Censorship by the Spanish Inquisition  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
Spanish Inquisition, Spanish censorship

As one manifestation of the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition worked actively to impede the diffusion of heretical ideas in Spain by producing "Indexes" of prohibited books. Such lists of prohibited books were common in Europe a decade before the Inquisition published its first. The first Index published in Spain in 1551 was, in reality, a reprinting of the Index published by the University of Louvain in 1550, with an appendix dedicated to Spanish texts. Subsequent Indexes were published in 1559, 1583, 1612, 1632, and 1640. The Indexes included an enormous number of books of all types, though special attention was dedicated to religious works, and, particularly, vernacular translations of the bible.

Included in the Indexes, at one point, were many of the great works of Spanish literature. Also, a number of religious writers who are today considered saints by the Catholic Church saw their works appear in the Indexes. At first, this might seem counter-intuitive or even nonsensical — how were these Spanish authors published in the first place if their texts were only to be prohibited by the Inquisition and placed in the Index? The answer lies in the process of publication and censorship in Early Modern Spain. Books in Early Modern Spain faced prepublication licensing and approval (which could include modification) by both secular and religious authorities. However, once approved and published, the circulating text also faced the possibility of post-hoc censorship by being denounced to the Inquisition — sometimes decades later. Likewise, as Catholic theology evolved, once prohibited texts might be removed from the Index.

At first, inclusion in the Index meant total prohibition of a text; however, this proved not only impractical and unworkable, but also contrary to the goals of having a literate and well educated clergy. Works with one line of suspect dogma would be prohibited in their entirety, despite the remainder of the text's sound dogma. In time, a compromise solution was adopted in which trusted Inquisition officials blotted out words, lines or whole passages of otherwise acceptable texts, thus allowing these expurgated editions to circulate. Although in theory the Indexes imposed enormous restrictions on the diffusion of culture in Spain, some historians, such as Henry Kamen, argue that such strict control was impossible in practice and that there was much more liberty in this respect than is often believed. And Irving Leonard has conclusively demonstrated that, despite repeated royal prohibitions, romances of chivalry, such as Amadis of Gaul, found their way to the New World with the blessing of the Inquisition. Moreover, with the coming of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, increasing numbers of licenses to possess and read prohibited texts were granted.

Despite repeated publication of the Indexes and a large bureaucracy of censors, the activities of the Inquisition did not impede the flowering of Spanish literature's "Siglo de Oro," although almost all of its major authors crossed paths with the Holy Office at one point or another. Among the Spanish authors included in the Index are: Bartolomé Torres Naharro, Juan del Enzina, Jorge de Montemayor, Juan de Valdés and Lope de Vega, as well as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and the Cancionero General by Hernando del Castillo. La Celestina, which was not included in the Indexes of the 16th century, was expurgated in 1632 and prohibited in its entirety in 1790. Among the non-Spanish authors prohibited were Ovid, Dante, Rabelais, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Jean Bodin and Thomas More, known in Spain as Tomás Moro. One of the most outstanding and best known cases in which the Inquisition directly confronted literary activity is with Fray Luis de León, noted humanist and religious writer of converso origin, who was imprisoned for four years (from 1572 to 1576) for having translated the Song of Songs directly from Hebrew.

In addition to censorship, the Inquisition also had a campaign to destroy books. In Salamanca near the end of the fifteenth century, more than sixteen thousand books were burned in a single auto de fe.

Some scholars indicate that one of the main effects of the inquisition was to end free thought and scientific thought in Spain. As one contemporary Spanish in exile put it: "Our country is a land of ... barbarism; down there one cannot produce any culture without being suspected of heresy, error and Judaism. Thus silence was imposed on the learned." For the next few centuries, while the rest of Europe was slowly awakened by the influence the Enlightenment, Spain was to remain stagnant. However, this conclusion is contested. The censorship of the books was actually very ineffective and prohibited books circulated in Spain without significant problems. Spanish Inquisition never persecuted scientists and relatively small number of scientific books were placed on Index. On the other hand, Spain was a state with more political freedom than in other absolute monarchies in 16th–18h centuries. The backwardness of Spain in the economy and science can hardly be atributed to the Inquisition.




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