History of Book Censorship


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History of Book Censorship


Book censorship has been around as long as books.  And until just recently, it has been prevalent in even the most democratic of societies.  Click the orange words below to read about different eras of book censorship.


Ancient History     Middle Ages     Renaissance     The New World     The Revolutionary Period     19th Century     The 20th Century     Recent History


Ancient History

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The word censor can be traced back to the Roman days and the office of censor around 500 B.C.  Romans believed that censorship was required to mold the character of the citizens and that censorship was therefore acceptable and even wanted. 


The execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. is, perhaps, the most famous case of censorship.  The Roman people wanted to silence Socrates because they were afraid of the effect his ideas had on the youth of Rome.  Luckily many of his works still exist today.


Other ancient societies, such as Israel and China, also considered censorship to be a moral way to control the ideas and values of the whole society.


Minister Li Si and Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China ordered the destruction of many history and philosophy books during the year of 213 B.C.  The Emperor wanted people after him to believe that the world started with his rein. These destructive acts lead to a revolt in China, the subsequent destruction of the remaining philosophical and historical documents, and subsequently the ruin of Chinese culture.  The Chinese had to rebuild what defined them as a people in the decades and centuries after. 

China did not pass it first official censorship law until 300 A.D.  However, its government’s support of legal censorship still exists today.

The burning of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt between 50 B.C. and A.D. 700 is one of the most important instances of censorship even today.  Perhaps a mistake, the fire set in the library destroyed over 40,000 manuscripts.  Many of these were only copies and the valuable information they held is forever lost. 

To add to the destruction of information and history, Emperor Diocletian burnt the Egyptian alchemical books of Alexandria in 292

Also in Alexandria, in the year 367, a Christian bishop named Athanasius ordered Egyptian monks to destroy all unacceptable theological writings including Christian documents he had not marked as acceptable.  This single event shows that much of today’s New Testament was censored and has lost a great deal of its original content.

Middle Ages

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Libraries were also burned in other areas of the world.  In Turkey, near the beginning of the 11th century, the royal library of the Samanid Dynasty was burned.  Many irreplaceable manuscripts were lost in that blaze as well.

Throughout the middle ages, Jewish books were frequently burned.  In fact, Hebrew books were almost wiped out entirely.  Popes Gregory IX, Innocent IV, Clement IV, John XXII, Paul IV, Pius V, and Clement VIII can be credited with the near destruction of Jewish literature and culture.  Fortunately, the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1450 made burning books little more than a ceremonial gesture.  Burners found it was impossible to keep up with the number of books being produced.

Savonarola, an Italian censor, was very influential during the late 1490’s.  He was actually able to convince artists to burn their own works.  Ironically, Savonarola and all of his works ended up being burned together in an act of censorship in May of 1498.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the Bible was again being censored.  William Tyndale translated it into English in the first quarter of the 1500’s.  This angered the English church who decided that the bible should only be available in Latin because having the bible available in the native language of church followers threatened the power of religious leaders who wanted their worshipers to have to go through them to understand the word of God.  The church burned the English translations whenever they could find them.



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At the beginning of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.  This list, which stated books that Catholics were not suppose to read, continued to have power until the 1950’s and remains today, one of the most powerful acts of censorship in the history of the world.


The royal family had a great deal of power over books during their rule of England.  Queen Elizabeth I had power of the plays shown in her kingdom.  In 1597, she ordered that Shakespeare remove a scene from one of his play because it reflected badly on her ancestors and her royal position.  King James I banned Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World in 1614 because it talked badly about royalty of the past.


Once again, the bible turns up in history banned books.  In 1624 the German translation of the bible was banned by order of the Pope.  Martin Luther had translated the Catholic bible into German hoping that the people of German would be able to read that bible themselves.  The Catholic Church’s act of censorship led to the formation of the Lutheran Church.


The Catholic Church also supported censorship of Galileo’s theories about space.  They nearly succeeded in silencing his ideas; fortunately, Galileo’s widow disobeyed an order from the Church and did not burn all of his manuscripts.


The New World

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Fray Diego de Landa, a Spaniard acting bishop of the Yucatan, burned many of the Maya’s sacred books in 1562 because they conflicted with the Christian ideology he was trying to teach them.


The Revolutionary Period

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The beginning of the revolutionary period is marked with the censorship of several well-known works.  The Catholic Church added Robinson Crusoe to its list of banned books in 1720 and in 1744 the Sorrows of Young Werther is banned by the Lutheran church because of the graphic description of the main character’s suicide.  The church feared that the book was causing many of the suicides that followed its publication.  Because of the mental health of England’s reigning king at the time of its publication, Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from 1788 until 1820.


The French, who were on the verge of revolution, censored books that defended royalty and the monarchical form of government.


19th Century

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In 1842, the director of the Paris school for the blind ordered that all book written in Braille be burned.  He apparently did not want the students of the school to be reading books on their own.  Fortunately not all of the employees of the school agreed with his idea and secretly used the coded writing anyway.  Braille was eventually restored at the school.  Without the few who had defied the new director’s orders Braille would be lost today and the blind would not have nearly the amount of independent access to information that they enjoy today.


Probably the most important and historically significant case of censorship during the time was that of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species which was published in 1859.  Cambridge’s Trinity College banned the book from its library even though Darwin was one of its own graduates.  From its publication to present day, Darwin’s book about his theory of evolution has been the target of numerous challenges and censorship cases.


