Forbidden Knowledge, by Hannah Marcus

Jan Machielsen considers the ‘cancel culture’ of the Counter-Reformation and its echoes today

June 14, 2021
Source: Getty

“So funny, it was banned in Norway!” The slogan used to promote Monty Python’s Life of Brian in Sweden repeatedly came to mind while I was reading Hannah Marcus’ wonderful new book. This was not because the physicians of Italy were naughty boys (although one Paduan scholar was accused of luring a colleague into sodomy). Nor was it because of any overt comedy (although there are frequent moments of absurdity, such as when the prohibited manuscript of one hapless owner was found “in the place where [he] went to urinate”). Rather, the book, which opens with an early modern scholar reflecting on the allure of the tree of forbidden knowledge in Paradise, offers and provokes meditation on the timeless nature of censorship, its practices, its intentions and, perhaps especially, its (unintended) outcomes. In the early modern period, too, banning a book could end up promoting it in some quarters.

Forbidden Knowledge also makes an important intervention in the debate about Counter-Reformation Italy, still often represented as dominated by repressive Catholic institutions. Marcus’ study of the censorship of medical texts reveals a much richer picture. Books by Protestant physicians were so evidently useful and important that the church quickly discovered that they could not be banned outright, giving rise to a complex (and leaky) process of reading licences and expurgation. The attempt to cleanse medical books of their errors had the paradoxical result of recognising, even consolidating, the professional and social status of physicians, as the censors of the Index realised that they needed to co-opt their expertise. The expurgation of books was likened to the expiation of sin and God’s promise to Moses that “whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book”.

While some physicians embraced the opportunity to participate in religious reform, Rome’s main effort to get physicians to heal themselves failed miserably. Padua’s famous medical faculty had better things to do, with the result that the only physician to actively participate in the expurgation effort was its most heterodox (and, it would seem, most cunning) professor. Moving beyond medicine, Marcus shows that the famous case of Galileo follows a similar pattern. The astronomer, too, insisted on the utility and scientific nature of his writings, and he expected to be vindicated by lay experts or aided by their foot-dragging.

The book offers an invaluable meditation on the processes meant to distinguish good knowledge from bad, and the fluidity of those categories. Forbidden Knowledge points out that the objective of censorship in Counter-Reformation Italy was not the eradication of forbidden knowledge. Or at least, not really. Those with reading licences, in fact, were expected to remove the offending names and passages themselves. Rather, censorship was meant to be a visible reminder that, while a book might be saved, its author was not. We may debate to what extent it achieved this objective, but the whole situation remains striking from today’s perspective. After all, we too live in an age when some claim no greater honour than “being cancelled” – whether they are funny or not.

Jan Machielsen, senior lecturer in early modern history at Cardiff University, is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (2015) and The War on Witchcraft: Andrew Dickson White, George Lincoln Burr, and the Origins of Witchcraft Historiography (2021).


Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy
By Hannah Marcus
University of Chicago Press, 360pp, £36.00
ISBN 9780226736587
Published 25 September 2020

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