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Did they burn books in the Middle Ages?

One long-held image of the Middle Ages was that book burning was prevalent and that much of the world’s knowledge was being consigned to the flames by overzealous churchmen. How accurate is this view?

Book burning in the Nuremberg chronicles
Book burning depicted in the Nuremberg chronicles

In his recent article, “The Burning of Heretical Books”, University of Oxford historian Alexander Murray examines several questions about the topic. He notes there are over 200 incidences of book burning in the Middle Ages. “There are one or two Carolingian cases,” Murray writes, “a few more in the Gregorian reform and a few more in the ‘twelfth-century renaissance’. It is around 1200 that the pace quickens, and from then on, scarcely a decade passes without a book-burning, the pace rising gradually, but with exceptional spurts between 1232 and 1319 when hitherto immune Jewish books were burned by the cartload. More generally, the acceleration only becomes conspicuous in response to the burst of Wycliffe-Hussite thought in the fifteenth-century, itself – Nota Bene – partly an expression of rising book production.”

What was the purpose of book-burning? Murray explains it was not actually to destroy the books and obliterate these writings. In many cases the original book was not destroyed, but only a copy. For example, when the writings of Jan Hus were burned after he was convicted of heresy at the Council of Constance (1414-18), it was only copies that were destroyed, while the Pope kept the originals. In other examples, the items that were burnt were ‘lists of errors’ – documents that were created to detail heretical statements that were made by some person. They were actually specifically made in order to be burned.

Instead of being an attempt at destruction, Murray writes:

book-burning was symbolic, an ‘efficacious sign’ – a sign which did something, and in doing it showed what was to be done. This ‘public relations’ aspect was not only essential to book-burning; it was even more important than the destruction of the book.

Murray adds that when books were burned (or endured a lesser punishment, such as being cut to pieces), the ideal situation for the church authorities was to have the person who wrote the book to be one who consigned it to the flames. This was seen as an act of public penance, to show that the person had recanted their views. This happened with Peter Abelard, who was accused of heresy at the ecclesiastical council at Soissons in 1121 – to escape the charges, he had to publicly burn his own book On the Divine Unity and Trinity, an act he later disavowed.

Heresy and the Making of European CultureAs instances of book burning increased in the 15th century, questions were being raised over the ethics of these actions – should a person be forced to burn their writings, if they still believed them to be true? How much of a book do you burn – just the heretical parts or the whole volume? Finally, if books should be burned that have inaccuracies, would that include the works by great ancient writers like Aristotle, or even the Old Testament?

The post-medieval period would see a massive increase in the instances of book destruction – as secular authorities took over the prosecution of heretics in the sixteenth, they also went after heretical books as well. The English Reformation saw tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands books destroyed, while when Austrian officials dissolved their countries monasteries between 1782 and 1787, about 1,200 tons of books were officially pulped.

Alexander Murray’s article “The Burning of Heretical Books” appears in Heresy and the Making of European Culture: Medieval and Modern Perspectives, edited by Andrew P. Roach and James R. Simpson.

See also Burn, book, burn! from Erik Kwakkel’s website

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