A (Brief) History of Censorship

Devon Yanvary
December, 2016

Attempting to ban access to books perceived to be too controversial is not a new concept. In fact, according to Claire Mullally, humanity has been trying to “[censor] books for as long as people have been writing them” (2002). Censorship dates as far back as Ancient Greece and to the philosophical beliefs of Plato. The Republic, which describes the perfect society and how to achieve it, clearly states that certain pieces of fiction (referred to as “myths” [Levin, 2012] and “fables and legends” [Mullally]) should be discarded and eliminated (Levin, 2012). Plato encouraged the disposal of any piece of fiction that wasn’t approved by The Guardians for fear of such stories causing corruption or anarchy within the society itself; primary targets of this kind of censorship include stories that may portray resistance against authority or put The Guardians in an unflattering light (Levin, 2012), which would lead to disobedience and the eventual destruction of society. Plato believed that “absolute control” (Levin, 2012) was necessary for a society to survive, and to achieve this, “indoctrination is crucial” (Levin, 2012)—that is, a culture in which question or criticism for authority or common belief is forbidden.

    In Plato’s time (380 BC is when The Republic was written), any written work was done by hand, and often times there were very few (if any) copies in circulation. The few books that did exist were owned exclusively by high-ranking citizens within the community—mainly scholars and monks (Wishnia, 2009). Because of this, censorship was frighteningly easy to accomplish (Mullally, 2002), and continued to be an easy and common practice across the world: In 212 BC, for example, notorious Chinese emperor Quin Shi Huang exercised extreme acts of censorship not only by persecuting over 400 scholars—having them buried alive—but by also burning the books they wrote in an attempt to better control his empire (Gracie, 2012); likewise, there are instances of textbook censorship in places like India, where the representation of one group was found so offensive the book was removed from circulation (Shahana, 2004). Though the book was used to educate, the egos of others took precedent.

    Censorship eventually became a bit more difficult to enforce following Johannes Gutenberg’s creation of the printing press. The printing press revolutionized the world by allowing mass production of literature (books, newspapers, etc.). Although Gutenberg created the printing press in 1440 AD, it wasn’t until around 1500 that mass production became commonplace; by 1500, every major European city had a printing shop (Wishnia, 2009), thus making books more easily accessible than ever before.  

    Despite this new challenge, religious officials and government leaders across the world still attempted to regulate the consumption of literature. Censorship now occurred before and after production for fear that “subversive…ideas” (Wishnia, 2009) would spread, and anarchy would ensue (in this context, anarchy means a state in which the government [or ruling class] is not able to exercise absolute power). Attempts to censor pre-production include King Henry VIII of England mandating that any manuscript about to be published must be turned in to authorities, publication pending the approval from the Church of England (Mullally, 2002), while Pope Alexander VI “threatened to excommunicate anyone who printed anything without clearing it with the…Catholic Church” (Wishnia, 2009). In France, King Francis I “issued an edict prohibiting the printing of books” (Mullally, 2002) altogether. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which included both specific titles that were to be banned and an overall set of guidelines to help religious officials decide what was allowed to be printed and what wasn’t. The Index was first published in 1557 (Fordham University, n.d.) and was only recently dismissed in 1966 (Mullally, 2002).


    Up until this point in time, censorship was rooted almost solely in religious ideologies, and censorship in America followed suit when Puritan authorities confiscated and destroyed a pamphlet from European settler William Pynchon in 1650 (Mullally, 2002). Though it was only a pamphlet, not an actual novel, authorities still “condemned” (Mullally, 2002) the pamphlet and burned it in the marketplace for all to see; Mullally states that this event is “considered to be the first book-burning in America” (2002).


     While The Republic was written nearly three-thousand years ago, and the Index was abolished a mere fifty years ago, the idea of censorship, as well as the motivations to censor, have not changed at all. The only aspect of censorship that has changed is the media it affects, especially in Western civilization.

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