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The Pleasures of Destruction

The book historian Andrew Pettegree credits Martin Luther with ushering in a new phase in the conflict of ideas and the history of the book. With his ceremonial public burning outside Wittenberg on December 10th, 1520 of the papal bull of excommunication against him, Exsurge Domine, along with a copy of Canon Law and the pamphlets of some orthodox Catholic propagandists, he was, perhaps unwittingly, introducing an era in which books were to become not just protagonists but often victims of ideological struggle.

True there had been book burnings before. In the closing years of the fifteenth century Girolamo Savonarola had organised “bonfires of the vanities” in Florence, where books (including those of Boccaccio and Ovid), as well as art, mirrors, cosmetics and musical instruments, were confined to the flames while squads of young men and boys –Savonarola’s message was particularly popular among the young – went round the streets accosting those thought to be wearing immodest dress. The medieval church too had occasionally lobbed the odd book into the fire when it felt it necessary to burn a heretic, but in general, Pettegree argues, there was considerable resistance, at least initially, to the notion of burning books. For one thing, they were expensive. When Luther planned to up the ante by burning copies of the works of the scholastics Aquinas and Duns Scotus the notion had to be abandoned as no Wittenberg scholar was willing to abandon their copy.

In the longer term, however, passions could not be contained.

In the second half of the century the battle between Catholic and Protestant took on a murderous intensity. Luther and his Catholic opponents had swapped insults, but in Paris in 1572 the Catholic population hunted their Huguenot neighbours through the streets. The return of religious enthusiasm led to conflicts of a previously unimaginable bitterness. The disputes over religion had sowed the seeds of a genocidal rage in which whole populations were at risk.
In the polarised societies of this era governments exercised new care over what their subjects read. And in this they were right [emphasis added], because much of the toxic energy of the conflict came from the printed page.

Pettegree’s somewhat throwaway aside here constitutes a rather rare scholarly apologia for the practice of censorship in certain circumstances – circumstances of heightened civic danger. Our most pervasive modern ideology (Nous sommes tous Charlie) seems in its purest form to insist that nothing – even good sense – should ever stand in the way of us saying just whatever comes into our heads. Interestingly however, some people in Germany, as Derek Scally has reported in The Irish Times, have recently begun to ask why Facebook, which is apparently quick to erase an image in which there is a suggestion of female nipple is so slow to take down racist and incendiary comments – some in this case referring to Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen ‑ in a situation where there have been repeated attacks by far-right elements on the hostels where migrants and asylum-seekers live.



In book history, the burning of offending items has tended for the most part to be replaced, and rendered unnecessary, by stricter regimes of pre-censorship and regulation, measures that human ingenuity (and commercial opportunism) have usually found means of evading. Public burnings of course, of people or things, will always be popular, as indeed is any form of destruction of symbolic goods (American or Israeli flags, for example, or water charge bills).

Indeed there is nothing that will keep a mob up and about after bedtime quite as much as the lure of destruction. I remember, on the evening of October 5th, 1968, seen by many as Day One of the Northern civil rights movement, observing an interesting act which was taking place at the corner of William Street and Little James Street in Derry. Earlier in the day the RUC had batoned a civil rights march in Duke Street in the Waterside (on the other side of the river), the spectacular footage making the teatime news on British television. That evening the town was in uproar, with running clashes between RUC and possibly B Specials and “rioters”, some ‑ but far from all ‑ of whom may have earlier been on the march and seen what had happened to peaceful demonstrators. Sometimes, in the course of the evening, the “forces of order” would be beaten well back, allowing an area of freedom in the inner city Catholic working class area that was later to be denoted as simply “the Bogside” and later “Free Derry”. On the corner of William Street and Little James Street stood a bakery, and in its window, behind strong plate glass, stood a very high tiered wedding cake. A couple of worthies had their hearts set on it and stone after stone was lobbed at the window until finally, after five or ten minutes the glass gave way and the prize was carried off, no doubt to be divided up into small pieces as is the custom. With every sound of the window cracking the crowd, of a hundred or so people, gave a cheer. I was there myself and perhaps I cheered too.

A few days later, the Derry Journal (a twice-weekly) sold a perhaps unprecedented number of copies, with photographs of the police riot and the disturbances, and the damage that attended them, in the city afterwards. There was political analysis too, with the usual elements condemning the considerable destruction of property. Our most radical commentator and political actor however, then a mere twenty-five-year-old stripling, spoke rather of the people’s “anger”. Of the existence of this anger in Derry there can have been little doubt. Unemployment in the city was huge, and Catholic unemployment bigger still, with discrimination in housing and employment institutionalised. People were in a mood of rebellion and they had a right to be. All the same, as I’m sure has been observed before, something like a wild joy can be experienced in a sudden liberation from restraint and supervision: what I saw on the faces of the heroic liberators of the wedding cake that evening was not exactly anger.

The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree is published by Yale University Press.

1.9.2015