Books Fatal to Their Authors (1895)

At the very end of P.H. Ditchfield’s 1895 compendium Books Fatal to Their Authors, the priest, historian, and prolific author argues that a just society would create a refuge specifically for aging writers — a place where they can live in peace, enjoying the same repose as a retired racehorse deserves. The existence of such a sanctuary would signal gratitude for a lifetime of cerebral labor, and protect those “maimed and wounded warriors” who have suffered “in the service of Literature”.

If you’re not convinced, skim your way through Books Fatal to Their Authors and see if your mind is changed. Writers have been punished with more variety, more frequency, and more severity than you might expect. Ditchfield catalogues hundreds of authors who were banished from their homeland, languished in prisons and castles and monasteries, and spent decades on the run. Their right hands were cut off and their children executed; fines were levied and reputations destroyed. In one case, a gang of hit men found a fugitive satirist, Trajan Boccalini, resting on a couch in Venice and beat him to death with sandbags. In another, the writer was presented with a choice: either be beheaded or eat his book. Theodore Reinking wisely chose the latter, which he accomplished by somehow “converting [the book] into a sauce.”

The most common writerly punishment was to be burned at the stake. This practice extended at least four centuries, and Books Fatal to Their Authors provides dozens of examples. There was Lucilio Vanini, a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher who advocated atheism and changed his name to Julius Caesar — burned alive; Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance scholar who, among other heresies, suggested that the Bible was perhaps a work of dream interpretation — burned alive; Francois de Stabili, an Italian poet who used poor judgement in reading the horoscope of the Duke of Calabria’s wife — burned alive; and Savonarola, a beloved fifteenth-century Florentine preacher and revolutionary — strangled, then burned. The religious iconoclast Simon Morin was burned alive at the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral while his followers were branded and enslaved. Jacopo Bonfadio was comparably lucky — his friends negotiated down the punishment, such that the philosopher was kindly beheaded, and then burned. The chemist Joseph Francis Borri fled Rome just in time, so that he was only burned in effigy, an experience that psychically transmitted a great chill: “Borri declared that he never felt so cold, [as] when he knew that he was being burned by proxy.”

While the fires were stoked, the writer was often strangled or whipped, and sometimes dressed in special clothes. Usually, the offending books were burned at the same time. When it was over, the ashes were thrown into a river, so that they didn’t become treasured relics, though at least once, an author’s ashes were shot from a cannon, as was the fate of poor Cazimir Liszinski.

What heinous things did these writers write? Occasionally the crime is as clear as day. Authors who criticized the spending of the Church, mocked the manners of the French Court, or suggested assassinating a tyrant king must have expected blowback. Same goes for the printers who messed with the Bible. The printer who surreptitiously removed the Seventh Commandment — “Thou shalt not commit adultery” — was heavily fined; another printer, a woman, tweaked Genesis’ “He shall be thy lord” to “He shall be thy fool” and was sentenced to death.

But in most of Ditchfield’s anecdotes, the insult is not particularly intelligible, and his glosses barely help. Taking offense is culturally specific, and needs to be explained with some weedy detail. Ditchfield offers only tiny vignettes, shorn of context. What is clear, however, is that punishment does not correlate to a book’s popularity, or its truthfulness, or the quality of its scholarship. An author’s madness is rarely taken into account when offense is perceived, and neither is haplessness. It’s upsetting how many writers seem to have become fatalities entirely by accident.

The unluckiest of Ditchfield’s unlucky subjects is the poet Pierre Petit. A gust of wind blew a few unpublished poems from Petit’s table to the street below, where they were immediately snatched up by a passing priest. The priest scanned the drafts and demanded the poet dead. It was done. The story puts the lie to Ditchfield’s title: tyrants, not books, kill authors.