In 1873, New York City witnessed the Founding of Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  Under teacher resources on the movies and images page, you will find a picture of the seal of this organization.  Throughout the organization’s history, they repeatedly burned manuscripts and books.  The organization was even successful in lobbying the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law.  This law also called the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, made illegal the transport and sale of materials that contained sexual or morally objectionable content.  Surprisingly, the Comstock Law is still in effect, if not enforced, today.  It has even been cited in laws passed as recently as 1996.


Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1833 and by 1881 is was the target of challenges by the Boston district attorney.  The book had originally been a popular failure, but the publicity brought on the proposed ban caused enough sales to allow Walt Whitman to purchase his first house.  Walt Whitman may have faded into literary oblivion had Leaves of Grass not been the subject of controversy.


Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in1884, caused quite a stir.  It was tossed out of the collection of numerous libraries in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to the idea that is set a bad example for youth who may read it.  It is still a frequent target of challenges and bans.


The 20th Century

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The Bolsheviks, in 1917, censored all books in Russia that did not feed into the beliefs of communism.  These books included religious pieces, works that spoke favorably of past Czars, and economic texts.  The Bible and Quarn were among the books banned in the Soviet Union.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a fictional piece that the Bolsheviks had banned. 

The United States also practiced censorship during the early nineteen hundreds.  The Arabian Nights was not allowed into the country after it was originally translated into English.  It took a second, less risqué, translation for the book to be allowed admittance. 

The works of Jack London and Ernest Hemmingway, American authors, faced censorship all over the world.  In 1929, London’s book Call of the Wild was banned in Italy and parts of Western Europe.  Hemmingway also faced censorship in Italy and Germany.  Both author’s books were favorites of the Nazi’s burning their pre World War II book burning campaigns.  Hemmingway, however, also faced harsh criticism in his own country.  Perhaps many people rejected his literature because of his less than traditional lifestyle or because of his suicidal death.  In 1962, there was actually an organization, Texans for America, who had a goal of banning all Hemmingway books from all Texas public schools. 

Different famous authors complained of having their books banned or burned for ridiculous reasons.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was banned in parts of China because the governor believed that talking animals were harmful to the development of children.  Another author, James Joyce, had a critic who purchased and burned the first edition of his book Dubliners.  The critic, through his purchase, unwittingly made Dubliners a success.

Nazi Germany is probably the most well-known, 20th century, case of mass censorship.  The custom of mass book burnings and persecution of people with ideas that did not agree with Nazi philosophy first began on April 6, 1933 with a proclamation released by the German Students Association for Press and Propaganda.  They urged the “cleansing” of literature and threw public festivals to celebrate the bonfires.  On May 10, 1933, the largest of these book burnings took place.  University students burned around 25,000 copies of literature deemed “un-German”.  Books written by Jewish, communist, and socialist authors were burned in huge bonfires.  Select authors such as Ernest Hemmingway and Jack London, Helen Keller, Sigmund Freud, and Upton Sinclair also had their works find their way into the Nazi fires. Stalin, leader of the USSR, also in an effort to abolish Jewish culture, ordered the burning of Jewish books in his country in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

In the 1950’s, the country of Ireland banned all of John Steinbeck’s works citing that they encouraged rebellion and sin.

Presumably the most famous case of censorship in the United States took place after World War II.  Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a campaign to wipeout communist ideas in the US.  He issued lists of pro-communist books, encouraged libraries to destroy any literature that may contain controversial material, and even aided in having supposedly pro-communist literature in Europe destroyed. 

In 1957, the government of the United States virtually destroyed all evidence of psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich’s books.  The Food and Drug Administration and Reich had a disagreement over the legality of his dispensing of a drug called ogone accumulators.  After Reich went to prison, any known works written by the psychiatrist were systematically destroyed by the Federal government through burning. 

In the 1960’s the book Lady Chatterley’s Lover caused a stir throughout the world.  It was banned in several countries and many libraries refused to add it to their collections.  The reason the book caused so much controversy is the detailed descriptions of the meetings between Lady Chatterley and her lover.  It inspired the passing of obscenity laws in several nations and the battle cry of lawyers to have these laws overturned. 

In the 1970’s Anaheim school districts banned Margaret Michelle’s Gone with the Wind.  They felt that many of the situations that the main character, Scarlet O’Hara, found herself in were inappropriate for students and disagreed with how the author handled slavery in the novel.  In the 1980’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was banned in English schools because the story did not include poor or wealthy rabbits. 

The 1980’s and 90’s witnessed the burning of several libraries in war-torn countries throughout the world.  These libraries held some ancient scripts whose contents will forever be lost. 

Kenya banned the books The Quotations of Chairman Mao in the late 1998. The government was worried that the book would encourage subjects to start a civil war.

During the mid 1900’s, a change in thinking and social attitudes eliminated much of the institutionalized censorship; however, censorship still exists today.

Recent History

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The U.S. Patriot Act, passed shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gave the government the power to collect information about what was being borrowed from any collection and who borrowed it.  Although the government did not ban the reading of any particular books, it could be theorized that collecting a list of who borrowed what may lead to limits on certain information that they are able to check out at our local library.


School libraries are where the majority of censorship battles take place today.  Over 6000 challenges to the books used or cataloged in public schools have received challenges in the past twenty years.




They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Benjamin Franklin

Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

Author, Politician, Printer, Scientist, Philosopher, Publisher, Inventor, Civic Activist, and Diplomat (1706 – 1790)



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© 2007 Whitney Masterson