Book burning, sad to say, was for centuries a habit of those in authority throughout the western world — not least here in Oxford.

Way back in 1225 Pope Honorius III ordered all surviving copies of books by the ninth century Irish philosopher Eriugena — whom Oxford University, implausibly enough, had long claimed to be its founder — be sent to Rome for burning.

And more famously, Thomas Hobbes’ books, including Leviathan, were burned in the quadrangle of the Bodleian in 1683.

In 1660, too, the University authorities ordered John Milton’s books to be burned publicly in the Bodleian quad.

Historian Anthony Wood was present at the 1660 fires. He described how books “were publicly burned by the hand of of our Marshall in the court of our schools,” adding: “scholars of all degrees and qualities in the meantime surrounding the fire gave several hums whilst they were burning.”

The university authorities in ordering the 1660 fires were following a command from the king. The Proclamation of King Charles II condemned Milton’s Eikonoklastes and his Pro Populo anglicano Defensio to the fires on the grounds that both works defended the execution of Charles I.

Certainly Milton’s books were on the list of those to be destroyed in both fires; but equally certain, to his eternal credit, is the fact that the Bodleian librarian John Rouse hid at least some of Milton’s books from the censors. In London, though, his books were burned by the public hangman.

In the case of Thomas Hobbes, a Royalist who fled the Civil War to Paris in 1640, the University authorities took exception to his notion that the power of a ruler came from a contract with those ruled, and not from God. He, therefore, denied the Divine Right of Kings and asserted that a sovereign was necessary to maintain order (if human life was not to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”), but he suggested that if a sovereign failed to protect his people they could always throw him out.

And — worst of all — he maintained this view at a time when the question of the succession of the Crown was raging throughout the land. So his works went up in flames in 1683, four years after he himself had died at the age of 91. Milton wrote: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are: nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” At least by the 17th century it was only the books that were burned and not the so-called heretics themselves. That was an improvement on the 16th century when lollards such as Sir John Oldcastle were burned at the stake. Lollards were followers of the Oxford academic John Wycliffe who, back in the 14th century, had translated the Bible into English — which duly became a best seller. Whether copies of that Bible were ever burned I have been unable to discover, but amazingly 160 of them survive. In the early days of book burning, the idea was to destroy unacceptable ideas forever as much as to insult their perpetrators. As for Eriugena, a statue of whom exists in Brasenose College, a book by him turned up in the Bodleian centuries after the Pope ordered its destruction by fire.