In days gone by, of course, destroying a book, generally by burning, was an easy matter. If a book was thrown into the fire and it burned it was ipso facto "heretical". Books were printed by hand and fabulously expensive. Burning all copies meant that no-one was ever able to read them again. Many were hidden, especially, with Pilgrimage to Heresy in mind, in Egypt, and the Nag Hammadi "Gospels", the "Gospel of Judas", and the Dead Sea Scrolls are also cases in point.
With the invention of the printing press however, book burning was more symbolic than practical and it became more and more difficult to destroy the ideas and the books themselves.
Within 40 years of Gutenberg’s invention – when most of the printed books had been printed and sold in Germany – an archbishop complained to the town hall for censorship of “dangerous materials”. Henry VIII required printers to submit all manuscripts to church authorities and outlawed all imported publications in 1529.
In 1535, Francis I of France issued an edict prohibiting ALL publications. So it is not surprising to find the Catholic church issuing the Index Librorum Prohibitum (the Index of Forbidden Books) in 1559 in reaction to the spread of Protestantism and scientific enquiry. The Index continued until 1966 when Pope Paul VI terminated the publication. Still, literally 1000’s of books remain on the list.
It was thought up until the end of the 19th century that none of Priscillian’s works remained. However, the Würzburg Tractates were discovered by Georg Schepps in 1885 and published at the Vienna Corpus in 1886. While the jury is still out on whether or not Priscillian wrote all of the tractates there is a general consensus amongst scholars that the First Tractate is of his authorship. What we read contrasts alarmingly with the entries in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and the like, all of which is based on Sulpicius Severus the biographer of St. Martin, and none of which is very flattering. Severus is thought to have obtained his information for Hydacius, Priscillian`s chief accuser. This seriously biased “disinformation” has sullied Priscillian’s reputation ever since.
Next year a much awaited (by me and several of my readers) translation of the Tractates will be available in English. Up to this point if you want to know his religious viewpoints your have to be fluent in Latin or German. This new translation should encourage new interest in this deeply spiritual and charismatic man. And at least the work won’t be in the Index! Though I am not sure about the United States (hopefully only a joke but read on.)