Pillaging and Book-Burning: Two Late-Medieval Enemies of MS Book Survival
These "roundel" windows were made in the region known today as the Netherlands in 1510-30, using silver stain and vitreous paint (made with ground glass and pigment). Today, they are installed in the "Late Gothic Hall" at The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's composite reproduction of a medieval monastery housing numerous works of art. The first roundel illustrates a farm family (right and below) defending their home from an attacking army (under the banner in the background, forerunners on the left), which seizes goods which reveal the invaders' cash-and-carry value system in stark contrast with that of the defenders' productive and reproductive values (e.g., cash vs. a cow, or a cow vs. unmarried daughters or the household's pewter). The readily fungible value of the gambling table's objects being carried off apparently distracts the troops from the book on the ground (near the bottom of the roundel), which may be a Bible because of association by location with the swaddled child in its cradle and the fallen steeple of a desecrated church. The scene may reflect Netherlanders' experience of the "Hundred Years' War" (actually more like 1337/1453) between England and France for control of Flanders' vineyards, the wool trade, channel shipping, and political hegemony over the region. These images also, sadly, accurately anticipate events of the "Wars of Religion" in which battles between Protestant and Catholic armies wracked Europe from 1500-1660. (Those conflicts were more complicated than merely religious difference would indicate--just like today's "religious" wars).
The most famous clerical proponent of burning symbols of earthly vanity or pride was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), who preached in Florence against worldliness and organized "bonfires of the vanities" in which men and women hurled their most costly clothing and jewels and other precious objects on the fire. Savonarola's ceremonies actually were popularizations of events the Church had sponsored for hundreds of years to symbolically and actually destroy writings deemed heretical. For instance, the works of John Wyclif, a contemporary of Chaucer and church reformer, were ceremonially burned at Carfax in 1411 as part of the new Archbishop of Canterbury's introduction of the Inquisition to England. The effect of burning only one volume, or even all the authorities could get their hands on, would be far more effective as a weapon against manuscript books because of the enormous labor needed to reproduce them and their consequent scarcity. Only a century later, after moveable type printing on the hand-press allowed hundreds of copies of a book to be produced in days, the English opponents of the Reformation mistakenly tried to apply the same strategy to Protestant tracts and Bible translations produced on the Continent for English readers. By buying and burning the printers' stocks of printed books, the English agents of the anti-Reformation clergy were actually good for business, and the printers turned their profits from the burned books into still more editions of the same books. England's Tudor monarchs quickly learned that the key to control of the press's output was control of the printers, who were granted a monopoly on printing as the Stationers Guild in 1534 in return for assuming the responsibility for controlling the right to print in England. In return for their printing monopoly, they agreed to detect and report illegal presses and to license individual print jobs after insuring that they contained no material objectionable on religious or political grounds. This is not to say that "illegal ideas" never were printed. Clever printers evaded detection and authors found many ways to say the unsayable. Also, the existence of the Stationers' Register has allowed us to reconstruct the publication dates of most important Elizabethan and Jacobean works of literature between 1534 and 1641, when the Puritan Parliament eliminated the hated monopoly that had repressed their authors' publications and laid the groundwork for the modern American doctrine of "freedom of the press," first proposed as an essential social right by John Milton in the essay, "Areopagitica." (See David Harvey, "Law and the Regulation of Communications Technologies: The Printing Press and the Law 1475-1641, ANZLH E-Journal : 160-202, for a thorough study of the Stationers' role in the evolution of copyright law, censorship, and printing practices.)