What is censorship? How can we identify it, and understand how it functions and what are its effects? Hannah Marcus joins us for a fascinating discussion about her research on the history of the censorship of scientific and medical texts in early modern Italy which opens up a wide-ranging set of issues about the nature of censorship in historical context and the control of knowledge in more recent times, too.
Hannah Marcus is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard. Her research focuses on the scientific culture of early modern Europe between 1450 and 1700. She is writing a book titled Forbidden knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy.
In our conversation we discuss a different form of censorship from what many people assume or expect—instead of burning books, we find a phenomenon where scientific texts deemed illicit by the Catholic church (often because they were written by Protestant authors) were made licit through a process of editing and expurgation, where certain passages or names were crossed out or blacked out. Clearly, censorship is a process of the restriction and control of knowledge, but what we see here is process whereby censorship was a mechanism for making available, at least to certain people. By looking at censorship-as-promulgation, as opposed to censorship-as-restriction, we flip on its head our common understanding of what censorship is and assumptions about how it works that gives us a broad framework for thinking through censorship and the control of knowledge in more contemporary contexts as well. In this respect this episode brings forward important issues about why history matters at large, and also the way in which Jewish history intersects with a wide range of fields.
Last year, Hannah joined the Starr Fellow seminar at Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies and she was amazingly able to come to almost all of the sessions, which is quite a feat in general—made all the more so if we consider that she herself isn’t a historian who focuses on Jewish history in particular. Of course, her research on censorship intersected with the discussions we were having about the history of the book in general. But it just was so fabulous to have someone like Hannah join us who doesn’t focus on Jewish history, but wants to engage with the kinds of questions and issues that Jewish history brings up. Hannah’s work demonstrates how the toolkit of Jewish history is something that scholars of all types can draw upon, and how Jewish history is useful for a range of scholarly and intellectual activity, both for those of us who are studying the Jews specifically and also the many more people who work on and think about other subjects.
It’s also a very important and interesting issue on its own. Even though we aren’t always talking about Jewish history so specifically, we highlight some of the ways history matters broadly. When we study and talk about censorship in a historical context, like so many other historical topics, we find conceptual tools and comparative frameworks that allow us to pose questions and consider important topics. In this way we can learn from the past so that we can understand the complex nature of censorship, both in early modern Europe as well as in more contemporary contexts as well.
Some books, articles, and topics we discussed in the episode include:
- Some of Hannah’s articles on theses topics include:
- “Expurgated Books as an Archive of Practice” (Aug. 2017)
- Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, The Censor, The Editor, and The Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)
- Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing
- Annabel Patterson’s notion of the hermeneutics of censorship, see: Censorship and Interpretation. The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (University of Wisconsin Press, 1991)
- Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century
- Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on editing and erasing digital files, also see Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
An edited version of the conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: I think your research on censorship and on the history of the book, the history of knowledge is really interesting. I’m really excited to get a chance to talk to you about it and why these issues matter, broadly speaking, and also in terms of how we think about Jewish history, and also contemporary issues. I think it might be useful for us to get started, if you maybe just want to say a few words about your research and about the topics you’ve been working on.
Hannah Marcus: Absolutely. So, I’m a historian of early modern science and medicine. I’m particularly interested in questions related to the relationship between science and religion, medicine and religion in the early modern period. So, I think of that as roughly 1400 to 1700. And my research is primarily focused on issues in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, so science and medicine in the long aftermath of the Reformation.
It’s great to be here. This is a Jewish history podcast, and I don’t study Jewish history, but thinking about some of the work done by scholars of Jewish history has been really important to my thinking about censorship, about book history. Scholarship has been very attentive to the materiality of past artifacts, very aware of repressive regimes and the relationship between peoples and repressive regimes. So, this is a literature that I think intersects really helpfully in important ways with my own research, even though my work is mostly related to Catholicism.
JL: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the really interesting questions when we talk about Jewish history and why it matters, and also about any other field and why it matters, is how it intersects with all sorts of issues. I think that there’s so much that we can talk about and think about, about the relationship between Jewish history and the history of censorship in the European context.
HM: So, it’s actually kind of funny, this is a bit of an anecdote for you. When I started my dissertation research, my husband needed to be in Copenhagen at the Niels Bohr Institute for a month. And so, I just finished my qualifying exams, I was going to take a break for a couple weeks in Copenhagen. But, of course, “taking a break” for me means going to a library and finding old books to look at. And so, I ended up going to the Royal Library, the Black Diamond in Copenhagen, and searching for censored books. And, surprise, surprise, they didn’t have very many Italian censored books there, but they did have a huge collection of Jewish censored books.
So, as I was starting my dissertation on Catholic censorship and material practices of censorship, I actually started with this incredible collection of Jewish books and thinking about the ways that those were censored—like, who’s doing it? And this is a question that we can ask with much greater precision with Jewish books, because the censors had to sign the books that they “corrected.” And by “corrected,” I mean, expurgated, blacked out, papered over. And so, I had gone into my dissertation work on Catholic censorship, thinking it was going to look similar to the censorship of Jewish books. And in some ways, that was true, and in other ways, it absolutely wasn’t. Catholic censors don’t sign the books, necessarily. It’s much more unusual to see the name of the person who censored the book in a text. Whereas Jewish books, Hebrew books are always censored with a name. So, it’s just funny because it’s like, from a point of exploration, it became a really important part of my research.
JL: Right. I mean, I think it actually might be useful for us to step back. It might seem obvious to some people what they think that censorship is, but even just with what you’ve just mentioned, there are so many different kinds of censorship. And I think that when we start to think about why censorship matters, we’re thinking about the history of knowledge and the history of religion. It’s useful to maybe think about, what are different kinds of censorship?
