The first comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s notorious Index, with resonance for ongoing debates over banned books, censorship, and free speech.
For more than four hundred years, the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum struck terror into the hearts of authors, publishers, and booksellers around the world, while arousing ridicule and contempt from many others, especially those in Protestant and non-Christian circles. Biased, inconsistent, and frequently absurd in its attempt to ban objectionable texts of every conceivable description—with sometimes fatal consequences—the Index also reflected the deep learning and careful consideration of many hundreds of intellectual contributors over the long span of its storied evolution. This book constitutes the first full study of the Index of Prohibited Books to be published in English. It examines the reasons behind the Church’s attempts to censor religious, scientific, and artistic works, and considers not only why this most sustained of campaigns failed, but what lessons can be learned for today’s debates over freedom of expression and cancel culture.
About the Author
Robin Vose is professor of history at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He is the author of Dominicans, Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon and has served as a National Geographic expert on expeditions to Spain and Morocco.
"Vose's clear, concise book is a valuable account of a force that invisibly shaped the modern world. It's also a mature look at the messy realities of censorship and control—tendencies that can't always be avoided, but should perhaps be subject to suspicion, examination, and discontent. The Index can no longer forbid, but it can still warn." — Spectator
"Vose’s The Index of Prohibited Books is not the first history of Catholic censorship, but it’s the first in English to present the often arcane workings of theologians and scholars in a straightforward narrative for a nonspecialist readership. Vose is evenhanded, lamenting the consequences of censorship while carefully distinguishing its early modern form from the more familiar authoritarian types of censorship that came later. For Vose, totalitarian censorship—the generalized destruction and suppression of Orwell’s nightmares—was a different thing altogether from the episodic, incoherent, contradictory practice of Catholic censorship, for all the universalizing ambitions of the popes." — New York Review of Books
"Of all the institutional efforts to police, censor, and control books, the most comprehensive and enduring was the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. As Vose argues in his richly detailed and informative new study of the same name, the Index was also astonishingly ambitious: its objective was ‘absolute control over the spiritual and ideological content of written and other forms of communication that audiences of the faithful might be exposed to throughout their lives.’ . . . But the unignorable lesson provided by the Index was its own failure. Our children will read what they want to read: this is truer today than it ever was. Those interested in the future of book censorship will find it inscribed in our collective past, in the often brutal and ultimately futile history of the Index of Prohibited Books." — Toronto Star
"Vose does a superb job of explaining the nuances, complexities and missing pieces of this narrative, which transforms this book from simply a static recounting of a piece of Catholic doctrine to a dynamic analysis of a cultural and historical phenomenon." — Americans United
“This history of the Catholic Church’s modern attempt to control literary culture is not quite the secularist polemic that one might expect. This is partly because the author emphasizes the messy complexity of this history, and the impossibility of the task of censorship, once print culture took off. All cultures engage in censorship, and [Vose] points to cancel culture as the latest evidence. This is an interesting corrective to liberal assumptions. This is more of an academic tome than a book for the general reader—but maybe in saying that I am trying to do some censoring of my own.” — Catholic Herald
"[A] harrowing new study of institutionalized intolerance. . . . The permanent puzzle is what makes some people, usually the ones in positions of either religious or political power, discontented with monitoring their own personal experiences so that they feel they must interfere with the free choices of their fellow citizens by placing severe and often arcane restrictions and limits on the freedom of expression. Having broached such a sensitive subject as censorship, I can now say without any equivocation or fear of contradiction that I believe I’ve encountered one of the most depressing books ever written. But it’s one of the most important too. Vose’s informative new release is truly staggering in its documentation of institutional controls over the thoughts and feelings of human beings falling under the sway of their influence." — Critics at Large
"The Catholic Church’s ultimately doomed attempt to keep the artistic and scholarly works of which it disapproved out of the hands and minds of the faithful . . . is described in painstaking detail in Vose’s stimulating and entertaining new book." — National Review
"In The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle over Word and Image for the Glory of God, a judicious and well-written history, Vose offers a 400-year survey of the Index of Prohibited Books that raises critical questions about the legitimation and production of knowledge. . . . Does the tolerance of diversity and plurality necessarily entail allowing all ideas, even bad ones, to flourish? With this well-crafted and highly entertaining book, Vose makes us aware that we have more in common with the Indexers than we would like to admit." — Reading Religion
"Vose's Index of Prohibited Books explores the history of Christian intellectual intolerance. It's a solid read with extensive footnotes and suggested further reading." — Fortean Times
"A broad and reflective history of the Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), which dates back the Council of Trent. . . . This well-written book includes a comprehensive further reading section. . . . Highly recommended." — Choice
"Although Banned Books Week is a relatively recent invention, the issue of censorship spans a far longer timeline and a far wider geographical scope. A newly released book, The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God, gives us a glimpse into some of this history and the importance it holds for debates about censorship today." — Church & State
“Vose’s fascinating history of the Index of Prohibited Books is a meticulously researched scholarly work, accessible to amateur and expert alike. His light touch keeps the story moving across four hundred years, without sacrificing detail. And what a story it is—a tale of the Catholic Church as an institution moving from traditional to bureaucratic authority with all the constant challenges of maintaining relevance and legitimacy. This history of censorship could not be more relevant to today’s politics, where censorship and surveillance are ever-greater threats to democracy. Vose has made an important and timely contribution to our understanding of how institutional censorship remains a thoroughly modern tool of control and suppression.” — Penelope Stewart, Professor Emerita, York University, Toronto
“The Index of Prohibited Books strikes a perfect balance between the scholar’s attempt genuinely to understand the motivations of those who sought to correct and control what was put before the eyes of the faithful and a modern observer’s distress at what was lost in the process. Vose introduces the reader to a fascinating cast of characters, from well-intentioned and devoted intellectuals to persons who sought to roguishly use the Roman Index or other national or local Indexes to settle scores in personal, political, and theological disputes. What emerges is a picture of a chaotic, all-too human set of institutions, in which contingency, accident, context, and personality led to a series of ever evolving and highly inconsistent decisions. Much as we may think this story is long behind us, The Index of Prohibited Books has profound implications for us all in the here and now.” — Laura Ackerman Smoller, Professor of History, University of Rochester, New York