Word of Art: Biblioclasm

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They’re coming for your books.


Biblioclasm is the practice of destroying books, and you get bonus points if you bring a bible to the party. The main idea was to destroy knowledge, art, and erase histories. You can't pass on to the next generation what you don't have. We know fire won’t work anymore. You can’t burn the internet. Unless you call burning down the Google office an act of biblioclasm. (Editor's note: Sartle does not condone arson in any way, shape, or form. Please don't sue us, Google.)

Here are some artworks on the subject: 

The Fire of Alexandria by Hermann Göll

Back in the day, books were very rare. Due to enormously high illiteracy rates, more than half of the planet wouldn’t have been able to read them, anyway. (For context, today's global illiteracy rate is only 14%.) When the Library of Alexandria burned down, an enormous bank of ideas was lost to humanity forever. The destruction of the Library wasn’t intentional, but the result of a fire Ceasar couldn’t control.

Saint Paul at Ephesus by Gustave Dore

St. Paul was out to get the pagans. His followers (read cronies) were relentless. They had to burn everything that may poke a hole in Jesus’ backstory. Christ’s disciples really took him seriously when he asked them to spread the word, and they got a little aggressive with their sales tactics when they noticed that people weren’t listening.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1520, Martin Luther, a famous biblioclast, decided to burn a papal bull in defiance of Pope Leo X, a Medici. They were supposed to be on the same side, but Luther got the majority vote. I guess you’ve got to burn a bible to get a new one.


300 years later, in Wartburg, German students gathered in large numbers to commemorate the reformation movement. It was called the Wartburg Festival. They were all followers of Martin Luther and, in his memory, they burned books that slung mud at his name. They also weren’t big fans of Napoleon, so they burned books about him, too. Honestly, these book-burning parties looked like a lot of fun. Chilling, talking about revolution, burning books, what’s not to love? 


Well, I'll tell you: our next act of biblioclasm happens in - wait for it - Nazi Germany. You knew it had to be them, right? Nothing says abuse of power like Hitler, and his penchant for biblioclasm went hand in hand with the rest of the censorship and oppression he held so dear. The Nazis were stifling any voices that were in rebellion against Hitler. Look at their smug faces. If Hitler wanted those books gone, I want to read them. Punch a Nazi, get a book?

The Communist Party of China also took to destroying books. Ironically, they were doing so during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Artist Cai Guo-Qiang remembers growing up around that time. American books were most certainly burned. Cai was probably holding back tears as he saw his copy of "The Death of a Salesman" turn to ash.

So, if you’re ever invited to a book-burning party, keep the history of biblioclasm in mind before you RSVP.



  1. “Biblioclasm.” Wiktionary. Accessed October 1, 2019.
  2. Chesser, Preston. “The Burning of the Library of Alexandria.” eHISTORY. Accessed October 1, 2019.
  3. “Threat of Banishment and Burning the Papal Bull of Excommunication (1520-1521).” M. Luther's Life: Excommunication. Accessed October 1, 2019.
  4. Press, Steven Michael. “False Fire: The Wartburg Book-Burning of 1817.” Central European History 42, no. 4 (2009): 621–46. doi:10.1017/S0008938909991014.
  5. Deutsche Welle. “Cultural Incineration: 80 Years since Nazi Book Burnings: DW: 16.05.2013.” DW.COM. Accessed October 1, 2019.
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