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History of Licensing

Though Milton himself declared that the requirement for book licensing was an invention of the "Council of Trent, and the Spanish Inquisition engendring together," and denounced the licensing order of 1643 as "the immediate image of a Star-chamber decree," and otherwise attempts to give the impression that licensing is thoroughly un-English, something imported by the bishops in 1637 (the date of the Star Chamber decree), this is not entirely true. Though the enforcement of licensing in England had been uneven at best, and there had been long periods during which the policy of licensing was not enforced at all, the policy was far from new. In 1408 Archbishop Arundel's Constitutions (confirmed by Parliament in 1414) order that "no book . . . be from henceforth read . . . within our province of Canterbury aforesaid, except the same be first examined by the University of Oxford or Cambridge . . . and . . . expressly approved and allowed by us or our successors, and in the name and authority of the university . . . delivered unto the stationers to be copied out."

Henry VIII in 1530 forbade the printing of "any book or books in English tongue, concerning holy scripture, not before this time printed within this his realm, until such time as the same book or books be examined and approved by the ordinary of the diocese." He also required approved books to carry "the name of the Examiner" as well as that of the printer. In 1538, Henry extended licensing to books of all kinds, transferred the licensing authority from the church offices to the Privy Council, and prescribed the form of the imprimatur. Later monarchs such as Edward (in 1551), Mary (in 1553 and 1558), and Elizabeth (1559, 1566, 1586) issued decrees which continued this system. King James confirmed this system in 1611 and 1613, and during the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber issued its now-infamous decree on July 11, 1637. This decree made it a general offense to print, import, or sell "any seditious, scismaticall, or offensive Bookes or Pamphlets." It also forbade forbade anything to be printed which had not first been licensed and entered in the Stationers' Register. Nothing could be reprinted without being re-licensed. In all cases the full signed imprimatur was to be printed; the names of the printer and the author were to be printed as well. The decree also limited the number of master printers to twenty, while specifying the number of presses, journeymen, and apprentices each could have. The decree made it an offense to work for an unlicensed printer, or to operate an unlicensed press.

The Star Chamber was abolished on July 5, 1641. This left the press virtually free from regulation. On January 29, 1642, the House of Commons ordered that printers should neither print nor reprint anything without the name and consent of the author. This order, sometimes referred to as the Signature Order, is taken by Milton in Areopagitica as Parliament's original policy concerning licensing of the press. The Parliamentary licensing order of June 14, 1643, is therefore taken by Milton as a reversal of this "original" position.

This order was designed for "suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and government." It ordered that "no Order or Declaration of both, or either House of Parliament shall be printed by any, but by order of one or both the said houses: nor other Book, Pamphlet, paper, nor part of any such Book, Pamphlet, or paper, shall from henceforth be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale by any person or persons whatsoever, unless the same be first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person or persons as both, or either of the said Houses shall appoint for the licensing of the same."

Milton's attack on the Licensing Order had no effect on Parliament's policy; in fact, Parliament re-asserted its position in separate Orders on September 30, 1647, March 13, 1648, and September 20, 1649. Milton himself served as licenser of Mercurius Politicus in 1651. For a brief period of 15 months, between 1651 and 1653, the Commonwealth government experimented with an unlicensed press; however, the Rump Parliament revived licensing in an order of January 7, 1653.

Milton's Response to the Licensing Order of June 14, 1643--Areopagitica


  1. It can’t be expected that no disputes will ever arise in a commonwealth. The best thing is for complaints to be "freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed." That is "the utmost bound of civil liberty . . . that wise men look for."
  2. "He who freely magnifies what hath been nobly done and fears not to declare as freely what might be done better, gives ye the best covenant of his fidelity."
  3. Private, learned, individuals have been respectfully heard by governments before: Isocrates wrote to persuade Athens to change its current form of government.
  4. The Parliament of England will only make itself seem all the wiser by respectfully hearing Milton’s argument.
  5. " . . . by judging over again that Order which ye have ordained to regulate Printing: that no book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth printed unless the same be first approved and licensed by such, or at least one of such as shall be thereto appointed."
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The Four Major Arguments

  1. Who are the inventors of licensing? The Catholic church.
  2. What is to be thought of reading? It is a necessary acquisition of knowledge of good and evil in a fallen world.
  3. This Order is ineffectual in suppressing "scandalous, seditious, and libelous books."
  4. This Order will discourage learning and the pursuit of truth.

Argument #1

  1. In Athens, only two types of writings were suppressed by the civil powers: blasphemous/atheistic writings and libelous writings.
    1. Protagoras was banished and his books were burned "for a discourse . . . confessing not to know whether there were gods, or whether there were not."
    2. " . . . against defaming, it was decreed that none should be traduced by name, as was the manner of Vetus Comedia" [Old Comedy—Aristophanes, et. al.—this law endured only from 440-39 to 438-37, and Aristophanes was famous for "traducing" by name; he was especially fond of "traducing" fellow-playwright Euripides and the politician Cleon by name].
  1. The same holds true for Rome (before its descent into tyranny).
    1. Naso (Ovid) was banished by Augustus not for indecent poems but for an intrigue with Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia.
    2. "Naevius was quickly cast into prison for his unbridled pen" because he had attacked Scipio and the aristocratic party in his plays.
  1. Even the earliest Christian emperors did not depart from this relatively tolerant position.
    1. Books of those accused of heresy were not prohibited until and unless those accused were "examined, refuted, and condemned in the general councils."
    2. Books by "heathen authors" were not forbidden in any way until 400 AD, when bishops were restricted from reading heathen writers (though they might still read—for the purpose of later refuting—heretical works).
    3. Early councils and bishops only declared certain books "not commendable" rather than forbidden until 800 AD. After this the Popes began prohibiting certain works. Martin V (1417-1431) issued a bull in 1418 calling for the excommunication of any who read heretical works. Indexes of forbidden works followed. Paul IV issued the first in 1559.
  1. The Catholic church is the inventor of the licensing of printing: "their last invention was to ordain that no book, pamphlet, or paper should be printed . . . unless it were approved and licensed . . . thus ye have the inventors and the original of book-licensing . . . from the most antichristian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired."

Argument #2

  1. Moses, Daniel, and Paul were skillful in all the learning of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, respectively. This can only have been through prodigious reading.
  2. Julian the Apostate (emperor from 361-363) forbade Christians the reading of heathen writers. (Seems a weak point, but the contention is that if an apostate forbids reading classical literature, then it must be good for faithful Christians to read.)
  3. Dinoysius Alexandrinus—a pious and learned early Christian—read heretical books in order to be able to refute the arguments therein. When challenged by "a certain presbyter," he was in a quandary until he received a vision: "Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art suficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter."
  4. Bad books may serve a "discreet and judicious reader" to "discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate."
  5. Solomon writes that much reading is "a weariness to the flesh," but it is not therefore unlawful.
  6. The burning of books at Acts 19:19 was a voluntary act—not mandated by any magistrate.
  7. Good and evil are almost inseparable in this world—in this world, how can one have wisdom to choose good without "the knowledge of evil"? "Since, therefore, the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely and with less danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read."
  8. Controversial books (of religion) are more a danger to the learned than to the ignorant: "It will be hard to instance where any ignorant man hath been ever seduced by papistical book in English, unless it were commended and expounded to him by some of that clergy."
  9. Licensing is a vain and impossible attempt, like "the exploit of a gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate."

Argument #3

  1. No well-constituted nation or state ever used "this way of licensing."
  2. Plato, in his Laws, spells out such a system, but for an imaginary state. Plato—in reality—was a transgressor of his own (imagined) laws: a writer of dialogues and a reader of Aristophanes (whom he supposedly recommended to Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse [367-356 BC]).
  3. If printing must be regulated, so must all other trades and arts.
  4. Who shall decide? Who shall set the absolute standards?
  5. It is no good "to sequester out of the world into Atlantic [Francis Bacon] and Utopian [Thomas More] polities," rather, we must "ordain wisely as in this world of evil, in the midst whereof God hath placed us unavoidably."
  6. The "great art" of a commonwealth lies in knowing what to restrain and forbid, and what to leave to private conscience. Punishment and persuasion must be correctly balanced.
  7. God gave man reason and freedom to choose. Otherwise, Adam would have been "a mere artificial Adam." God created passions within us so that we need to temper them in and through virtue (tempering the passions is virtue). By removing the causes/objects of sin, we remove the opportunities for the acquisition, generation, and practice of virtue: "how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue."

Argument #4

  1. To distrust the honesty and judgment of a "free and knowing spirit" to the point of not counting him "fit to print his mind without a tutor and examiner" is a great indignity.
  2. If no years of experience, learning, and industry can bring a man "to that state of maturity as not to be still mistrusted and suspected . . . [it is] a dishonor and derogation to the author, to the book, to the privilege and dignity of learning."
  3. How can a man teach with authority if all he teaches is under the authority of a licenser?
  4. Francis Bacon: "Authorized books are but the language of the times." Even if a licenser is especially judicious and perceptive, the function of his office requires that he license nothing "but what is vulgarly received already."
  5. This distrust is an "undervaluing and vilifying of the whole nation."
    1. It is a reproach to the people: "if . . . we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet, what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people . . . ?"
    2. It is a reproach to ministers: "That after all this light of the Gospel . . . they should still be frequented with such an unedified, and laic rabble . . . "
  1. Description of meeting Galileo: "a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought."
  2. The complaints of the learned against the Inquisition are now being made by the learned against the Parliament’s order of licensing.
  3. The general murmur: if we are so suspicious of men "as to fear each book . . . before we know what the contents are," then we are facing "a second tyranny over learning." This will soon show that the current presbyters (who had only recently been silenced by the then-dominant Anglican hierarchy) are just the same ("name and thing") as the old bishops. Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.
  4. When the bishops were being fought against, freedom of publishing was a good thing (according to the presbyters), but now that the bishops have been defeated, suddenly publishing must be licensed. How convenient.


  1. England is the new chosen nation of God.
    1. "Why else was this nation chosen before any other, that out of her as out of Sion should be proclaimed and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of reformation to all Europe?"
    2. "God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in his Church, even to the reforming of reformation itself. What does he then but reveal himself to his servants, and, as his maner is, first to his Englishmen?"
  1. England is an earthly type of the City of God.
    1. "Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection."
  1. The English people are potentially a "nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies." Only "wise and faithful laborers" are needed to actualize this potential.
  2. "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."
  3. Analogy to the building of the temple in Solomon’s day: "when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world."
  4. The strength of the church lies in the unity of diverse (but not too diverse) elements: "the perfection consists in this, that out of many moderate varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportional, arises the goodly and graceful symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure."
  5. The "time seems come . . . when . . . all the Lord’s people, are become prophets."
  6. The carrying on of these intellectual disputes even during a time of civil war, when the forces of Charles I threaten, is a sign of faith in the good government of Parliament. (Thus commences the kiss-Parliament’s-ass section.)
  7. The people became free to write and speak because of the liberty that the "valorous and happy counsels [of Parliament] have purchased." The people cannot grow less learned and less inclined to write and speak unless Parliament revert to tyrannous ways, "as they were from whom ye have freed us.’
  8. Let Truth and Falsehood grapple in the open. Truth will win.
  9. Doctrine of (limited) tolerance: "if all cannot be of one mind—as who looks they should be?--this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated rather than all compelled."
  10. This "many" does not include Catholics (or non-Christians): I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . but those neighboring differences, or rather indifferences, are what I speak of, whether in some point of doctrine or of discipline."
  11. If the men who appear to be schismatics are indeed wrong, why not debate them openly? If they are not wrong, and are doing the work of God (the "Gamaliel" argument), "no less than woe to us while, thinking thus to defend the Gospel, we are found the persecutors."
  12. If nothing else will work, "it would be no unequal distribution . . . to supress the supressors themselves."
  13. To set right the wrong that has been done is the highest and wisest thing that Parliament can do.

The Atheist Milton

Michael Bryson
(Ashgate  Press, 2012)

Basing his contention on two different lines of argument, Michael Bryson posits that John Milton–possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary history–was, in fact, an atheist.

First, based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of creation (which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with the human body, Bryson argues that Milton was an atheist by the commonly used definitions of the period. And second, as the poet who takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in Paradise Lost, to the internal-almost Gnostic-conception of God in Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson Agonistes, Milton moves from a theist (with God) to something much more recognizable as a modern atheist position (without God) in his poetry.

Among the author's goals in The Atheist Milton is to account for tensions over the idea of God which, in Bryson's view, go all the way back to Milton's earliest poetry. In this study, he argues such tensions are central to Milton's poetry–and to any attempt to understand that poetry on its own terms.


The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Review of Tyranny of Heaven