HM: Absolutely. I like to think about censorship as being the control of information and the people who have access to information. I think that that gets us at a couple of different things. One, the ideas themselves might be censored for political reasons, religious reasons. But, the stuff gets censored also. The way that said ideas get censored is through the physical manipulation of texts. And I think things are also censored in relationship to readership, who has access to materials and who doesn’t. So, there’re sort of “hard” and “soft” ways to censor books, to censor people, to censor materials. And I think that what’s interesting about censorship is thinking in this big gray area. Rather than it can or can’t be read, yes or no, there’s a big medium range. And that’s some of the work that I’m really interested in.
So, in my work on medical books, for example: My book, Forbidden knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy, deals with the Catholic censorship of medical texts. And people have always talked about the censorship of science as being a Galilean struggle between faith and science, destined to clash forever and ever. And that’s just so completely not the case in sixteenth-century terms. One of the passages that I opened my book with is actually this cardinal who’s writing to bishops all over Italy, talking to them about the new Clementine Index of Prohibited Books that’s coming out in 1596. And he’s saying, “We need to control the printing, the readership.” But he’s signaling that it’s about “correcting” books and making them available and licensing them to readers, not only getting rid of them.
So, this isn’t just about burning books. It’s about figuring out how books can be altered, in order to make them available. You see what I mean? This is the gray area of censorship. It’s not that a book is burned vs. A book circulates, it’s licit vs. illicit. There’s this vast overlapping realm of knowledge that is both prohibited and important. And I’m interested in the ways in which people duke it out about what knowledge that’s important can be made available, even if there are prohibitions in place, censorship regimes in place.
JL: Right. I mean, I think that when we think about the way that people tend to imagine censorship, it’s often this black and white issue—a book is either available, or it’s not. And I think that what’s so interesting about the history of censorship is that it shows the ways censorship is sometimes not so easy to spot. Something might be available to read, but it has been censored. Censorship is a process. It’s not just about the boot stamping down on the face of a society.
HM: Absolutely, absolutely. And I mean, I think, one of the ways that I like to think about that is thinking about, not the effectiveness of censorship, like, whether or not it is effective at stopping a book from moving around, but instead thinking about what the effects of censorship might be for lots of people. How is it that somebody encounters a text differently as a result of living within a censorship regime? How is it that they might write differently—not just their reading, but that they might impose self-censorship on their own writings? So, these are part of the broad range of effects of censorship that go far beyond the individual book or a particular text. In some ways, I think if you take seriously the big gray area of censorship, then it becomes even more insidious and more omnipresent when we think about the power dynamics involved in who can know and what they can know in different times and places.
JL: What you’re talk about, the way in which people live within regimes of censorship, reminds me of that very famous piece by Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, and this question of how people adapt to censorship and to knowing that their work is going to be read by a censor, or that they want to communicate their ideas to people through and across the regime of censorship.
HM: Yeah, this is what Annabel Patterson calls the “hermeneutics of censorship,” how we might read and interpret differently, with an understanding of censorship that’s widespread.
JL: I think part of what’s interesting about this as well is, when we have the kind of black-and-white perception of something is censored vs. something is not, we tend to forget that censorship is something that happens at all levels of the production of knowledge. The concept of censorship and the history of censorship shows us a much more complicated social reality.
HM: I think there’s a difference between editing and censorship. And I think that’s worth pushing on a little bit. And you have to understand a context, in order to understand when things move from being editorial decisions to censorship decisions. And I think that one of the ways that you can understand that is by paying close attention to the power dynamics in play. One of my favorite characters is this physician named Girolamo Rossi, and he lives in Ravenna, which is basically like a backwater that’s been nothing for a thousand years, when it was the seat of the Roman Empire very briefly, and that was pretty cool. But he’s living in essentially a backwater in Ravenna. And he’s having his own sort of personal Counter-Reformation moment as a physician where he’s going about helping “correct” books for the Congregation of the Index in Rome.
And by “correct,” when I say “correct,” these are the words of my actors, right? So, my Catholic censors see what they’re doing as “correcting” a text. And this might give us a little bit of an understanding of how we shade from editing, into censorship. They are correcting—this is within their mentality. This is not about repression, it’s about “fixing.” There are repressive elements, but in this case that’s not their intention. They’re trying to make texts available by “fixing” them, by tinkering with them. And so he’s going about this stuff in Ravenna, and he’s going through books and crossing lines out, writing up reasons why certain passages have to be removed, why certain passages are illicit. But he takes the censorship ethos and moves it into editing and self-censorship as well.
So then, when he goes back to revisit his own manuscripts, you can see him crossing out sections that he’d written earlier, removing names that shouldn’t be there, rephrasing some of his praise of people that he might maybe shouldn’t praise so highly. And I think that this is part of what I mean by censorship as a spectrum, too. I mean, he’s certainly, certainly censoring what he’s going through, books that are on the Catholic Index are prohibited books and making changes to them in order to send them to Catholic censors. That is censorship, no question. But then, is it self-censorship, if he’s going back and removing Protestant names or heretical names from his own documents? Yeah, I think so. But what about the sentence after that, where it’s not clear why he’s revising it? If we can’t get at all of the reasons, it becomes very difficult to identify what is “editing,” and what is “censorship.”
One of the things that people at the time were really concerned with, actually, is: If I’m reading along in this text that I’m supposed to be correcting for the Catholic Church, what if the Latin sucks? Am I allowed to fix the Latin and make that better, as a censor? Is that part of my religious censorship duty? And I’m like, no, you really can’t fix the prose. But again, this is part of the question. I think people at the time even understood this slipperiness between censorship and editing. And it’s important for us to make that part of the story.
