As a natural course of events, after the beginning of mass printing and the Gutenberg revolution, a need to regulate the contents of the books has arisen. Even though the percentage of literate populace at the time was very low, ideas were dangerous nonetheless. Some form of censorship was constantly present in human society, and now we are going to talk about one of the first documented forms.

More on the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition in our articles to follow.

Even in the most democratic societies you cannot practice ideologies that are antidemocratic in its core. Today, maybe more than ever, censorship is a popular discourse for studying in Social Sciences. Despite its bad reputation, censure also has a constructive role in maintaining order throughout societies.

What is the better example of censorship than the one that various religious groups practiced throughout history- and what better religious group than the Catholic Church?

Two editions (1704 and 1821) of the most infamous index of all times.

We can talk about censorship in the Catholic Church as early as  the Christian canon was established, especially the Biblical canon, since some gospel made it to the New Testament, and the others did not. The need of establishing the written form of books that are prohibited by the Catholic Church was, in my opinion, a result of two factors: the spread of Protestantism and the Gutenberg revolution, which made the process of printing any sort of books much easier (and thus much harder to control). The need to institutionalize the censure became ever so relevant question. In 1559, for the first time, Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) was published by the order of the Pope Paul IV.The purpose of the “Index of Forbidden Books” was to prevent the contamination of the faith or the corruption of morals of Roman Catholics according to canon law, through the reading of theologically erroneous or immoral books. Canon law, lasting in effect until 1966, prescribed two main types of censorship: Pre publication censorship of books by the Roman Catholics in regard to matters of faith and morals, and the condemnation of published books, thus listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

First page of the 1821.edition of the Index

Although it was presented as a list of books that could harm the morals of Catholics believers, members of the list also included authors who opposed the Church in some way, and those who wrote about science that didn’t fit with the Churches interpretations of the world. A good example of the first would be History of the Kingdom of Naples by Pietro Giannone, who first dealt systematically with the question of Church and State, and second (and probably most famous), being the works of Galileo Galilei. On another note, the idea of the division of church and state made its first steps with the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas, but his works are not in the Index. Other prominent figures in the Index are:  Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Baruch de Spinosa, Montesquieu, Giacomo Casanova, Honore de Balsac, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emille Zola and many others.

To the left – Pietro Giannone’s History of the Kingdom of Naples. To the right – a page of the 1707 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum showing the author’s name and his work.


There were a total of 19 editions of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, last being published in 1948. Books were added and removed through these editions. For example, some of the scientific works that have been listed (like those on cosmology) are now being routinely used in the teachings at the Catholic universities around the world. In 1966 the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was suppressed, mostly leaving its content for the historians to study.


Душан Димитриев
Dušan Dimitriev


Photo of Opere Postume di Pietro Giannone in Difesa della Sua Storia Civile del Regno di Napoli from listing on ebay store Sigedon Books and Antiques.

Miloš Stanković
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