Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) made it known to many that 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns. But why does that matter now? As libraries across the country face legal action and pressure from parents and representatives to remove books from the shelves, it is important to acknowledge the history of book banning. The removal and destruction of literary material that is labeled as “offensive, heretical, or inappropriate” is not a new thought and has been around for millenia. Previously, texts were burned or confiscated by rulers afraid of the past, the Church attempting to repress ‘heretical’ ways of thinking, governments determined to remove anti-party propaganda, or conquering parties wishing to wipe out the cultural and traditions of those they oppress.
One of the earliest instances recorded was the destruction of cultural and education material in 213 B.C. by Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Schwartz). When he came to power, he burned poetry, historical, and philosophical texts to prevent comparison between himself and previous rulers who could be considered more successful, virtuous, or magnanimous than himself. This emperor is the same ruler who began the construction of both the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Soldiers.
The Burning of the Library of Alexandria is, perhaps, the most well-known destruction of manuscripts and literature, aside from the Nazi purges in the 1940s. The library was burned several times during its history, spurred often by political unrest in Egypt or during invasions of the city. The most famous burning was done by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. during Caesar’s Civil War. Ships were set on fire to prevent the escape of Cleopatra’s brother and the fire spread, burning the library. In 272 AD, the Roman Emperor Aurelian attempted to recapture the city of Alexandria and the library was destroyed in the fighting.
Cultural, historical, and religious texts were frequently the subject of purging. Various Roman emperors burned oracle predictions and details surrounding pre-Christian celebrations, like the Bacchanalia celebration, in an effort to stop the spread of foreign customs and beliefs as well as counteract potential disquiet during their rules.
With the introduction of the printing press in 1440, invented by Johannes Gutenburg, literature became more accessible, reproducible, and facilitated the proliferation of thoughts to more common people. Previously, only the well-educated and affluent had access to such resources and now they were more readily available, sparking controversy and disquiet in courts and the Church. Multiple instances of book burning took place in Tudor and Stuart England between 1520-1650 in efforts to repress heretical thoughts and beliefs.
After the publication of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther, the Lutheran stance on Christianity was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. As these texts made their way into England, Henry VIII took a stance against them and publicly burned any copies he could find, as well executing heretics. His ardent efforts in protecting Catholicism in England earned him the title Defender of the Faith. However, his close ties with the Vatican were soon ended when he annulled his marriage to Spanish Princess Catherin of Aragon in 1533 to marry Anne Boleyn.
Mary Queen of Scots, or Queen Mary Stuart, was determined to eradicate the Protestant influence in her country after she took Scotland from her brother Edward VI. Professors and theologians were persecuted and even those deceased were not safe. Several were exhumed, posthumously declared heretics, wrapped in chains and burned, accompanied by heretical texts. Unfortunately for both Queen Mary and Henry VIII, their actions were in vain for, while they made an impressive display of religious orthodoxy, they did nothing to prevent the dissemination of Protestant ideas or counter-Church ideology.
In more recent times, the Nazi burning of literature during the Holocaust is, undeniably, the most well-known instance of book burning in history. The Nazi Party burned any books written by Jews, socialists, communists, pacifists, and anarchists, just to name a few. Books that contained any potential anti-Nazi sentiment were also destroyed, as was research that did not support the pro-Aryian belief system created by the party. As they moved to occupy other countries, books were burned en masse to eliminate any culture and history counter to their own. This became known as a cultural genocide and has happened multiple times since.
It is a misconception to assume that these burnings did not happen in the United States. The only instance of the US government being involved in book burning took place in 1956 when the works of psychologist Wilhelm Reich were destroyed, supervised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He was tried in court and convicted of contempt with his orgone energy research (Orgone energy is pseudoscientific and was thought to be a sort of universal life force). In 1948, residents in New York collected comics from homes and burned them as they believed that these comics would spread moral depravity among children.
As evidenced by history, the destruction of knowledge is far from novel. Burning and banning has been used for a plethora of reasons ranging from religious ideology to political beliefs. Understanding where the practice comes from and what people hope to accomplish with their actions of banning books in libraries now is important to learn about. Despite a millenia and more of history documenting the instances of literature destruction, it very rarely produced the desired results. The information and writings were not eliminated and continued in society. In fact, our current society would be extremely different and potentially unrecognizable if these book burning campaigns had been truly successful.
- Kate Howard
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