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  • History of Censorship in Bohemia

    Part One - Up to 1620

    Jan Čulík

    A hundred years before Martin Luther, Bohemia was the first country in the world to experience Protestantism. John Wycliff's writings were introduced to Prague at the beginning of the 15th century. They provoked a lively debate and provided inspiration for the teaching of Jan Hus (c.1370-1415) who was subsequently burned at the stake in Constance as a heretic. Hus's violent death provoked a revolution in Bohemia. The Hussite religious reformers defeated several Crusades, aimed against them, and defied the rest of Europe until 1436, when a  compromise was concluded between Hussite Bohemia and the Council of the Catholic Church at Basle. Bohemia thus became a land of "two peoples". The Hussite revolution prevailed in its moderate form. Protestants and Catholics lived together in an uneasy, but peaceful coexistence until 1620, when the protestant side was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain near Prague by the armies of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand. After 1620, Bohemia was subjected to recatholisation.

    The beginnings of censorship in Bohemia are associated with the influence of John Wycliff in Prague in the early 15th century. Following the Pope's orders, the Prague archbishop Zbyněk of Hazmburg demanded in 1410 that books by John Wycliff be brought by their owners to his office for inspection. Some 200 volumes, constituting a considerable fortune, were handed in by Jan Hus and other masters of Prague university. The books were found to be heretical. Hus and Prague university objected, pointing out that many non-theological volumes, works dealing with mathematics and other scientific subjects had been condemned along with theological writings. Hus and other university lecturers appealed to the Pope in Rome in this matter, but before a decision came back, the Archbishop of Prague had the books burned in the courtyard of his palace on 16th June 1410. This provoked much anger. The University complained to the Czech royal authority and the Czech King Wenceslas IV. decreed that the archbishop's and the censors' rents be suspended. Damages had to be paid out to the owners of the destroyed books.

    When Jan Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic at the Church Council in Constance in 1415, it was decreed by the Council that works by Jan Hus, John Wycliff and Hus's follower Jeroným of Prague be burnt wherever they may be found. However, no evidence is available that works by these thinkers were actually destroyed by the Catholic side in the Hussite Bohemia.

    After the invention of printing, books spread through Europe much faster than before. In 1501, the Pope Alexander I. published a  bull, applicable primarily to Italy, which demanded that titles should be submitted to bishops for inspection before being printed. Printers were also ordered to produce lists of books and send sample copies to the Church authorities. Book censorship was usually carried out by the universities for the Church.

    Three churches competed in Bohemia for influence: the Catholic Church, the utraquist Hussites and the banned, Protestant Church "The Unity of Brethren". Large numbers of tracts and polemics, spreading the teaching of the Unity of Brethren were disseminated throughout Moravia towards the end of the 15th century. In 1499 Pope Alexander VI. sent two inquisitors to Moravia to suppress these books and to replace them with orthodox Catholic publications. In 1505 the Moravian Estates decreed in Brno that the printing of books by the Unity of Brethren should not be tolerated on the lands of any member of the Moravian nobility. If found, these books were to be burnt. In 1508, on the instigation of the Czech utraquists, King Vladislav (1471 - 1509) issued an edict, ordering the suppression of publications by the Unity of Brethren. But the Unity of Brethren activists would not be put down and published their tracts either abroad (Nurenberg), or using fictitious places of publication (Mons Olivetti, Mons Liliorum).

    Censorship in Bohemia was not effective at the beginning of the 16th century, especially in the areas which were out of reach of the church authorities. Bohemia was a country which had freed itself from the power of the Pope. Many subversive and polemical tracts were being disseminated. This is why an attempt was made in 1524 by the Prague utraquist authorities to assume the right of censorship over published titles. By this time, works by Martin Luther were banned in Bohemia, just as they were banned in Germany.

    In 1526, the Czech nobles elected a member of the Habsburg dynasty to the Czech throne. This, a hundred years later, led to the absorption of Bohemia and Moravia into the Austrian Empire and to a suppression of Czech Protestantism.

    In 1528, the first Habsburg ruler, Ferdinand I. (1526-1564), published a decree banning the publication and sale of heretical books and set up a commission which was to inspect booksellers' storehouses at least once a year. The commission could not operate in the countryside, so printers were banned from setting up shop outside towns. As a result, many printers began publishing books anonymously, or with fictitious places of publication. It was decreed that any printer producing a book anonymously should be executed and all his property confiscated. In 1541 another decree stipulated that nothing must be published without the name of its author. These decrees were widely ignored.

    Utraquist religious publications were assessed by the Prague University rector. It is not clear to what extent catholic publications were checked by the catholic church authorities. Non-religious publications were submitted to censorship by royal officials.

    In 1539 Václav Hájek of Libočany (d. 1553) wanted to publish his Chronicle of the Czechs. He asked Emperor Ferdinand I. to grant him an exclusive copyright for the book for the duration of ten years. The King did this, appointing three censors to make sure that the Chronicle contained no anti-catholic sentiment. Belatedly, the Prague utraquist authorities protested against critical statements about Jan Hus in the Chronicle, but failed to have them excised from the publication. The banned Protestant Church the Unity of Brethren did not wish to court controversy and it set up its own censorship commission to suppress slanderous and heretical material in its own publications.