JL: It calls to mind Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s book, The Censor, The Editor, and The Text. And part of what’s interesting about his argument is that he’s saying that what we think of as repressive censorship is actually a process of the collaboration of Jewish writers and the Jewish or non-Jewish censors who are acting more like editors, than this repressive censorship that we might imagine.
HM: I think the framework that he lays out is actually incredibly helpful for thinking about, again, what are the effects or the products of censorship. Because censorship is part of creating culture. Like, censorship is part of a society, it’s part of early modern culture. And I think that we can see the results of censorship as cultural products. Maybe not cultural products that we like all the time or that we agree with now in hindsight, but this is absolutely shaping the ways that people are engaging with things. And I think that Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin lays that out, I think, quite clearly, especially in his early framing.
JL: I think that before, when you were mentioning that your work intersected with some of the issues within Jewish history, I mean, his book is clearly one of them.
HM: Yeah, I read it early on, and it was incredibly influential. It seemed to me that the questions he was asking were the questions that we weren’t asking about Catholic censorship, and I just sort of took it and ran with it.
JL: Right, right. Well, I mean, that’s fabulous, in as much as I think that oftentimes, actually, people say the opposite things about Jewish history and about Jewish studies, that we often end up taking questions and theoretical models and frameworks that are being used in other contexts and then apply them to Jewish history. I think one big issue that comes up, and I’ve been thinking about it as we’ve been talking over the past few minutes, is that, we’re talking about censorship in early modern Europe, and especially in Italy, but it seems to me, and this is one of the reasons why I really wanted to have this conversation, that censorship and the history of censorship has really broad implications for how we think about history much more broadly, how we think about history beyond the specific context, and also how we think about our own world as well.
I guess we could put it in kind of two ways, right? The first one is, why do you think that censorship is important for understanding the history of early modern Europe? And why do you think that having these complex and nuanced understandings of what constitutes censorship, how it works, who’s involved, what are the effects of it—how does it help us to understand other kinds of historical contexts beyond that?
HM: So, I came to the study of censorship actually through my interest in religious history, and my interest in the history of the book. In retrospect, it seems totally clear that the intersections of the history of the book and the history of science and religion lie at the crossroads of censorship, that that becomes the nexus. And so, that’s where I ended up with the project. So, my big questions going in were not about censorship itself, but were rather about the relationship between science and religion in the aftermath of the Reformation, during the Counter-Reformation in Italy, and about the materiality of books, and how people engage with the material processes of books. And so then I arrived at censorship. Because, this is one of the great—well, not great, but one of the very interesting ways in which people engage materially with texts, right?
Because, when you look at a censored book—and I think this is worth actually dwelling on—in trying to describe a little bit, like, what does a censored book look like? I mean, there were censored books that were just burned, right? The burning of the Talmud, for example. We still have the Talmud, but the Talmud was systematically burned across Europe in the sixteenth century. But there are also a number of books that are not burned but instead “corrected,” expurgated is the word. So, they’re partially censored. Maybe a passage, a few pages are cut out, or maybe parts are blacked out, or maybe the author’s name is crossed off. So, there’s all these different ways that censorship, materially, can be enacted upon a text. And I think it’s really important that we think about what those different types of censorship do.
So, both in the ways that people might pick up a book and understand it to be something potentially problematic, it might change the way that you read a book. If you pick it up, without knowing anything about it, you pick it up, and you see that there’s a bunch of black ink scribbled over, it’s like, “Whoa, what am I reading all of a sudden?” This is the sort of Catholic cautionary Counter-Reformation piety, that I think people were supposed to be bringing to their reading. This is one of the ways that censorship becomes deeply embedded in practices of reading through the expurgation of texts.
JL: I mean, I think what’s interesting there, is that, it highlights, to go back to something that you said a little bit earlier as well, that this process of censorship was not necessarily about the limiting of knowledge, but actually making it available. And that, in a certain way, flips on its head, the way in which we understand these debates in early modern Europe. We tend to think about, for instance, the story of Galileo. Right? Or, of any number of these struggles between faith and science. And they imagined, the idea of this is that, that the church is involved in restricting the flow of ideas. But what we actually see by looking at this is that, that this process of censorship is actually trying to facilitate the exchange of ideas.
HM: Certain ideas. That was my second point. So, my first point was about materiality, and then the second point was going to be that if you’re thinking about censorship not just as book burning, but censorship as book correcting, then you can see what it has produced. How is it the people discuss knowledge as being particularly important and worth saving? That becomes a product of censorship, right? A product of censorship is that we know that people are explicitly saying that certain types of knowledge are bad, but other types of knowledge are really critical and important. And so, instead of it being what can be known and what can’t be known, we can see censorship as a limited form of promulgation of certain kinds of ideas. This is what I mean by censorship for shaping culture, that it is a limit to the free circulation of knowledge. But that doesn’t mean that knowledge or certain cultural products don’t come out of that. So, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to what comes out of these conversations about censorship and censorship of scientific books in particular.
JL: I think that we’ve talked about a couple of different kinds of censorship, the destruction of books or stopping them from being printed in the first place, and also, their editing, after the fact that somebody goes through and figures out what to take out of the text.
HM: Yes, that’s often described as pre-publication censorship, and then this is post-publication censorship, which can be broken into complete destruction of and then expurgation.
JL: Right. And then, you’ve also talked about, in your research, looking at scientific texts. And then, there are, of course, religious texts as well that are censored. My instinct when I think about the distinction between the censorship of religious texts and the censorship of scientific texts is that religious texts tended to be fully censored more frequently than a scientific text. Because a medical text or some kind of scientific text, it will be understood, would have some kind of useful knowledge within it, whereas, some other kinds of texts, like for instance Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, would just be viewed as dangerous.
