Censorship in Early Modern Europe and its Ramifications with Hannah Marcus

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:

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.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: