On this Day: 23 November 1644, the publication of Milton's Areopagitica and regulation of the press

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On this day in 1644, John Milton published his ‘Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England.’ The regulation of the press was as topical a subject then as it is now.  The previous century had seen a massive expansion in the volume of printed material available.  A growing appetite for the written word – sometimes illustrated  – had been supplied by authors, printers and booksellers, often with backing  from wealthy patrons.  At the same time, literary material of all kinds – speeches, poems, plays, ballads, satires, libels – continued to circulate in manuscript form.  During the reign of James I the thirst for up-to-date information about wars in continental Europe led to the appearance of newsletters, printed and otherwise, usually sent out from London to the provinces.

Concerned about the subversive potential of the press, Tudor and Stuart monarchs had made determined efforts to control it. They enlisted the help of the bishops and of the Stationers’ Company, the London-based guild of printers and booksellers who had a vested interest in keeping the trade to themselves. These were empowered  to search out illicit works, vet material before it reached the press and issue licences to authorise the publication of what was deemed acceptable.  Offenders faced prosecution and potentially severe penalties. However, it was difficult to contain the problem, especially since popular texts were still copied by hand and passed round informally.

During the 1630s William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury and a key figure in Charles I’s government, used the court of Star Chamber in a determined attempt to counter criticism of royal policy in areas like taxation, foreign affairs and the church.  Among the most high-profile sufferers was William Prynne, sentenced to punishments including the branding of his cheeks and cropping of his ears for his alleged ‘seditious libel’ of the queen, Henrietta Maria. However, in time his mutilation, graphically depicted, itself became a topic for the press.

The advent of the Long Parliament in November 1640 offered the opportunity to lift the lid on previous repression. In the parliament’s opening months the established mechanism for censorship was largely dismantled: Star Chamber was abolished, never to be resurrected; the bishops lost their power. Prynne and others were awarded compensation.

But as divisions between crown and Parliament intensified, both sides sought to manipulate the press for propaganda purposes. Nervous of the consequences of speaking their mind freely on the floor of the House, MPs and peers renewed their vigilance against those who, without permission, published versions of speeches uttered within the Palace of Westminster. The advisability of secrecy was apparently underlined on 4 January 1642, when Charles I arrived to arrest his most vocal critics. As 1642 progressed, and the king left London first for York and then for Oxford, which he made his capital at the end of October, both he and Parliament issued printed declarations justifying their actions and undermining their opponents.

Parliament had in fact assumed the right to direct censorship months earlier. A standing committee to discuss the printing and licensing of books was operating in spring 1641.  An order in the printed Commons Journal for 5 June, itself peppered with the asterisks denoting omission of sensitive material, authorises the Stationers’ Company to ‘take the best course they can to suppress, and hinder’ uninhibited printing. On 24 November 1641 the Commons’ ‘committee for printing’ was instructed to make ‘some severe Examples of some of those Printers’ who had issued material ‘scandalous, either to any foreign State, or publick Minister, or to this State or Parliament’. On 28 March 1642 printer Robert Wood was summoned to explain his ‘diurnal’ [a prototype newspaper] for 14 to 21 March, which ‘is false and scandalous to the King's Majesty, and the Parliament; and contains in it divers seditious Passages, and of dangerous Consequence’.

On 14 June 1643 – a point when the civil war was going very badly for Parliament – it issued an ordinance regulating printing. Under this legislation, specialist licensers were nominated to work with the Stationers’ Company to inspect prospective publications on everything from law and religion to poetry and surgery. Particularly ‘obnoxious’ publications were still referred to the House. Inevitably, licensers attracted the same hostility as had their predecessors in the 1630s, especially as factions emerged in Parliament with different political and religious priorities.

One person who fell foul of those parliamentarians who were on a moral crusade was the poet and polemicist, John Milton, whose Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (he was in favour of it) was condemned in August 1644. Dismayed by what he saw as a reversal of freedoms ushered in in 1641, on 23 November Milton published 'Areopagitica, an oration addressed to Parliament pleading for ‘the liberty of unlicensed printing’.  It is a mark of the velocity with which print circulated that the collector of tracts George Thomason acquired his copy on the 24th (as he noted on the title page). It is an eloquent and learned appeal to those in power to see the light and to live it, to shun ‘fugitive and cloistered’ virtue in favour of an informed and reasoned public life, to escape tyranny and embrace truth. Yet it stopped short of advocating full toleration. Spokesmen of the Catholic church which had compiled a list [‘The Index’] of prohibited books and then burned them would have no voice. Like his more open-minded contemporaries among mid-seventeenth century MPs, who continued to debate ‘liberty’, ‘tender consciences’ and the definition of blasphemy, Milton found it difficult to extend freedom of speech to the entire range of those who disagreed with him.

Author: Vivienne Larminie