HM: Yeah. I think that this is absolutely right. If we look beyond scientific texts, nobody is going to allow you to read Martin Luther or John Calvin in Counter-Reformation Italy, right? That’s not going to be okay. But what about works that aren’t religious but are written by Protestants? Because those are all banned, too. That’s the angle that I’m coming in at. People are opening up the possibility that these texts might be able to be selectively censored, particularly because they aren’t religious books, they’re scientific books, they’re medical books. Doctors need them. This becomes the justification for why they can be allowed.
And then, the church sets up a whole realm of bureaucratic practices that allow those books to circulate. One is expurgation, so you cross bits out, and they make lists of official expurgations. But another is that books are licensed to readers. This becomes about controlling readers. I mentioned early on that I think about censorship as being both a control of the ideas and a control of the people to whom they can circulate. Reading licenses, as they’re called, allowed you to petition your parish priest, then your local bishop, and then, up until Vatican II, you would be petitioning the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books, which was only dissolved in 1966, if I’m correct.
JL: I just was actually speaking to somebody today about how they saw a reference to somebody making a petition. And I think it was 1966, to the Congregation of the Faith, to get access to something that was on the Index.
HM: Yeah. I mean, the Index of Prohibited Books lasted until Vatican II, and so people would apply for these permissions. And then, you would get a license in the mail that allowed you to keep and read a book for three years. And they’re like, you’re not going to get a permission to read Luther. He’s never in the gray area. Those are books that are always going to be burned. You’re never going to get permission to read Luther. Also, you’re pretty much never going to get permission to read Machiavelli. There’re some people who are just too hot to touch. But what about the Protestant Lutheran physician Fuchs? What about this Zwinglian physician Gessner? These books are so useful. This is what the physicians are all saying, that these books are so useful, these books are so necessary and important. And so, that opens up the possibility that they might be able to be censored in different ways.
Similarly, there’s maybe some comparison to be made to Hebrew texts or Jewish texts here as well. I’ve looked at copies of Jewish texts where the only word that’s taken out of them over and over is, like, goy and goyim, these references to non-Jews that are not sufficiently “appropriate” as determined by Catholic censors. So, there’s the sense that expurgation allows for, again, this sort of this gray area, and then people can take advantage of that, to allow texts to circulate.
JL: So, when you’re talking about the censorship of these Jewish books, is it because their authors are not Catholic, in the same way that texts by Protestant authors would be censored because it’s coming from a Protestant writer? But is that the reason why they’re being censored? Or, is it more about the ideas that they contain?
HM: So, Jewish books aren’t on the Index of Prohibited Books; that’s separate. The Catholic Index of Prohibited Books is just all about combating Protestantism. And that’s very interesting, because they’re like, “What should we make of Jewish books? What do we make of the Arab astrologers that are so important?” These are interesting intersections, but that’s not where the Catholic Index is focused. The Catholic Index is really aimed at Protestants, and curtailing Protestant knowledge from circulating. Hebrew books, my understanding is that censors went into the ghetto and had to check all Hebrew books, period. And so, then, the books were signed by the censors who’d gone into that space that they were allowed, that they’d been looked. They usually say something like, “Visto perme, seen by me. Revisto perme,” and then the censor’s name and a date.
It’s just not how things worked in the Catholic world. People expurgated their own books. So, when you got a license to read a book, if, say, Jason, you’re a good Catholic physician of a certain age, you’ve now got the ability to read Leonhart Fuchs’s On the history of plants. You’ve now got this license coming in the mail, and one of the stipulations is that you get to keep it for three years, but that it has to be corrected according to the Index of 1607, once the Index of 1607 is published. And so then you would look at the Index of 1607, and you would go through and correct your own book. And, while we don’t have people saying, “I am correcting my own book,” you can tell from the material practices that it’s just 100% obvious that this isn’t like a busy inquisitor doing this. Because busy inquisitors write thick squiggles over texts that you’re not supposed to have. And instead, you see a reader like you, Jason, pious Catholic physician, you don’t want to black out the pages of your big expensive botany book. This is a nice book, you paid a lot of money for this book. So instead, you change every letter into a different letter so that you can’t read the author’s name anymore—because you aren’t allowed to read the name, Leonhart Fuchs. So, you’ve changed all the letters, an L becomes maybe a square with an X in it, and the E becomes the number eight. This is material evidence that things are proceeding very differently than the censors that are sent into Jewish communities to look at Hebrew books. This is not a busy censor, this is somebody who loves that book and wants to alter it in ways that are less aesthetically awful.
JL: Right. So, you’re describing censorship by sort of an administrative authority, as opposed to self-censorship. And that’s interesting because in order to self-censor your own book, you have to actually read it. So, in this whole process—and again, this kind of turns on its head our preconceived notions of what censorship really is; the license to read, even though it requires you to deface your own copy, it requires you to actually read all these forbidden sections. Like, you could imagine, in an alternate historical universe, you would apply for a license to read such and such a book, and they would send you the censored copy that they have sitting in their library, and say you must return it after three years, or whatever it happens to be. But here, it is a process of self-censorship.
HM: I think of self-censorship as the productive bit. So, like writing your own treatise, in which you are careful not to say so, thanks, but certainly, expurgation done by book owners, rather than Catholic authorities.
JL: Right, right. I mean, I think that what this gets us into, is that, when we think about reading licenses, and what it means to request permission to information, I’m curious how this intersects with the wider early modern struggle over knowledge and its production and dissemination. And here, you also have, within this context, also, Jewish knowledge is part of this debate as well. Because as you mentioned, there was the burning of the Talmud, there are all of these debates as well, when we talk about the rise of Christian Hebraism too, there’s so much going on in terms of the interchange of knowledge. And I’m curious how all of this fits together with the story of censorship.
