In 1616, nearly 75 years after Nicholaus Copernicus’ theories on planetary motion first appeared in print, the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books ruled that copies of De Revolutionibus must be “suspended until corrected.” This was not an outright ban of the text, but a call for its “expurgation,” a practice for selectively censoring parts of books that the Catholic Church deemed suspect, dangerous, or otherwise heretical. The Congregation’s final decree, issued in 1620, called for the removal of only a few passages, as the book was “most useful and necessary to astronomy.” The history of science offers many similar cases, where useful books for scientists, doctors, and other professionals were allowed to circulate, even despite explicitly controversial content. Censoring scientific books was not at all straightforward, and readers were often allowed access to “banned” works because of the value of their content. Join Harvard professor Hannah Marcus and the Library’s Assistant Curator for Special Collections Jamie Cumby as they discuss how prohibited books were read in early modern Europe, and share examples of expurgated books held by the Library.
Dr. Jamie Cumby joined the Linda Hall Library in 2020 as Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. Dr. Cumby holds a doctorate in modern history and an MLitt in book history from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Prior to joining the Library, she worked as Special Collections Librarian for Pequot Library in Connecticut and served as Senior Editor on “Preserving the World’s Rare Books.” She has also served in roles with the University of St. Andrews, Cambridge Public Library, the MIT Press, and Wellesley’s Special Collections Library. Her doctoral research focused on the history of the book, and her career has included a commitment to public outreach and access to special collections.
Dr. Hannah Marcus is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the scientific culture of early modern Europe between 1400 and 1700. Professor Marcus’s first book, Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy (University of Chicago Press, 2020), explores the censorship of medical books from their proliferation in print through the prohibitions placed on many of these texts during the Counter-Reformation. This account explains how and why the books prohibited by the Catholic Church in Italy ended up back on the shelves of private and public Italian libraries in the seventeenth century. Her second book, Methuselah’s Children: The Renaissance Discovery of Old Age, is a study of ideas about longevity and experiences of advanced old age in a period when the average life expectancy was 35. She is also writing a book with Paula Findlen about Galileo’s correspondence called Galileo’s Letters: Experiments in Friendship, which grows out of their collaboration on The Galileo Correspondence Project. Her public writing has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Conversation, among other venues. Dr. Marcus earned her BA at the University of Pennsylvania and her PhD at Stanford University. Before coming to Harvard, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the Galileo Correspondence Project, which she directs with Paula Findlen.
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