The forbidden books of the Inquisition and aspects of daily life in the 18th century in New Spain

18/02/2021

Any Mexican today can easily find a copy of the English film Dangerous Liaisons (1988), directed by the Englishman Stephen Frears and starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer. With a little more interest, you will find a Spanish translation of the novel of the same name that gave rise to it, Les Liaisons dangereuses, written in 1781 by Frenchman Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, a brigadier general in the Napoleonic army.

What few among these national cultural consumers could imagine is that during the Viceroyalty, when the Mexican territory was administered by the Spanish Crown, access to this reading was very difficult. And not only because books were the privilege of certain social classes, since they were expensive and there were very few literate people, but also because during that period, the novel, published in Amsterdam in 1783, was forbidden as "obscene in the highest degree" by the fearsome Tribunal of the Holy Office. That is, to read it and be discovered would have meant facing the Holy Inquisition.

Although the crimes prosecuted by the Tribunal of the Holy Office were very varied, and their number amounted to 120, those related to forbidden books were so abundant that they occupied the fifth place. And the list was headed by all the publications of Martin Luther and his supporters, for it was considered that the vulgar had no reason to know about theological differences in the Church.

During the second half of the 18th century, the institution preferred to publish edicts three or four times a year with an average of 150 titles, both with local prohibitions and those sent by the Vatican or the Crown. Whoever disobeyed the edict faced major excommunication, that is, he was expelled from Christianity. And this could have more than spiritual consequences, for example, if he fell ill, no one from the Catholic community could assist him.

Among the prohibitions, there were three categories. First, those absolutely forbidden even to those who had a license to read forbidden books; then those forbidden in totum (that is, in total) and finally those ordered to be expurgated, that is, those from which only words or paragraphs were censored, either by crossing out or pasting white sheets on top of the censored pages.

Contrary to what one might think, although in theory, the power of the Inquisition was rigid and fearsome, in practice, it was a ship that was leaking all over the place, especially in eighteenth-century Mexico. In fact, since the previous century, there were no more book burnings, since it lacked the necessary force to do so.

The list of forbidden books was very broad, since it not only referred to bound objects, but included everything from sheets and pamphlets to multi-volume works.

This list was called Index Librorum Prohibitorum et Expurgatorum or Index of Prohibited Books and was created in 1559 by the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition. It was so voluminous that, for example, the Nouus index librorum prohibitorum et expurgatorum edited in 1632 had 991 pages.

In the edict of 1786, appeared El sofá, a moral tale printed in India in 1778, which took advantage of the oriental belief of the transmigration of souls, so that the author narrated the erotic adventures that occurred on it in a previous life, when it was precisely that type of furniture.

The printing press was at its peak during 18th century France, and the Revolution published books in Spanish and sent them to Spain and its territories, accusing it of fanaticism, attacking the Holy Office and the monarchical institution.

The novel was a means for its leaders to spread their own ideas. Therefore, the most common answer to the Inquisition when asked the reasons for reading the banned books of Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot, was simply that they were very entertaining.

Not only were books that attacked the Church or contained anathemas against its preaching banned, but even those that reaffirmed its dogmas. Paradoxically, the Bible is perhaps a great example. The reading of the Catholic holy book was forbidden in the 16th century on the grounds that it lent itself to misinterpretation of its contents and was only permitted until the middle of the 18th century.

By Mexicanist, Source: INAH