HM: As an aside, that I just want to get out there on the table, especially if a lot of your audiences are going to be more familiar with the burning of the Talmud, there’s also the contemporary burning of the vernacular Bible. I think that that’s another piece to put on the table. In Italy, the Italian Bible, the vernacular Bible, was systematically burnt, so that the only copies of the texts are [in Latin]. This is a response to Protestantism, that you’re able to get the text of the Bible in your own language. This is not about access to text, this is about who can know and what they can know. So, the Bible is systematically burned, this leaves the only way to access texts in Catholic Italy, the text of the Bible in Catholic Italy through the Latin Vulgate, and through your priest. This becomes a method of differentiating who can know what. This establishes different classes of readers. People who can read because they have Latin, and people who can’t. So, I think that there are these big divides, linguistic divides in society as well. And it’s important to realize that when I’m talking about people getting licenses to read prohibited books, I’m talking about books that are written in Latin for learned audiences who are already in the top echelons of society, to be able to participate in this process of applying.
JL: I think it’s always useful for us to keep in mind that whenever we’re talking about reading, especially in a pre-modern context, there’s a very limited number of people who can read to begin with. Books were expensive, they’re actually pretty rare (then). And so, I think that when we think about the elite nature of reading, and the expense that’s involved, it reframes the way in which we think about all these debates and also the way writing in your book, defacing it, making changes to it, it’s a powerful statement about your own belief in the necessity of this. Because you’re willing to take this tome that cost you quite a bit, and to rip pages out, or do other things to it. I just think that it demonstrates the stakes of the value that people either put in these books, or in this process of censorship at the same time, that they were willing to do this, even though their books were worth quite a bit.
HM: Yeah. I mean, I think that the economic thing shouldn’t be overlooked. Part of the reason that physicians and lawyers in particular rise up to protest the prohibitions of medical and legal texts—they are literally writing to their inquisitors that they need these books. “We can’t medicate without Fuchs,” this is the line, over and over again. “How are we going to get these texts?” This big uproar, circa 1559, after the Pauline Index is published, is because people don’t want to burn their libraries. They see big prohibitions, these widespread prohibitions, and they’ve got a big, valuable library with big, heavy, expensive books, and they are just not interested in getting rid of them.
Expurgation becomes a reasonable alternative. It’s like, “Okay, I cross this name out, and I’m allowed to keep this big shelf full of books. Okay, maybe that seems reasonable.” Not to everyone. I mean, I have people who are writing in for, there’s one scholar in particular who writes in for reading license, and he says, “If I have to damage the books, I don’t want them at all.” So, for some people, there is this like hard line about what they’re willing to do to their books in order to keep them. But, for many people, I think, we’re coming back to this gray area. There’s this gray area, what are they willing to do? They’re willing to alter a few pages, and take out a preface, and black out somebody’s name throughout, in order to not have to burn it.
JL: I think one of the key issues that it raises is the value of knowledge. And this is something that we see in the case of the legal and medical texts, and also the religious texts, just how valuable these texts were, and not just in financial and economic terms, but in terms of the value that they held, culturally speaking, and in terms of the knowledge that they contained.
HM: I think, if you’re then thinking about who has the ability, the social ability to get access to ideas, this becomes something that we can spin out to think much more broadly, like, was it the bird flu virus a few years ago, that there was discussion about whether the articles should be published in journals, the research that they’ve done on it?
JL: Do you want to just quickly remind me? I just don’t remember all the details.
HM: Nor do I, but my understanding was that—I mean, there have been a few major science articles, mostly related to biothreats, that people are doing research on. There’s question about, should that research be published? Should that be made public? Who has the authority to use that information in ways that are safe and reasonable? And I mean, maybe, if you wanted to come down hard on censorship, then you would have to ask yourself, seriously, is information about making chemical weapons and bioterrorism something that should be freely available on the Internet? And this is the question, essentially, that people are asking, not in the Internet context, but in the early modern period, too.
There’re certain levels that you have to reach in order for the Catholic authorities to think that it would be maybe acceptable that you could be trusted with information that was potentially harmful, books that were potentially harmful, because you could be trusted because of your status and your place in society, and your personal piety, to not use them in ways that would lead you from the faith. And I think that like, I mean, maybe this is a Jewish history podcasts, like, we don’t have to make the case for people having genuine religious belief, and that being something that’s sincerely driving people. Maybe we don’t have to make that case to this audience. But, I think you sometimes do. People ask me all the time, “Oh, this is so cynical, people are just crossing out names, in order to abide by the letter of the law.”
And I think that that’s true for some people. Some people certainly don’t care and they put the thinnest of Xs through a page, and it’s totally easy to read all of it. But I also think that there’s sort of a ritual process of going through and defacing books, and that this becomes an act of personal piety that many people are actually performing with a certain set of beliefs, really, at the heart of it for them.
JL: Right, right. I want to go back to something you said before you were talking about the publishing of scientific research today. There’s one thing that could be said about the publishing of a piece that talks about how to construct a bioweapon, or a smallpox, or something.
HM: Or maybe they had a 3D-printed gun.
JL: Oh, that’s a great example. But I think, one thing that really strikes me as we think about research on vaccines, and whether they are harmful or not. And, I mean, so many of the papers have been debunked, that make the case that the vaccines are harmful. Clearly, vaccines are necessary. But one might ask, is it a public danger to publish papers that even ask the question (if vaccines are dangerous) to begin with? Because it provides fodder for people to begin to say, “You know what? I don’t want to vaccinate my kid for measles.” And then, this becomes a public danger.
