'Banned books' exhibition

Engraving of books being thrown in fire

Book censorship in western culture can be traced back to the earliest years of the Christian church. Competing view were regarded as unethical and the church tried to suppress them.

Books were burnt as 'superstitious' following the Council of Ephesus in the 2nd century. The Pope issued the first list of forbidden books in the 5th century.


The Protestant Reformation

In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press resulted in a wider spreading of ideas — and a great expansion in religious censorship. During the Protestant Reformation, censorship increased even further.

In times of centralised ecclesiastical power, religious and political censorship have been inextricably linked.


Christianity and Islam

Today Christianity and Islam remain major arenas for the policing and suppression of dissenting views.

Exhibition topics in this theme:

  • Blasphemy
  • Book burning
  • State and religion in Scotland
  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • Harry Potter
  • Islam
  • Non-official religion
  • Creationism
  • The oldest (Mayan) text
  • The 'index'


Some of the exhibits on this theme: 


The original book-burner

Engraving of Girolama Savonarola

The 15th-century priest Girolamo Savonarola was a vehement preacher against corruption and extravagance who became leader of Florence. In 1497 he carried out his infamous 'Bonfire of the Vanities' in the city, publicly burning items of 'moral laxity', including artworks and books. He was himself burned in the same place, having been deposed and excommunicated, in 1498.

On display: 'Prediche sopra Iob', by Girolamo Savonarola. (Venice, Per Niccolo Bascarini, 1545)


State and religion in Scotland

Scotland's most banned book?

Engraving of George Buchanan

Persistent attempts were made to suppress George Buchanan's 1579 book for over 100 years after its publication. Humanist scholar and poet Buchanan approved the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots, arguing it was in accordance with the laws of Scotland and of God. In Scotland, politics and religion were inextricably linked, which is also partly the subject of his treatise. 

On display: 'De iure regni apud Scotos', by George Buchanan. (Edinburgh, 'Apud Iohannem Rosseum, pro Henrico Charteris', 1579).


The Spanish Inquisition

Censorship 'con mucho gusto'

Printed page with text scored out

The Spanish Inquisition gained a reputation for its enthusiastic suppression of heretical writers and their works. None shows it better than a volume from Roman y Zamora's 1575 book on republics. Whole chapters were cut out and the remains obliterated by the Inquisitor, who has signed each volume in authorisation. Curiously, the chapter on hermaphrodites has been left alone.

On display: 'Republicas del mundo', by Jerónimo Roman y Zamora.  (Medina Del Campo, por Francisco del Canto, 1575).

This censored Spanish book is part of the Astorga Collection at the National Library of Scotland.


Harry Potter

Harry Potter the sinner

J K Rowling

Fundamentalist Christians have considered J K Rowling's Harry Potter books as glorifications of paganism. The American edition of  'Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone' is the first of the Potter series regularly to have topped the American Library Association list of books most targeted for censorship in schools and libraries in the USA. The books have also been banned in schools in the United Arab Emirates as un-Islamic.

On display: 'Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone', by J K Rowling. (New York, Arthur A Levine Books, 1998).



The 'index'

A list of 'books erroneous and immoral'

'Index librorum prohibitorum' engraving

First issued by the Vatican in 1559, the 'Index librorum prohibitorum' was intended to protect the Roman Catholic faithful against immoral and theologically questionable books. Works by  Galileo Galilei and David Hume are among those that have been appeared on the list at one time or another. The final1948 edition was in use until 1966, and features additions for 1959, including the complete works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Moravia and André Gide.

On display: 'Index librorum prohibitorum' (Vatican City, 'Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis'.1948).


'Banned books' exhibition

Speak me