From Farting to Fornication: Early print censorship

During the first half-century of printing in Europe ( c. 1450–1500), there were few restrictions on the printing trade, either on who could start a print-shop or on what they chose to print. Censorship of printed books got off to a rather slow start.

In 1475, the university of Cologne was granted permission from the Pope to censor liturgical or religious texts. Later, other measures were introduced to censor books sold at the Frankfurt book fair, but all attempts at censorship were limited in scope and geographical influence. Even when broader censorship was introduced, it was next to impossible to police. However, once printing had spread and the printing of books rose into the hundreds of thousands and even millions by the end of the century — inconceivable before the invention of print — the authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical, began to seek ways to limit how the power of print was wielded.

The Index of Prohibited Books
Broader and more organized censorship was sparked by the Protestant Reformation. In 1520, when Luther ignored a Papal Bull demanding that he recant (the Bull also called for the burning of all Luther’s books), Luther famously responded by burning the Papal Bull in a ditch and branding the pope ‘Antichrist’. Pope Leo X was not too thrilled.

Frontispiece (and title-page) with St. Peter & Paul who, inspired by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, are burning heretical books. From the Index librorum prohibitorum, 1711. Source: Bavarian State Library.

Much, but by no means all, of Luther’s success and the rapid spread of his ideas was attributable to the printing press, to hundreds of thousands of pamphlets printed quickly in the vernacular. That meant that the Catholic Church, if it were to silence Luther, would need to aggressively censor his writings.

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature; but he who destroys a book kills reason itself. — John Milton

The Reformation tore the Church in two, polarized Western Europe, and prompted the most heinous and cruel acts, including the burning of books, their readers, their authors, and even those who printed them. By the 1540s, the Church had gotten itself organized, issuing blanket censorial measures via lists of prohibited books, banning heterodox writings and heretical authors. The so-called Pauline Index of 1559, sanctioned by Pope Paul IV, was the official Index of Prohibited Books, and was rather extreme in its prescriptions and proscriptions, even banning books from Protestant-owned print-shops, whatever the topic.

Renaissance Erotica. Scandalous!
Although religious books were most frequently the targets of censorship, secular titles were censored too. Arguably the most infamous early example is a 1527 edition of erotic poetry. It all began with a series of engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi, after drawings made in the early 1520s by Giulio Romano, and known as I Modi, or ‘The positions’.

Raimondi’s engravings, first published in 1524, caused quite a scandal. In 1527, they were accompanied by 16 lewd poems by the satirist Pietro Aretino, and published as I sonetti lussuriosi (‘Lustful Sonnets’). What is striking about the engravings is that the actors are not disguised as classical or mythological figures — classicising erotica was one way of avoiding the censors. The many nudes in Renaissance art and adorning the walls and ceilings of the Vatican are proof of that. On top of that, these profane human figures, in various states of sexual intercourse are joined not by refined classical Latin or even the graceful vernacular of Petrarch; but by far coarser language. This line from the eleventh sonnet is typical of the poems’ bawdy tone: ‘Open your thighs so that I can clearly see your beautiful ass’. That ain’t Ovid.

The so-called Toscanini volume, a crude copy of the Raimondi and Aretino book, with inferior woodcut copies of the original metal engravings. c. 1550–60. Image from Art and Love in Renaissance Italy.

Raimondi was briefly imprisoned by Pope Clement VI, and all copies of his engravings, and apparently the copper plates themselves, were destroyed. Aretino, later boasts that it was the notoriety surrounding Raimondi, in addition to the brilliance of his etchings that inspired him to write complimentary sonnets. Not a single copy of Aretino’s 1527 edition has survived, but an early pirated edition, with inferior woodcuts has (see above). In 1558, two years after Aretino’s death, Sonetti lussuriosi was added to the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books, an act that might have amused the insuperable provocateur.

One of nine fragments from the original or early I Modi. Likely by Marcantonio Raimondi. From the British Museum.

Circumventing censorship
So how did printers get around the censors? One popular method was the use of fictitious imprints. Sometimes it was enough to simply change the place of printing, or even to use a fictitious one. Some Dutch printers in the early seventeenth century took to printing their books in Thomas More’s fictitious ‘Utopia’.

Meanwhile, in England, from about 1714, one printer began using the fictitious imprint, ‘A. Moore’. Perhaps it was some kind of inside joke. It certainly proved popular, with the ESTC (a catalog of English books printed between 1473 and 1800) listing almost 300 editions bearing the A. Moore imprint.

It was even used on the vulgar but hilarious The Benefit of Farting Explain’d, published in 1722.

Your money’s worth in the title-page alone. From The Benefit of Farting Explain’d, printed for the fictitious A. Moore, 1722, from the British Library.

Although those early years of censorship have deprived us of many books, that others have survived is proof enough that the censors were, on balance, unsuccessful. It also testifies to the insatiable nature of human curiosity. Don’t do x, y, and z is often a sure-fire way of ensuring that x, y, and z become the next viral meme; like the old joke of the early Jesuit censors, notabitur Romae, legetur ergo, or roughly speaking, ‘what’s put on the Index in Rome, will surely be read’. In the end, the censors could not keep pace with the flood of new books produced in the sixteenth century — hundreds of thousands of editions printed in tens of millions of copies.

However, I’d like to believe that books survive the censors because truth matters and prevails; or, as John Milton so eloquently insisted, ‘truth needs no licensing to make her victorious’ ◉

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Originally published at on March 8, 2020.

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