One of the things that that’s interesting as we talk about censorship and we think about it in the early modern context is that it highlights the ways in which ideas are powerful. Generally, I’m not a fan of censorship, but I think that that was interesting about looking at the history of censorship, is it raises all sorts of very difficult and unsettling questions about the role of censorship in a society, whether or not is useful in some instances. I think that generally speaking, censorship is something that we should avoid, but when we look at it in historical context, we need to ask, why did they want to do this so badly? Why do people go along with it? And what can we learn from that? I think there’s a very important question.
HM: Yeah, and I think it’s a question to which there aren’t easy answers. But I think it’s helpful to understand that these are questions that we’ve struggled with for many, many centuries. I mean, I think, one of the examples, again, this vaccine example, we might best think about this as calling the efficacy of vaccines into question, in the first place, opens up the question of whether or not they’re effective to people who don’t understand the science behind it, and makes them active participants in that conversation. Even if they don’t understand the science, at least it gets to the idea of an expert. And at a certain point, you have to question like, so, how different is it from saying that the Catholic Church thinks that you shouldn’t be able to read the Bible, unless you read it in the Latin Vulgate. That you’re going to come up with different ideas, if you’re only reading it in the Latin, or in the vernacular.
These are sort of the same questions about who should have access to information. And these are questions that we have to grapple with in a democracy. In a democracy, we think that information should move freely, and the people should be informed. But, that requires a great deal of thinking, especially in this era of expertise, I think. I think we’re in an era of deep expertise, in which people have huge deep learning, and that we both need to respect that, and also not isolate them as the only people who are able to then participate in that conversation. This is one of the lessons, maybe, from thinking historically about censorship.
JL: I think one of the challenges is that, we do live in an era of experts, but experts are often ignored. Part of what happens as well when we talk about our own era, is that, experts censor themselves. When we look at the history of censorship, it trains our eyes to look for the ways in which censorship exists. Whether we’re talking about self-censorship or any other kind of censorship in our own society.
HM: Yeah. And makes us think really seriously about what constitutes information control. And when that feels like censorship, and when it doesn’t.
JL: I’m partial to just thinking about questions of information control. That’s a central question that drives my own research in terms of the history of archives. It’s a different kind of control. But, if we brought in the way of thinking about censorship, that it’s not just about the books and the texts, but about the ideas, it allows us to look at a whole bunch of different historical contexts alongside it. For instance, when we think about the Jewish context, and the Inquisition—and the Inquisition, of course, did not just target Crypto-Jews. They targeted Native Americans extensively as well, when we think about throughout Central and South America. But I think that that was interesting is that when we think about the dynamics of the control of information there, as well, there’s something very important going on, that we need to think about in the early modern era. And censorship is part of that story there.
HM: Yeah. And I’m glad you brought up the Inquisition. It’s important always to differentiate, also, that there are many inquisitions, right? The Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, the Venetian Inquisition, the Medieval Inquisitions that are based in cities. So, just as a heads-up, these are different legal structures involved in different places, and their rules are slightly different. But I think that one of the things that’s really interesting here is that the inquisition is all about control of people and their ideas, and the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books is about the control of texts. But these things, you might realize, the control of ideas and the control of texts and the control people, are all intertwined at the same time.
This is actually one of the things that I’m quite interested in studying, how these different regulatory bodies conflict at times, or come into conversation with each other at different times. The archives that I work in, and when I’m working in the Vatican, the archives of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which holds the archives of both the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books. So, it’s helpful to put both of those things into context together. One, for controlling heresy, the other, for controlling books. And books, as they spread heresy, in particular.
JL: I guess, especially when we try to think about the relationship between the censorship of medical and scientific texts, and the context of Jewish history, what is the relationship there? When we think about the relationship between, for instance, the Inquisition and the Index? Or, any other sort of elements of thinking about the intersection of these two realms. Or do you think that it’s mostly just in terms of the conceptual frameworks, that we can apply from one to the other?
HM: It’s not just conceptual frameworks, though, these are governing bodies that are, in a certain sense, both responsible for the same thing, but maybe in different media. And so, there are times at which the Inquisition is intervening. And in fact, when it should be the Index, and vice versa. Though, that is mostly settled by the seventeen century, mid- to late seventeenth century. But, over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when we’ve spoken about reading licenses, the ability to grant reading licenses bounces back and forth between the Inquisition and the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books. So, there are these aspects of censorship that as the Catholic bureaucracy itself is evolving, these different parts, these different kinds of regulations end up in different hands at different times. And I think that it’s like really, I think it’s really important to break down that when we talk about the church, and this is probably true for thinking about Judaism in different times and places as well.
But when we talk about the church, the church is made up of a bunch of different actors, a bunch of different factions, and I think that when we think about the Inquisition and the Congregation of the Index as separate bodies, that allows us to see the people who are part of those groups, acting in their own interests, and in the interests of their beliefs. And that comes out much more clearly.
JL: Right. I mean, I think the other thing to always just keep in mind as well, is that, we are talking about Catholic censorship in particular, and that there were, of course, many, many diverse censorship regimes throughout Europe at this time.
HM: Absolutely. Censorship is ubiquitous in early modern Europe. It is everywhere. There’s state censorship. And it’s important to point out that when I talk about Catholic censorship, that’s also state censorship, right? Because I’m talking about the Papal States that control much of Italy in this period. So, yes, it’s religious censorship, but it’s also political censorship. But all states have censorship regimes. There are ways that you have to license a book before it can be printed. Much of what we’ve been talking about is texts that are already printed and already circulating, that are being censored. But censorship happens at multiple levels and in many different sort of governing the level of many different governing authorities.
JL: Right. So, I guess, something to think about here is, what are some of the distinguishing features of these different censorship regimes, and how they apply to the different areas where they are extant?
