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Tabula Rasa

Timeline of Censorship

by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

This list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is a chronological collection of incidents we found interesting when we were thinking about what censorship actually meant. Perhaps we should start with the note that 'censor' derives from the latin censere, meaning to tax or rate.

585 BC

The fabulist Æsop is flung from a high rock by the priests of Delphi, an execution for sacrilege.

443 BC

The office of Censor is created in the Roman Republic. The duty of the position was to collect statistics and patrol their accuracy.

Meanwhile, in Athens, Plato is theorising the position of literature in The Republic. 'The poet shall compose nothing contrary to the ideas of the lawful, just, or beautiful or good, which are allowed in the State; nor shall he be permitted to show his compositions to any private individual, until he shall have shown them to the appointed censors and the guardians of the law, and they are satisfied with them.'

398 BC

And at the height of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes produces his satire Lysistrata, the parliament of women. The Athenian ruler Cleophon calls for his deportment as an alien for producing morally offensive material. The way Aristophanes satirised him may just have been a factor.

340 BC

The philosopher Aristotle calls for the literal censoring of a new style of music gaining popularity in Athens, as exemplified by Timotheus of Miletus. He claims it excites people's emotions with its uncontrolled rhythms.

17 AD

One of the most popular poets of the new Roman Imperium, Publius Ovidius Naso or 'Ovid', is banished from Rome after publishing the Ars Amatoria (your Latin's good enough for that). This was conceivably an excuse; he writes that 'two crimes, a poem and a blunder have brought me to ruin. I must keep silent.'


The Inquisition is established by Pope Gregory IX to patrol and enforce the orthodoxy of the Christian faith. The Inquisition, over the next four hundred years, practices an extremely direct form of censorship involving the examination of published works, their judgement of heretical content or otherwise, and the seeking out and examination of the authors. If an idea did not fit in with established church law, it could not be circulated. Writers such as Giordono Bruno, in 1600, and Lucilio Vanini, 1619, were burned along with their works.


Biblia, dat ist, die gantze Heiluge Schrift Deudsch is hunted and burned by the 'Catholic' church with a fever only equal to it that of its 'Protestant' distributors -- Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into vernacular German.


The first of a new style of novel, the 'picaresque', is published in Spain by an anonymous author. La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y sus Fortunas y Adversidades is placed on Pius IV's list of banned books, for immorality and anti-clerical statements.


Paul IV issues the first formal Index Librorum Prohibitorum, including such works as De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Copernicus and the Dialoga of Galileo.


In England A Proclamation for Calling In, and Suppressing of Two Books Written by John Milton. The books concerned are Milton's Eikonklastes (a justification of Charles I's execution) and Pro Populo Defensio (In Defence of the People of England).


Under the recently established Tokugawa dynasty, Japan enacts rigid laws designed to maintain peace, ie. Tokugawa control. These include the banning of all foreigners from entering Japan, and exhaustive patrolling of books and prints. Historical subjects are forbidden; printmakers circumvent this by depicting kabuki actors in historical roles. This censorship lasts, with the Tokugawas, for a good two hundred years.


In Paris, a new magistracy is created, the General Lieutenant of Police. The magistrate is in charge of security, supervision of customs and the censorship of books.


The Encyclopedie ou Dictionnaire Raisonne Des Sciences, Des Arts et de Metiers, is placed on that years papal Index. The project of a group of French intellectuals, including Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and Francois Arout le Voltaire, the entry most likely to have been the trouble was 'Cannibalism, see Eucharist'.


Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais has his extremely popular play La folle Journče (The Crazy Day), banned for raising the issue of droit et signeur. Also known as Le Mariage de Figaro, the ban was lifted by the Duke of Vienna in 1786 to allow performance of an opera version by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


An English 'Society for the Suppression of Vice' is formed and succeeds in having The Monk banned. This was the second edition, wherein the author revealed himself as a well-regarded Member of Parliament, Matthew Lewis. The exalted position of the author appears to have been the motivation.


French government forces arrest the Marquis de Sade at the house of his publisher. Copies of the notorious Justine, ou les Malheurs de la Vertu, published in 1791, are also seized. This book remained banned in France, certainly into the 1960s. The works of this author have, as a rule, been a mainstay of the debate on censorship since they were first published.


A member of that English Society for the Suppression of Vice was one Thomas Bowdler, who in this year published The Bowdler Family Shakespere, excised of all 'words and expressions... which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family'.


In America, the 'Comstock Act' is passed by Congress, criminalising the depositing of 'obscene, lewd or lascivious book or other publication of indecent character' in the US mail. The bill was lobbied for by Anthony Comstock, founder and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.


Annie Besant stands trial in England for the printing and distribution of The Fruits of Philosophy, a pamphlet on birth control described as 'indecent, lewd and obscene'.


London police close down the performance of the new play by George Bernard Shaw. Mrs Warren's Profession depicts prostitution from nowhere near high moral ground, ie. from the side of the woman.


Establishment of the British Board of Film Censors. They were quick.


The periodical The Little Review begins publishing James Joyce's novel 'about the whole of life', Ulysses, in serial form. Charges of obscenity follow and stick. The Shakespere and Company bookshop in Paris nonetheless prints the first full edition in 1922; an edition not permitted to be imported into England or America.


One of the earliest disputed film edits occurs when Frankenstein's monster doesn't throw the little girl into the lake. The change was actually forced by Boris Karloff himself, who didn't think it befitted his character, but the edit makes for a much grimmer interpretation.


The American film industry comes under the jurisdiction of the 'Hays' Code, called for the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Directors Association, William H. Hays. To be applied before the film was even made, it included such famous clauses as any couple shown on a bed having to keep one foot each on the floor.


World War II. Lots. It is interesting to note that, aside from the usual propaganda and cultural purity issues, works of fictional horror were dissaproved of on both sides of the Atlantic on the grounds they would damage morale.


The American Senate commences an inquiry, and brings to court Entertaining Comics, for producing titles such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. The trial was incited by publication of Dr Fredric Wertham's book, The Seduction of the Innocents: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth.


The American Motion Pictures Producers Association requests that Alfred Hitchcock recut his new film Psycho for classification. Mr Hitchcock waits a week, sends the film back unaltered and has it passed.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper), is released. It has come to be representative of the extreme horror film in popular parlance, but in reality there's a lot more visceral examples in contention (like the sequel, for instance).


Hans Rudi Giger faces the closure of his travelling exhibition Necronomicon I in France and Germany for the 'pornographic' content of his landscapes.


In England, the Director of Public Prosecutions commences the high profile 'Video Nasty' cases.


Salmon Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was deemed an insult to Islam and banned in Islamic counties, whilst copies were burnt in England. Not content with this, the Ayatollah Khomeini placed a death sentence on the author's head, forcing him into hiding. At least they didn't throw him off a rock. That's progress for you.

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