The Quick 10: 10 Book Burnings
This weekend, sadly, marks the anniversary of the bonfire of the vanities. Not the novel from the "˜80s, but the actual bonfire of the vanities, the event in 1497 when thousands of objects that might tempt people to sin were reduced to nothing but ash. Unfortunately, burnings such as this one weren't that unusual "“ they have happened many times over the course of history and have cost us countless priceless works of art.
1. The bonfire of the vanities, 1497. These days the phrase refers to any time a mass burning of literature and the arts takes place, but this is the one that really gave birth to the term. A Dominican priest by the name of Girolamo Savonarola declared a long laundry list of items immoral and sinful: cosmetics, mirrors, games, paintings, pagan books, sculptures, fancy clothing, instruments and much, much more. He and his followers rallied the public to rid themselves of all things, and on February 7, 1497, they burned a massive pile of stuff, sending swirls of smoke across Florence for days. It's been said that we lost many Botticelli paintings to this particular fire, possibly at the hands of Botticelli himself. The tables had turned by 1498, though, and Savonarola was executed in a particularly gruesome but fitting way: he was burned to death on the same spot where his famed bonfire of the vanities had taken place a little more than a year earlier.
2. Roman history, 25 AD. Imagine having a detailed account of Roman history before 25 AD. We have pieces of things now, sure, but Senator Aulus Cremutius Cordus wrote all about the civil war and the reign of Caesar Augustus. In 25 AD, he displeased the wrong people. His persecutors, namely Sejanus, said he was trying to turn Julius Caesar's assassin, Brutus, into a hero; his supporters say that he criticized Sejanus for commissioning a statue of himself and Sejanus wasn't too pleased about that. At any rate, Cordus was forced to kill himself and copies of his works were burned. His daughter managed to save some of his writing, but only bits and pieces of it have made it to the present day.
3. The Royal Library of Alexandria. We think this Egyptian institution was founded sometime around the third century B.C. and contained tons of valuable stuff. Imagine all of the information we might have had if its entire contents hadn't perished in a fire on four separate occasions, including once when Julius Caesar accidentally burned it down in 48 B.C. when he set fire to his own ships. Well, ancient accounts seem to agree that it was an accident "“ modern accounts aren't always so forgiving. The other times the library was torched involved anti-Christian or anti-Pagan movements (whatever was in vogue at the time).
4. The works of Abelard, 1121. Theologian Peter Abelard suffered a couple of devastating blows in pretty short order in the 1100s. First, his now-famous love affair and marriage to Heloise was exposed; Heloise was sent to a nunnery and Abelard was castrated. Then, a few years later, Abelard's interpretations of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit were called heresy. He was locked up in a monastery, but not before he was forced to burn all of his work.
5. The Valley of the Squinting Windows, 1918. Not all book burnings are religious in nature. This burning happened because the town in the novel seemed to closely resemble the real-life Irish village of Delvin. The author's depiction of the townspeople was not very kind "“ the whole book was about how the town was gossipy and overly concerned with trying to keep up with other families in terms of possessions and accomplishments. Apparently it hit a little too close to home and the town held a mass burning of the book.
6. Braille books, 1842. Oh, that evil Braille system!! About 20 years after its invention, officials at the school for the blind in Paris started to think that if blind people were able to read on their own, there would be no use for teachers to help them and countless people would be out of jobs. Therefore, in a really sane move, the director of the institute demanded that books written in Braille should be incinerated. As you can see by our widespread use of Braille today, his efforts didn't really work.
7. Comic books, 1948. Thanks to the "findings" of Dr. Fredric Wertham in an article he titled "Horror in the Nursery," parents of the "˜40s decided they were tired of their kids being corrupted by the violence in crime comics. They arranged mass burnings, notably in Binghamton, New York, and Spencer, West Virginia. The craze didn't quite end there, though "“ in 1949, more researchers had jumped on the bandwagon and declared that "comic books train kids like animals, by breaking their spirit." Not only that, but characters such as Superman were completely messing with the ideas kids were forming about the laws of physics "“ after all, people can't really fly.
8. The Satanic Verses, 1988. The book that still has Salman Rushdie keeping a watchful eye on his surroundings was controversial from the beginning. Some considered it blasphemous, and not only were book burnings held around the world, bookstores that deigned to carry it were actually bombed.
9. Harry Potter. Believing the wildly popular books promote the occult, religious organizations have held book burning parties since the Chosen One was just an orphan under the stairs on Privet Drive. They're not always burned though "“ when one group was denied a permit to hold a public bonfire due to "toxic emissions used by the ink," they held a slashing instead"¦ because the town should be much more comfortable with a mob of people wielding knives, right?
10. The Great Fire of London, 1666. Here's an accidental book burning for you. In 1666, a bunch of the town's most beloved literature was stored in an underground crypt in Old St. Paul's Cathedral. Because it was stone-lined, it was believed that the books would be OK if fire befell the place. And it might have, if falling stones hadn't busted through the top of the crypt. Once that happened, the fire made its way through and the vast collection of books and scrolls only served to make the place burn faster.