Book Burning


Book Burning


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Books on Fire
The Destruction of Libraries throughout History

By Lucien X. Polastron

from Chapter 4 - People of the Book

As we saw in Cairo, and as was also true in Baghdad and Cordoba, the richness of the Jewish library in the medieval Arab world was remarkable. The reader with means collected the books of Maimonides, Galen, Averroes, Claudius Ptolemy, Avicenna, Aristotle, and Hippocrates and arranged them around the Bible or the Talmud. In northern Europe, on the other hand, the shelves were infinitely less laden, but they drew more attention, and with it, hostility.

“Because of the blasphemous allusion to the Savior and the Virgin” that some claimed to see in the library of the Israelites, this collection, and in particular the Talmud, which often formed its unique basis, was the subject of a permanent and almost obsessive hunt. Although the Syrian king Antiochos had started the fad long before, it was a converted Jew named Nicolas Donin who, in 1239 aroused the vigilance of Gregory XI regarding the hellish reading material of his former community.

In June the pope sent a secret circular to the monarchs and prelates of France, England, Spain, and Portugal ordering that during the Sabbath of the next Lent, they were to take advantage of the time when all the Jews were in synagogue to collect all their books and send them to the mendicant brothers for analysis.

On May 15, 1248, after a period of time that would give the impression all had been read, the pope condemned Judaic literature and all its horrors. France, however, was not able to bear waiting until his verdict came in: The cremation of fourteen cartloads of books took place on a public square in Paris in 1241, followed by ten carts another day in 1244. In 1263, Clement IV enjoined the king of Aragon and his lords under pain of excommunication to compel the Jews to hand over all their books for examination. In 1299, it was Philip the Fair who ordered the judges to assist the inquisitors in the holy chore, and another three loads of books were burned in Paris as a result. The provinces were not left out: Bernardo Gui had two cartloads of confiscated books paraded for several days through the streets of Toulouse before the volumes were taken to be burned.

Thus a kind of papal routine was established: John XXII in 1320 and Alexander V in 1409 and in 1553 Julian III gave strict instructions for all the books from the Jewish shelf to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb, with an eye to getting rid of them. These books seem to form a virtual library displayed on the shelves of the centuries with an obstinacy that exacerbated an unvarying impulse to annihilate them. Another twelve thousand books to be burned were found in Cremona in 1569. It was so extreme, says one author, that it is admirable that the “Talamuz” (Talmud) was able to survive such fervor.

This leads to the story of the Reuchlin report. Around 1508, Pfefferkorn, a Jewish butcher recently baptized by the Dominicans and offered the benefits of a sinecure, took pride in denouncing the horrors studding the texts of his former religion. Although he could read neither Hebrew nor Latin, his complaint made its way to Emperor Maximilian, who decided to officially pose this question: Should the books of the chosen people be confiscated and destroyed by fire? He ordered a report from two experts: the high inquisitor of Cologne, whose conclusions may as well have been written in advance, and a law professor, Johannes Reuchlin.

A friend of Erasmus and a good Christian, the humanist Reuchlin had written a Hebrew grammar in 1506, and, like Marsilio Ficino and Pico dela Mirandola, whose company he also frequented, Reuchlin was a commentator on the kabbalah in which, according to him, lay the base of the true Christian faith. He did not like Jews particularly, but he idolized books--and logic. His jurist response entitled Recommendation Whether to Confiscate, Destroy and Burn all Jewish Books marks a red-letter date (1510) in the history of tolerance.

Reuchlin launches his argument with the observation that the Jews are subjects of the emperor and benefit from the protection of the law. As a good rationalist, he erases the superstitious murk surrounding their literature by drawing up a complete panorama of it: scriptures, commentaries, treatises of philosophy and the various sciences, then poems, fairy tales, and satires. Perhaps in this final genre, he concedes, any who look for it can find anti-Christian sentiment, but this concerns only one book with “its own title, just as the author imagined it,” and an entire people cannot be held responsible for individual expression.

For the rest, Reuchlin appeals to Aristotle and St. Jerome: How can we oppose what we do not understand? “If someone is taken by an urge to write against mathematicians and he knows nothing of mathematics or even arithmetic, wouldn’t he make himself the laughing stock of all?” He then takes his readers into the realm of linguistics and the definition of truth and falseness, then on the dialectic of God, necessarily Hebrew. After this there is what may well be an argument of weight: If there were reasons to burn the Talmud, then our ancestors would have done so centuries ago, for they were much more zealous with regard to matters of Christian faith than we are.

This remarkable defense was one of the first texts to benefit from the stunning novelty of the printing press, and its publicity did not fail to bear fruit: More Israelite books were confiscated and burned and the writings of Reuchlin himself were burned by the Inquisition of Cologne, while he himself escaped death by fire as a heretic only through dying in 1522. Yet the first assault against general anti-Semitism had been waged. This subtle Recommendation is in fact the first argument which suggests that German law differs from the Catholic law of Rome. One of Reuchlin’s most attentive readers was named Martin Luther.

Lucien X. Polastron is a historian specializing in Chinese and Arab studies. He lives and works in Paris. His book may be purchased from the publisher at


from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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