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  • Den Irrtum liquidieren: Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter
  • Robert E. Lerner
Den Irrtum liquidieren: Bücherverbrennungen im Mittelalter. By Thomas Werner. [Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte, Band 225.] (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2007. Pp. 813. €118,00. ISBN 978-3-525-35880-1.)

“What a day, what a day for an auto da fé.” The macabre lyrics to a song from Bernstein’s Candide typify a widespread impression that an “auto da fé” was a public ceremony of burning at the stake. (“What a day, what a treat, did you save me a seat?”) But one of the several arguments of the tome under review is that incriminated books were burned at such ceremonies but not people. Thus Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (c. 1296–1306) was burned as part of the ceremony of her condemnation in what Henry Charles Lea accurately called “the first formal auto de fé of which we have cognizance at Paris,”1 but the author herself was given to the flames by a secular officer on the following day. The Church burned books but “recommended mercy” for their authors.

I refer to Werner’s “tome” advisedly. To offer one measure of its Brobdignagian extent, it includes 2,828 footnotes. In mentioning this I do not mean to be disparaging, for Werner is a veritably awe-inspiring scholar. His concept of studying the rituals of medieval book-burnings (with “books” here broadly understood) and probing the logic that lay behind them is fully original, and his pursuit of this concept is studded with fascinating information. Werner is also enormously thorough and unblinkingly critical; over and over again he demonstrates how previous historians of heresy trials have misread evidence because they were not alert to the right questions. Finally, he offers a large (sic) bonus: a meticulously documented hundred-page appendix cataloguing every ascertainable book-burning (or so it seems) from 492 to 1515. Students of instances of attempted medieval thought control are certain to find new data or corrections of what presumed experts have previously said; if such students cannot read German, they ought to seek help.

Here it is possible to mention only a sample of Werner’s many findings. Even if an otherwise orthodox writing contained a single error, it was still [End Page 607] meant to be burned because one part spoils the whole. If a condemned heretic recanted, his lot was to throw his incriminated writings into the flames with his own hands as part of a public shaming. If errors were expressed from the pulpit without their having been written down, it was still appropriate to have the reported error list publicly burned. Unrepentant heretics were never burned with their books even if some surviving contemporary images give that impression. (Unfortunately the cover illustration, perhaps chosen by the publisher for its luridness, displays one of these misleading images.)

Werner’s all-inclusiveness extends to coverage of visual imagery, apparently as exhaustive as that of his written records, and equally full of fresh insights. The author often seems to be saying, “let’s look again”: for example, in Berruguete’s frequently reproduced painting of St. Dominic’s miracle of the leaping book, it has never been noticed that two events are displayed in the same image—a miracle and an energetic book-burning. A twenty-five-page excursus considers “burnings of the vanities,” largely to see whether books were among such vanities. One is surprised ever to catch Werner off guard, but it does happen. He gives a mistaken date for the opening of the Parisian trial of Marguerite Porete; he ignores the presence of a dreamer in Harley MS 3487 (which was probably not made in Oxford, but Paris); and he is unaware of evidence that Olivi’s exhumed remains very likely were taken to Avignon and secretly thrown into the Rhône. But I probably should apologize for this desperate attempt at one-upmanship given that I have been working assiduously in much of Werner’s area for forty years and this is all I have to correct.

Robert E. Lerner
Northwestern University


1. Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition...


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