    Stronger censorship, based on the German model, was introduced in Bohemia in 1548. Printers were not allowed to print any material without prior permission by the authorities. The name of the printer had to be given in all publications. Disobeying printers could be fined up to 500 guilders and their businesses could be closed down. A censorship commission was set up in Prague, dealing primarily with political publications. Religious publications were censored by the Catholic and the utraquist consistories. The number of printers in the land was limited to a minimum.

    Censorship was further strengthened when the Jesuit order came into Prague in 1556. From 1560, the Jesuits were given the right to censor titles published in Hebrew, although the Prague utraquist academy protested agaist this. In Rome, inquisition was set up to suppress non-catholic publications. The Jesuit order was eager to implement the orders of the Pope even north of the Alps.

    The Trident Council of 1562 appointed a commission which compiled a list of banned books, to be used in all catholic countries. It was decreed that before publication, writers should submit two copies their works to the censorship office in every diocese. One copy was to be retained by the office to make it possible to check after publication that the recommended changes in the text had been made. The Prague Archbishop Antonín Brus was Chairman of this commission, but as the head of the Catholic Church in a non-Catholic country, he did not insist on the implementation of the Commission's orders in Bohemia and did not publish a list of banned books for Bohemia, because that would have produced vigorous protests from the utraquist side. Brus however did carry out supervision of the printing offices and occasionally punished printers and booksellers. In the 1560s, in an early attempt to introduce the principles of the closed shop into publishing, Prague printers and booksellers wrote to Archbishop Brus, requesting him to ban the importation and unregulated sale of books from abroad which, they said, "seriously jeopardises our modest livelihoods". On 13th March, 1567, the Archbishop requested Emperor Maximilian (1564-1576) to publish a decree banning the sale of foreign books in Bohemia. On 8th February, 1571, Maximilian again ordered printers not to publish or sell titles without approval from the Prague Archbishop. This order was issued after an incident of 26th January 1571, when two archbishop's officials raided Tomáš Mitis's bookshop on the campus of Charles University. Mitis' stock included banned books and the archbishop's officials attempted to seal his library. The rector of the university and several lecturers arrived in the bookshop, trying to prevent this. The university sent a protest note to the Emperor, complaining that the archbishop's officials infringed the freedoms of the university and improperly raided the academic soil.

    Further censorship decrees were issued during the rule of Emperor Rudolph II. (1576-1611) because all earlier decrees were often ignored by the printers. When a papal nuncio tried to disseminate the bull Coena domini in Prague in 1580, which introduced censorship principles, Emperor Rudolph banned this. The Czech Protestant Estates insisted on the observance of their religious freedoms.

    From the times of Rudolph II., the Catholic side and the Jesuit Order were on the offensive. The greater the power of the Jesuit Order, the more vociferous were the complaints against its censorship. The Jesuits therefore trod very carefully. In 1599, they introduced a complex censorship procedure, aimed to ensure objectivity of assessment.

    Both the protestant and the Catholic side printed slanderous broadsides and pictures, aimed agaist their religious rivals. In 1602, a young Prague printer Sixt Palm Močidlanský got into trouble for publishing an anti-catholic song, was interrogated, tried, held in prison for four months and then exiled abroad. The Emperor again ordered the printers not to publish inflammatory material which offended one or the other religious side.

    In 1604, Charles University wished to perform a play entitled Břetislav, the Czech Achilees, written by Master Campanus Vodňanský, a professor at the university. One day before the performance, the play was banned for "slandering Czech royalty, the Church and the Roman Emperor". The utraquist side was displeased by this verdict, pointing out that the Prague Jesuit College put on plays regularly without hindrance. The utraquists wrote a submission to the Emperor, demanding that the Jesuits be disallowed to slander and mock the utraquist side. Finally, in 1605, a synod of the catholic clergy was held in Prague. In line with the provisions of the Trident Council, a list of banned books was issued and all printers and booksellers were expected to submit their religious titles for inspection to the local parsons before putting them up for sale. Books with a general content continued to be subjected to the censorship of the Chancellor's royal office.

    The utraquist side demanded the official right to censor its own books, so it was decreed in 1610 that catholic publications were to be censored by the archbishop and by the royal authority, while the examination of utraquist books was to be done by protestant "defensors". These were elected defenders of the interests of the non-Catholic estates. In the interest of public peace, neither the Catholics nor the utraquists were to publish anything critical of the other religious denomination. The royal authority now punished offenders seriously. In 1615, a tract by a protestant nobleman, Václav Magrle of Sobíšek, critical of Emperors Matthias and Rudolph, was printed in a printing office owned by another nobleman, Henyk of Valdštejn. The protestant "defensors" could not defend the author, the publisher or the printer, because the tract dealt with secular matters. The author was called to account by the authorities, the publisher was fined, the printer was arrested and executed.

    (To be continued.)

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