I was browsing a used book sale, and saw this title on a book spine. I knew I had to have it: Books Fatal to Their Authors. Sometimes we feel like we’re going to be done in by reading a book. But these are books that do in their authors.
In the table of contents, the first category is theology. Among the many names of theologians who lost their lives because of a book they wrote, we see some familiar names: William Tyndale, Jan Hus, Savonarola. These are folks we’ve talked about before. But there are also some new names, like William of Ockham and Abelard. Let’s talk about those two, and their fatal books.
William of Ockham was born in a little rural village named Ockham in Surry, a bit to the south and west of London. He went from one shire to the next, leaving Ockham and studying at Oxford. Then it was off to Paris. As he got into Paris, he began writing against Pope John XXII. He wrote his book, Defence of Poverty. I’ll let the author of Books Fatal to Their Authors pick up the story from there.
. . . the Defence of Poverty, which startled the whole of Christendom, by its vigorous onslaught of the vices of the Papacy, and the assumptions of Pope John. The latter ordered two bishops to examine the work, and the “Invincible Doctor” was cast into prison at Avignon. [William of Ockham was known as the Invincible Doctor.] He would certainly have been slain, had he not contrived to effect his escape, and taken refuge at the court of the German emperor, to whom he addressed the words, “Tu me defendas gladio, ego te defendam calamo.” [“Defend me with the sword, I’ll defend you with the pen.”]
There [Ockham] lived and wrote. Condemned by the Pope, disowned by his order, the Franciscans, threatened daily with sentences of heresy, deprivation, and imprisonment; but for them he cared not, and fearlessly pursued his course, becoming the acknowledged leader of the reforming tendencies of the age, and preparing the material for that blaze of light, which astonished the world in the sixteenth century.
William of Ockham’s book that went after Pope John XXII eventually became fatal to his being.
Abelard’s book, Introduction to Theology, was fatal to him. Abelard is probably more well-known for his letters to Heloise and their fabled romance than his book. As the canon of Notre-Dame in Paris, Abelard was enormously popular. But alas, he was a heretic. He denied the orthodox view of the Trinity and of the person of Christ. A council was convened, and it condemned his books and him. He was imprisoned, beaten, and then released.
He didn’t learn his lesson, because he wrote yet another book with yet more heresy. And he squared off with Bernard of Clairvaux, who was one of the few medieval figures that Martin Luther actually liked. Bernard of Clairvaux showed up Abelard. Abelard was arrested again and exiled to a monastery at Cluny, where he lived out his life. When he was buried, his remains were placed next to those of his beloved Heloise.
It’s not only authors that have difficulties with books. Books Fatal to Their Authors identifies printers and booksellers and publishers who were done in by books. This book specifically mentions two publishers who printed the Biblia sacra cum interpretationibus et postillis: Sacred Bible, with Interpretations and Annotations. It was a massive work of nine hundred pages written in 1340. The pope ordered two printers in the sixteenth century to print it, and it bankrupted them. When all was said and done, they were left with 1,100 ponderous tomes on their shelf, and no money. Sometimes books are fatal to their authors—and sometimes to their printers.