Censoring Leonhart Fuchs: Examples from the New York Academy of Medicine

Hannah Marcus, today’s guest blogger, is a PhD candidate at Stanford University studying the history of censorship in Early Modern Europe.

In 1559, 32 years after Martin Luther started the Reformation by posting his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Pope Paul IV published the papacy’s first Index of Prohibited Books. The list banned more than 500 authors and proclaimed that Catholic readers could no longer own or read books written by heretics. Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) was one of many Protestant authors whose works were banned by the Index of Prohibited Books. And yet, Fuchs was no theologian and his published works were not about religion. Leonhart Fuchs was one of the great botanists and doctors of the 16th century.

Within months of the first prohibition, Catholic readers and ecclesiastical officials alike realized that Fuchs’s books were important resources for physicians, despite their author’s religion. Thus began a process of compromise that lasted for more than a century in Italy: with permission from Church authorities, Catholic readers were allowed to keep their copies of Fuchs’s books if they removed his name from text.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library owns a number of copies of these censored works, and these copies reveal a great deal about how Italians lived with and circumvented the culture of censorship. The order to remove Fuchs’s name could take a variety of forms, and NYAM has a remarkable assortment of examples.

The most common way to censor a name or passage from a book was simply to cross it out with ink. In these two examples we can see copies of books from which Fuchs’s name has been blacked out with a pen and ink and then clearly washed off at a later date (on the left) and blacked out with ink using a paintbrush (right). The sloppiness of the paintbrush and speed with which the name has been canceled indicates that the expurgation, that is the removal of the name, was probably done by an inquisitor or Catholic official who was censoring many books in rapid succession.

Left, Fuch's Claudii Galeni Pergameni, 1549?. Right, NEED ID.

Left, De sanitate tuenda libri sex, 1541. Right, De humani corporis fabrica, 1551. Click to enlarge.

In contrast to the inquisitor who sloppily painted over Fuchs’s name, this book owner took pains to transform the letters of LEONHART FUCHS into a jumble of nonsense characters. This is an incredibly unusual practice, but another example of the technique can be found in a copy of Conrad Gesner’s book On Animals kept at the Stanford University Special Collections. It is likely that both books were owned and censored by the same person.

Looking at this copy of Fuchs’s works from 1604, we get the sense that the reader was more interested in complying with the letter of the law than its spirit. The thin line through the author’s name does little to mask the huge characters on the title page.

Fuchs, Operum didacticorum, 1604.

Fuchs, Operum didacticorum, 1604. Click to enlarge.

Gluing a piece of blank paper over prohibited text was another way to expurgate a book. As a technique it also left an obvious space where the prohibited words or names had been. In many examples, like that of Fuchs’s portrait from his 1542 History of Plants, a later owner has used this blank space to write in the author’s name where it was originally printed.

Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542. Click to enlarge.

Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, 1542. Click to enlarge.

Censorship laws forced readers in Catholic Europe to alter their books in ways that have left lasting traces more than 400 years later. We can also see that as rigidly as these rules were laid down, their execution betrays a variety of impulses on the part of readers and censors. Expurgation was meant to correct a book and remove what was harmful, not to destroy the whole object. In a way then, expurgation made it possible for these books to avoid the inquisitors’ bonfires and find their way eventually to the corner of East 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, bearing on their pages the scars of their histories in Counter-Reformation Europe.

2 thoughts on “Censoring Leonhart Fuchs: Examples from the New York Academy of Medicine

  1. A very interesting post with great illustrations of what can be seen by a perceptive and historically informed analysis of well preserved rare books.

    It seems to me, however, that rather than seeing some of the name deletions as hurried, incomplete, or insufficient, we might see them as nicely accomplishing the purpose of saying “This is a forbidden author, do not cite the author, and use this book carefully and circumspectly.” That kind of message is fully conveyed even by some of the minimal modifications seen here. Again, it’s important to second this post’s observation that these examples of “censorship” are not about restricting access to the texts or passages within them, but about labeling the author as beyond the pale.

  2. Pingback: Counterfeiting Bodies: Examining the Work of Walther Ryff | Books, Health and History

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