(D6) The Censorship and Destruction of Books in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: The Example of the Lollard Heresy and the Reformation

Forms of written communication play a significant role in the combative confrontation over the “right faith” in pre-modern and in modern times, as well; this applies both to the conveying and enforcement of desired religious concepts and to the controlling of the dissemination of undesired concepts by means of (book) censorship. The most extreme case of book censorship can be seen in the various acts of physical violence against books, which can extend from mutilation and damage to the total destruction by means of the staged and public, symbolically charged burning of books. The complex of violence raises the question of the connection between the exercise of violence against the people participating in the process of communication (authors, scribes, printers, publishers, booksellers, book owners and readers) and against their products.

By comparing the English heretical movement of the Lollards in the train of John Wyclif (from the end of the 14th into the 16th century) with the English Reformation (from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I), the central media-historical question as to the role of the book and related forms of written communication – as ammunition in religious conflicts – will form the subject of investigation. The change from a manuscript culture oriented towards a single and unique product to the culture of book printing, i. e. to the beginning of “mass media communication” within the context of the first media revolution will above all be considered here. The question of violence against individuals (the burning of heretics or the execution for treason, as in the case of the Jesuit Edmund Campion in 1581) and/or against their books (the mutilation and burning of books) will be investigated in the context of the interaction between religion and politics in, on the one hand, the Bible-oriented heresy movement of the Lollards, the “Bible Men” or “book men,” and their persecution (see the Norwich Heresy Trials) and, on the other hand, in the peculiarities of the Reformation in England. In light of the inseparable link between church and state (Henry VIII: Act of Supremacy), the varied history between Protestantism and Catholicism (Mary Tudor 1553-1558), the search for a new religious orientation especially by means of the destruction of memoria (cf. the dissolution and destruction of monasteries and their libraries), and the close connection between the English nation and anti-Catholicism, the English Reformation is an especially rich field for the investigation of the connection between politics and religion. The assessment of the attempts at legitimising violence against individuals and books both religiously and politically (see De heretico comburendo, 1401; Arundel's Constitutiones, 1409; the Tudor Royal Proclamations, 1485-1603) and of the (sometimes limited!) effect of censorship and the use of violence, constitutes the interpretative framework of the investigation.