Reading and Censorship in Early Modern Europe

The control of conscience through intervening in the reading, printing and circulation of texts is at the very heart of the constitution of modern states. The 16th century witnessed the spread of printing, the advance of the Reformation and the institutionalisation of censorship through the compilation of successive Indices Librorum Prohibitorum. All of these phenomena are obviously linked, and enable us to understand the circulation of texts in Early Modern Europe from a political, historical, theological and literary standpoint. The Workshop proposes to study literary censorship as the effective exercise of religious and secular power and as the object of a theoretical discourse which legitimises the need for the prohibition and expurgation of books for political and moral reasons. This is a question of prime importance in the understanding of the European cultural tradition and the uses of fiction in the construction of the modern state.
The participants in the Workshop consider that censorship must not only be analysed as a way of effectively exercising religious and secular power, but also, and this is the overriding purpose of the project, as the object of a theoretical discourse which legitimises the need for the prohibition and expurgation of books in political and moral terms. For that reason, the aim is to study how the censor intervened in literary texts and books of a spiritual nature in the wider context of controlling the production and circulation of printed matter. At the same time, it will be kept in mind that all censorship involves and feeds on a representation of reading conceived of as a private, individual act, and regarded as having significant public and political repercussions, requiring regulation and religious and secular control. The censorship of fiction, books for entertainment, and literature looked upon as dangerous, is an even more extraordinary phenomenon than the condemnation of heretical and superstitious books, since it implies recognition of the direct influence of fiction on the social, religious and political life of Europe.
Tracing the history and theory of dangerous literature and forbidden or expurgated fiction (that is, the history of what could or could not be read in Europe, as opposed to the histories of literature focussed on the act of writing) will achieve a new perspective on the great European cultural tradition and the political tensions linked to the use and control of fiction and literary texts. Research into the theory and practice of censorship and its consequences for modern European culture demands the adoption of a supranational and interdisciplinary perspective, one that takes into account the pan-European circulation of learned literature (both in Latin and the vernacular languages), and the supranational dimension of the political and religious institutions responsible for scrutinizing the books.
Therefore, researchers who, in a variety of countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Great Britain), have been working steadily on reading and censorship propose setting up an Exploratory Workshop which will enable joint lines of research for future projects (the Eurocore proposal) to be laid down.  The workshop will focus its efforts on the origins of the theory and practice of censorship throughout the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th. It will be European in scope, ignoring, at least at this stage of the research, the fact that censorship was exported to the colonial dominions of America. Finally, it will adopt an interdisciplinary perspective (i.e. from the viewpoint of political science, cultural history and outlooks, literary history, literary theory and comparative literature).

ESF