Bits of History on Book Bans: Striving for Dark Ages

Origen's Contra Celsum. (Source.)

Hold their beer, First Amendment: Illinois recently banned book bans, and California followed suit with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing legislation that imposes fines on school districts that reject books for discriminatory purposes.

The moves come in response to the recent wave of book bans: Pen America reports there were at least 1,477 “instances of individual books banned” during the first half of the 2022–23 school year, affecting 874 titles. The free speech advocacy group identifies five states that lead the pack: Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina. The most common target of these bans is stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

Other book bans are nationalist in nature, calling for a more “patriotic” history, aiming to preserve some narratives while whitewashing nasty historical records.

Of course, the banning of ideas in any form written or spoken has been around as long as there have been ideas. Book bans in North America began with the Puritans, who themselves were carrying on a rich tradition of thought censorship from Medieval Europe and before.

The Darkening of Classical Europe

In her book The Darkening Age, Catherine Nixey argues that it wasn’t just barbarian invaders and excessive taxes that caused the Roman Empire to fall, but that the “triumph” of Christianity lent a hand. Works of philosophy were banned by the early Church in Europe, kicking off a thousand years of celebrated ignorance that earned the period the name “Dark Ages.” 

Nixey offers examples of learning and ideas being discouraged or outright banned. One was Lucretius’s theory that said all things were made up of atoms, including people—an idea well ahead of its time. Lucretius’s work describing the theory disappeared for most of the millennium; his numerous other works did not survive after the continent went dark.

Nixey also introduces the Greek writer Celsus, one of Christianity’s earliest critics, who wrote, “Their injunctions are like this: Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. …” He went on to say Christians “are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women and children.[1] 

Nixey goes on to say “Celsus wasn’t merely annoyed at the lack of education among these people. What was far worse, they celebrated ignorance.”

Celsus's critique of Christianity came in his work entitled The True Word. Of course it was banned and did not survive, but a refutation quoted it extensively enough that we can read his thoughts today. That was Origen's Contra Celsum. Ironically, we have the zealot Origen to thank for preserving Celsus’s work.

In the end, teaching that the path to faith was to trust and not to question, the Church effectively shut out original and outside thinking, giving it social control on a scale of historic proportions. 

Origen "teaching" his students. (Source.)

Medieval Book Bans

Several forces began to erode the Church's control by the fifteenth century, and when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1440s, book bans took on (literally) a new dimension. 

Portugal became the first kingdom to issue a list of forbidden books, historian Edward Wilson-Lee recounts in A History of Water, with other countries and the Vatican soon doing the same. The targets of these bans were both plentiful and deadly to the Church’s long-protected orthodoxy that made “certain ways of seeing the world invisible and certain thoughts unthinkable.”

But the bans sparked a response, notes Wilson-Lee, whose academic research has explored books and libraries, including books we can never read: “The making of these lists, however, also advertised the fragile nature of orthodoxy … With a grand irony, these indexes created one of the most entrancing imaginary libraries ever conceived, a locked room or sealed ark filled with all the thoughts you were not meant to think, and before long the list was no longer a mark of notoriety but a badge of pride.”

The Church leaders creating these lists had much to worry about. These were men highly educated in small-mindedness and finding offense in thinking and questioning, and suddenly across the continent there was a whole lot of thinking and questioning going on: 

  • The ancient learning of the Romans and Greeks was being rediscovered, translated, and printed, and that in vernacular tongues as well as Latin—making the spread of ideas even more difficult for Rome to control (or understand). 

  • The humanist movement was thriving, cultivating a new class of thinkers, writers, and artists who did question.

  • The whole world was being “discovered,” forcing Europeans to come to grips with cultures, religions, outlooks, and histories that shook the foundations of medieval Christianity.

  • And then there was that nasty printing press …

Back to the Present

First edition cover. (Source.)
In the 1970s, the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut was one of several prominent authors whose books were being banned—and occasionally burned. The reason? In Vonnegut’s case it was because of coarse language in several books and “a riot of indecorous line drawings” in his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions

Vonnegut’s intellectual crimes were Victorian in nature. In polite Victorian society, it was unseemly to discuss anything regarding the reproductive or digestive systems. [2] 

In his autobiography Palm Sunday, Vonnegut addressed the controversy over his books. At one point he says:

“Even when I was in grammar school, I suspected that warnings about words that nice people never used were in fact lessons in how to keep our mouths shut, not just about our bodies, but about many, many things—perhaps too many things.”