HM: I think one of the most important things to bear in mind, especially as we think about a longue duree, or a long history of censorship, is: The biggest difference, in my view, between censorship in the early modern period and censorship today is a level of secrecy. People in early modern Europe knew what they weren’t allowed to know. When the Index of Prohibited Books is published, that means that it’s printed, it’s nailed to the doors of churches, and read aloud from pulpits. That’s what it means to publish. Not just that it’s printed, but that it is literally made public to people, so people know what books they aren’t supposed to read. And I think that that’s very different from when we think about sort of censorship regimes today, where we don’t even necessarily know what it is that we’re missing. There’s a level of secrecy that’s just sort of, maybe, in some ways, beyond the early modern imagination. That it’s quite different.
JL: Right. I mean, I wasn’t sure how much we were going to talk about this, but, I mean, it seems like a great example of this. I mean, one takes, for instance, the Mueller Report, we don’t know what it was that was redacted from the report. We have a sense of some of the things and some of the reasons why things would have been redacted, but we don’t know what could be there. It could be anything. I mean, the same thing can be said about any other government document that is redacted. When you submit a FOIA request for some kind of documentation, they’re required to blot out, expurgate, you might say, some information, and there’s no way to really know if they are removing things that they should or things that they just don’t want you to see. I’m not sure I will call that censorship, in and of itself, but I think that you’re raising an interesting point here about, to a certain extent, we don’t know what we don’t know.
HM: I’m sure you know this already, but the Freedom of Information Act requests, some of the things that have to come out of those—and this isn’t censorship, to my view, this is about privacy—is certain kinds of medical information about people has to always be removed. But it’s incredibly onerous process to do this, and it’s always an incredibly onerous process to go through and figure out what materials need to come out. But, my understanding is that there are some sort of ideas kicking around about ways of using blockchain to automate those kinds of processes, and having AI reading some of this material, in order to do that level of redaction. Which, again, I don’t think is the same as censorship. We have to always ask, when we are trying to figure out. If information is removed, if it’s censorship or not, we have to understand the context, and that’s what gets us the answer to that question.
JL: I think that what is interesting about all of this, is that, it highlights a couple of things about our modern information age, that are, again, perhaps different from the early modern period, and really interesting in these distinctive ways. The first one being that there is just too much information to censor. That if we try to take the same methods of censorship that were being utilized in sixteenth century Italy, for instance, it just would be impossible, it’s just not practical. Then, again, of course, you look at China, and they have put into place a very effective censorship regime in terms of the Internet there. And so, that’s one thing, is that, that it highlights the different scale of the amount of information. It limits the censorship. And it also highlights the ways in which algorithms play a role in censorship or in, at least, filtering information.
And then this comes down to some perhaps touchy political issues. So, you have people on the conservative side of the political spectrum, making claims that there is a kind of censorship that’s taking place, say, on social media platforms. I actually think that that’s totally overblown. But what’s interesting there is that they use the idea of censorship to say, “This is what’s happening.” Now, of course, there’s no way to prove that such censorship is happening. But what’s interesting about that is it highlights the pervasive idea of what is censorship, among the public, and this idea, also, of the role of computers and algorithms like AI, or whatever, that could be put to use in censorship—even if it’s not. And because we don’t know what’s being censored in what we’re seeing versus what we’re not, people can come to this conclusion, even if it’s not really based on any data.
HM: Yeah, I think one of the things that my research adds is a constant reminder that you can’t have censorship without censors. I mean, even in the modern case, and if we talk about China’s Great Firewall, my understanding is there something like hundreds of thousands to a million censors—like, people who are involved in reading content and determining what can pass through and what can’t. And this becomes, I think, a really interesting and important issue. While censorship is limiting information, in order to do that work, it has to select groups of people who have access to that information. And we can understand a lot about what is valued in a society based on looking at how censorship regime deploys its resources through these people.
JL: Again, when we think about the importance of censorship and its history, and as a concept as well, we also need to be asking these questions about what is the relationship between censorship and democracy. Or, between the free flow of information and the political systems that arise around it. I mean, I think, when we look at, for instance, China, and the introduction of the internet there, say, in the ’90s or early 2000s, there was a belief that introducing the Internet would naturally lead to the downfall, essentially, of the Communist regime. And it’s interesting. It’s like a pseudo-Marxist perspective—I mean, inasmuch as you have this idea of the structure and the superstructure. The structure is not the economic model, but the information model, and built on top of that is the political and cultural frameworks, and if you change the foundational framework of the society of the availability of information, then everything on top will by necessity change. That’s why I say it’s “pseudo-Marxist.” But, that’s not the only ironic thing about that, what’s just so interesting about it is that, when we look at the history of censorship, we see that these two things are not always coupled together. Just because there’s a free flow of information doesn’t mean that there will necessarily be a democracy or a benevolent political system. I think that what’s interesting, when we look at the history of censorship, is that we see the complex relationship between all of these factors in the development of a society. I just think that when we think about why history matters, this is one really interesting case.
HM: I guess I’d add, one point is that you don’t have censorship without censors. I’d also add that there’s always material instantiations of what is being censored. And that becomes quite interesting, too. And if it’s a book, the ways that it’s blacked out, I mean, there’s some really interesting scholarship by Matthew Kirschenbaum about erasing digital files, how even digital media has a physical instantiation. We can think about what it means to control information in different media, and how we interact with it differently.
JL: I think that one thing that is interesting as well, when we talk about the history of censorship, and it’s about, what kind of things are censored? Now, you’re talking about the censorship of scientific texts, or of religious texts, and how they are different from one another. I mean, what’s interesting to me, among many other things, is that, that implies a differentiation between them. Well, because I’m thinking about like Funkenstein, and his Theology and the Scientific Imagination, and the relationship between science and religion…
HM: Oh, my God, I can’t go there. I can’t. It’s too much Kant….
