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Banned books on display at Durham Cathedral

18 October 2019


Denis Diderot, Encyclopediè, Paris, 1751-1772, in the refectory library at Durham Cathedral

Denis Diderot, Encyclopediè, Paris, 1751-1772, in the refectory library at Durham Cathedral

A COLLECTION of historic books that were once banned for their provocative concepts and ideas made a rare public appearance last Saturday.

The volumes are housed in the refectory library at Durham Cathedral, which is normally open only to academics and clergy. They were all written by authors censored by a variety of authorities, from Oliver Cromwell and the royal families of Britain and France to the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Some of the works led to the writers’ being arrested, exiled, or put in the stocks.

The display, part of the Durham Book Festival, includes a 14th-century Durham Priory manuscript of the works of Aristotle, which was banned by the University of Paris; a “false imprint” of the works of Machiavelli, in which the printer doctored the official print date to avoid being charged with illegal printing; and works by Dante, Milton, Galileo, Diderot, Hobbes, and Defoe.

The cathedral’s assistant librarian, Sarah-Jane Raymond, said: “Daniel Defoe was put in the stocks for the pamphlets he produced; Dante Alighieri was banished from his beloved Florence; and John Milton went into hiding, fearing for his life, while his criticisms of Charles I were burnt in public. Meanwhile, printers were having to come up with ever more ingenious ways of flouting such bans. We are very happy to be able to tell some of these stories, and more, in greater detail.”

The head of collections at Durham Cathedral, Alison Cullingford, said: “Books, and the incendiary concepts found within their pages, have long prompted controversy. This event gives us a wonderful opportunity to highlight some of the books that have sat quietly amongst the volumes in Durham Cathedral library for centuries.”

The 17th-century library, which was once the dining hall for the medieval Durham Priory, will open for two hour-long sessions on 27 November. Click here to book tickets

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