In all three of these instances the need for censorship relates to the fragility of new regimes, the Han Dynasty, the budding Spanish Empire, and Nazi Germany. Perhaps the necessity for banning books relates directly to the fragility of social orders, evident both in the newly fractured Catholic church and these newly founded regimes. 

The most emblematic case of censorship in recent history is the case of the D. H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which after being published privately in Florence in 1928, and republished as a censored version in 1932, was attempted to be published uncensored in Britain in 1960. Whilst issues surrounded the book originally focused on obscenity, the use of swear words, and the fact that the book was sexually explicit, classicist Mary Beard has come to argue that the banning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover once again boiled down to the fear of social change. Beard cited the words of Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who asks the question to the jury, ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servant to read?’ This argument is then furthered by the concerns of the book being, ‘cheap enough for almost anyone to read.’ Much like the issues with censorship in the anti-reformation Catholic Church, while the front of the issue was protecting the morality of society, the real driving factor was the maintenance of social order. State-side issues of sexuality and immorality came to a head over the 1933 influential court case – The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses – in which the conclusion was drawn that, ‘whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac.’ Arguably the parallels between the 1933 Supreme court case and the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case serve to show the differences between these two societies. The perceived problems with Lady Chatterley’s Lover were bound up in class and gender disputes, while the issues with Ulysses were predominantly on the grounds that the book was sexually explicit. Laura Juraska has argued that ‘in the United States, it’s much more about sex and religion, and in other countries it has more to do with politics,’ and this is exemplified both by the parallels between the two court cases and through later attempts at censorship. 

The most recent argument for book banning can be viewed through the theme of society, which has been termed: ‘The benevolent public concern for morality.’ While this theme is present within works such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence’s novel is more recognisable as a backlash to a more permissive society. The event known as the Banned Books Week, which has run every year since 1982 has found that 52 per cent of the books challenged in the past 10 years feature so-called ‘diverse content,’- meaning issues surrounding, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental illness, and disability. An example of this challenging of diversity is the 2005 book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell And Tango Makes Three, a picture book which journalist Juno Dawson has described as, ‘one of the most challenged books of all time.’ The book tells the tale of two male penguins who hatch and adopt an abandoned egg. This book based on a true story was described by the group ‘Focus on the Family’ as, ‘a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids.’ The distain of marginalised viewpoints reveals that whilst from the outside the world of censorship has changed greatly, in reality it still occurs for the same reasons – the fear of marginalised viewpoints becoming dominant viewpoints. 

Although it would be nice to think that book banning has changed dramatically since the burning of a Chinese library in 221 BCE the reality is that whilst the methods for banning books have changed, the reasons for banning books remain the same – shutting out marginalised voices for fear of a change in social order. Whether it is the fear of Protestantism in a newly fractured Catholic church, the fear of political unrest in Nazi Germany, the fear of social equality in 1960s Britain, or the fear of marginalised viewpoints in the present world, all book banning revolves around fear of change. If all books that are banned are because of fear, that must mean that books are agents of change. Ultimately then, books are banned because of ‘their ability to represent ideas,’ and the fear for what would happen if those ideas became hegemonic.  

Written by Sophie Whitehead.


Bonnell, Andrew G. “Harmful and Undesirable. Book Censorship in Nazi Germany.” The Australian Journal of Politics and History 63, no. 3 (2017): 486-87. 

Caravale, Giorgio. Censorship and Heresy in Revolutionary England and Counter-Reformation Rome: Story of a Dangerous Book. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 

Darling, Richard L. “Censorship—An Old Story.” Elementary English 51, no. 5 (1974): 691-96. 

Dawson, Juno. “From Lolita to Winnie-the-Pooh: Juno Dawson on the best banned books.” The Guardian, 2018.

Foerstel, Herbert. Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport: Greenwood, 2002. 

Myers, Robin, and Michael Harris. Censorship & the Control of Print: In England and France 1600-1910. Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies, 1992. 

National Library of Scotland. ‘Banned Books: Censorship of the printed word. 2011. 

Rossuck, Jennifer. “Banned Books: A Study of Censorship.” The English Journal 86, no. 2 (1997): 67-70. 

Tamney, Joseph B., and Stephen D. Johnson. “Christianity and Public Book Banning.” Review of Religious Research 38, no. 3 (1997): 263-71. 

Header image: Photograph by Harry Redl / City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.

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