He goes on to address Queen Victoria personally, and how unlikely it was that course language would have disturbed the long-reigning queen: 

“I cannot believe that Victoria herself would have suffered a moment's genuine dismay if I had shown her the picture of my asshole which I drew for my book Breakfast of Champions … She created arbitrary rules for that outermost edge to warn her of the approach of anyone so crude, so rash as to bring to her attention the suffering of the Irish, or the cruelties of the factory system, or the privilege of the nobility, or the approach of a world war, and on and on. If she would not even acknowledge that human beings sometimes farted, how could she be expected to hear without swooning of these other things.” [3]

Bans More Vile

The whys behind today’s book bans are troubling. Parents and legislators in southern states have long pushed for “more patriotic” curriculums and textbooks, “patriotic” meaning less coverage of slavery and genocides. And today’s calls for bans are pulling no punches.

At the forefront is Florida, where new laws allow parents to pull books from school libraries. The titles under attack range from a biography of the baseball great Hank Aaron to a picture book telling the tale of two male penguins raising a baby chick. Penguins.

Alongside banning books is replacing them with teaching materials like those from the group PragerU that Florida and other states have put into schools. In one recent PragerU cartoon video, a smiling Christopher Columbus convinces a time-traveling boy and girl that slavery “wasn’t all that bad” (ironically, a historically accurate viewpoint from the actual Columbus, who callously promoted profiting from slaves).

Pen America and other organizations are fighting back, as are parents, teachers, and politicians. Everyone can get involved. First, read banned books—they’re sometimes banned by people who never even opened them. Next, reach out to local officials, to school board members, school officials, librarians, and teachers. Book bans are often started by parental fears; parental and community opposition to bans is essential to counter that. And donate to the cause, to organizations like Pen America and the American Library Association.


1. Several early explorers of the Americas made similar remarks. When the Portuguese chanced on Brazil in 1500 and encountered the Tupi, Pêro Vaz de Caminha wrote a letter to send back to Portugal noting, “They seem to be such an innocent people that if we could understand their speech and they ours, they would immediately become Christians, seeing that, by all appearances, they do not understand about any faith.” Magellan chronicler Antonio Pigafetta wrote also of the Tupi two decades later: "It had been about two months since it had rained in that land, and when we reached that port, it happened to rain, whereupon they said that we came from the sky and that we had brought the rain with us. Those people could be converted easily to the faith of Jesus Christ.” Christopher Columbus made similar remarks about the Taino, though with an eye for slavery as well as conversion.

2. The smug values of the Victorian era launched an attack on the English language, whose . The aversion of all public discussion of the body, of the reproductive and digestive systems, left the new lingua franca with a vocabulary deficiency. It left English speakers with three sets of vocabulary for discussing sex: that of the doctor and science, that of the playground, and the drivel of romance novels, and all three make us blush in public. And for digestion we have no end to euphemisms, colorful or crude, from pass gas, to see a man about a horse …

3. Around the time Vonnegut was writing this, musician Frank Zappa testified before Congress on the stupidity of a drive begun by Washington wives to “rate” record albums as we do movies, to protect our vulnerable youth. Zappa was a prolific producer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist whose music is celebrated and widely played, but some of whose lyrics and song titles might have shocked even Kurt Vonnegut. This brought him in to testify in “The Rock Porn Hearings” in the House of Representatives, a chamber where similar prudishness has echoed since its beginning. Note, this was the moral-panicking Reagan era, but leading the rock porn charge was Tipper Gore, wife of Democrat Al Gore, the future vice president who at the time was moving from the House to the Senate.

By John Sailors

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage

(C) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See also:

Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation
Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation: Malacca, Lisbon, Seville,
Rio de Janeiro, Puerto San Julián, Guam, Limasawa, Cebu.[1]

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his own language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he was taken as a slave by Ferdinand Magellan. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands. More about Enrique of Malacca.

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