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BANNED AND BURNT BOOKS: A Personal Essay

By Ross Scimeca, Head Librarian, Hoose Library of Philosophy

The four satirical works in Case Ten were all banned for offending religious or moral sensibilities. Voltaire’s Candide attacks Leibnitz’s optimistic view that God in his infinite wisdom created the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire took inspiration from historical events such as the destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake on a holy day of obligation four years before the publication of Candide. The book was placed on the Index Liborum Prohibitorum in 1762. In 1892, Wilde’s play showing Herod’s daughter lust after John the Baptist was banned in the United Kingdom by the Lord Chamberlain for representing biblical characters on stage in a way that he found morally revolting. This ban lasted until 1931. Moliere’s comedic play Tartuffe depicts the machinations of a religious hypocrite who hopes to seize the wealth and daughter of a gullible man. It was banned by King Louis XV for being irreligious. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie sparked controversy with its fictionalized account of the life of Muhammad. It was not only banned for being blasphemous in many Muslim countries, but the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa of death for the author and anyone who published the book. As a result, extremists killed the Japanese translator and seriously injured the Italian and Norwegian translators. The fatwa is still in effect today.

Case Eleven includes four additional works that were condemned for religious or moral reasons. Hugo’s Les Miserables, along with his Hunchback of Notre Dame, were placed on the Index for non-theological reasons. Critics during Hugo’s time objected to his novels’ sentimentality and depictions of working-class characters breaking with traditional morality. Conservative Catholics and Protestants were offended by Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code, because it incorporates the legend that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and that the descendant of their daughter founded the Merovingian dynasty of France. Many Catholics objected to the portrayal of Opus Dei in the novel, and it was banned in Lebanon in 2004. Peter Abelard’s entire opus was burned at the University of Paris in 1112 because of his rationalist view of the Trinity. The theologians felt that this type of speculation conflicted with accepted notions of religious mystery. Martin Luther’s essay That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew condemned the Christian community for the treatment of Jews by the state and the clergy. However, his real intent was to induce the Jews to convert to Christianity. When this did not happen, Luther penned virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric that was later echoed during the Nazi era. Both the Church and Emperor Charles V branded Luther a heretic and condemned all his writings in 1521.

The four books in Case Twelve were banned for a combination of religious and cultural reasons. Although the Codex Aubin was not burned by the Spanish Inquisition, many similar Aztec codices were destroyed, because the Inquisition agents believed they advocated human sacrifice and the worship of demonic gods. Gomez’s epic poem about Samson paid homage to the author’s ancestral faith of Judaism. Since Jewish people had been expelled from Spain, any references to Sephardic culture were banned. Gomez was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition and eventually returned to Catholicism. Many Christian fundamentalist groups have tried to remove Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from school libraries because its fictional universe celebrates magic and the occult. The collection of tales in The Arabian Nights is banned in many Arab countries for its supposed immorality and conflicts with Muslim traditions. Various versions were banned in the United States for erotic content under the 1872 Comstock Law. In addition, both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists condemned the tales that deal with magic and superstitions.