When I started research on censorship, I wasn’t planning to research science and censorship, in particular. I was interested in science, but I went in with a much broader idea. I was going to look at how historical texts were censored, because they were. How literary texts were censored, because they were. But the reason that I ended up looking at scientific texts and medical texts, in particular, was this recurring conversation about the utility of those texts, which is unique to medicine, in particular, with some resonances also in law. But, again, this becomes about the content, like, what does censorship do to different kinds of content? What are the cultural products of censorship?
And I think one of the things that I saw, where censorship is being inflicted, Catholic censorship is inflicted on all of these different disciplinary domains, that what comes out of it in the medical realm, is a robust system of justification, based on utility. The utility of physicians for society, and the utility of medical books to the work of physicians. And so, this becomes about the importance of science to society. And I think that this is a much broader story about how we think about science and society.
JL: Right, right. And I want to think about the relationship between science and religion. Which is to say that part of what’s happening here—and this is just my instinct in thinking about all these issues—but part of what’s happening here as well is this distinction between allowing the circulation of medical and scientific texts that are “cleansed” of any religious impurities, that this is allowed, it is applying a sense of the neutrality of scientific knowledge. Essentially, it’s saying that you just forget who wrote the book, but the knowledge is still true. And that’s actually a very modern approach, which is to say that there’s a distinction between the creator, the author, and the work.
And this is something that I think when we think about more recent trends in thinking about history, and literature, and historiography, and so on, and so forth, what’s quite interesting about all of this is that, we are constantly emphasizing that you can’t make a distinction between who the author was, their religious, social, intellectual, political context, any different kind of context that they are in, and the work that they produce. And so, what is interesting here, as well, is this idea of the neutrality of information that comes through this process. And that, to me, is really fascinating on an intellectual level, because it just highlights the way in which some of these ideas have changed over the centuries.
HM: I think that both the neutrality of scientific information is really interesting, then also the utilitarian justification for science. That the end of science of knowledge justifies the means, and we might think about the intense ramifications for that, but in this particular context of early modern Italy and Catholic censorship. So, you need a few Protestant books in order to save some Catholic bodies, right? I mean, the ends of saving Catholic bodies justifies the means.
JL: Right. One thing to add on to this as well, is the fact that scientific knowledge has profound political and religious ramifications. Think about just the most prominent example—but there are so many of them—the theories of evolution or, broadly speaking, relating to cosmology and the Big Bang. These issues go back, in a certain way, almost to the early modern era, where, the scientific theories that are being introduced—this, of course, is the sort of the famous example of Galileo, Copernicus, and so on and so forth—they radically reformulate the way in which people view the world, sometimes in conflict with their pre-existing religious beliefs. And so, what’s interesting here, when we think about this whole early modern conception that the scientific knowledge was okay, is that in actuality writing a book on the history of plants, or on the origin of species, is something that is not neutral by any means. It has these tremendous ramifications in terms of religious developments. So, there is this connection.
HM: And the sense that you could tinker with these texts in order to reconcile them, I think, is an interesting element, too. It’s like, perhaps the information is neutral, but so then, it’s all about the framing, in that case. How could you reframe the text.
JL: I mean, I just don’t think that any information is neutral. It comes back to all of my work on archives and on the history of information, nothing is really neutral. But what’s interesting is the belief that people had that it could be.
HM: And additionally interesting, I mean, it’s always a question of readership and interpretation, too. I think that the ways that a Lutheran reader would read Fuchs might be different than a Catholic reader. Just in general, what people bring to the text is different. So, Catholic readers are like, it’s only pictures of plants. But for a Lutheran reader, perhaps it’s a demonstration of how a Lutheran God has laid out the natural world. And I think it’s interesting that a Catholic reader isn’t necessarily aware of the full level of potentially individual confessional that is different faith and piety that could go into making a text.
JL: Right. I think this is really fascinating. We could probably go on for quite a bit. There’s so much that we can think about the various permutations of thinking through these issues. It’s really fascinating. We didn’t even get into Funkenstein and the relationship between science and theology. But I think the question that always is there in the back of my head at the same time is: This is really interesting, this is really fascinating on an intellectual level. What’s the big takeaway? Why does it matter that there are these different conceptions of the nature of scientific knowledge, or of the possibility of censorship, or of the relationship between science and religion? Why do any of these things matter,when we look at the history of knowledge in early modern Europe and today? That, to me, is maybe a final set of issues that we can delve into, and I’m curious what you think about here.
HM: Good. So, we’re going from “Jewish history matters” to why does history matter at all? Why does the history of censorship matter? I mean, I think that careful attention to systems of information control allows us to be more articulate consumers of the world around us. I also think that we have such a sort of egotism about our own present, and that there’s something humbling about studying the past and understanding the ways that people navigated different controversies in past times and places. I hope that when we think about the past as complicated and contingent, that that allows us to see opportunities for change in the present as well, ways in which we can participate in shaping our own presents and futures.
JL: For me, as well, I think that when we think about these issues, it causes us to pause and reevaluate our own social environment as well. We live in a country with the First Amendment and the freedom of the press and so on, but the challenge is to try to identify the ways in which the control of information is still a major social debate. Even if, technically speaking, anybody could operate their own printing press, or post whatever they want on the internet, and the government can’t tell you what to say and what not to say… these freedoms of expression are very clearly ingrained into our legal and social consciousness and frameworks. I just think that it causes us to pause and think critically about the ways in which we are always in this struggle for control, different groups, different individuals. And it’s not just in China, or in Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany, that we see censorship. If we have a broad understanding of what it means—and this applies, I think, to a lot of historical issues and contexts—it causes us to think perhaps more clearly about how we got to now, but also just what’s going on around us.