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
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,
The Four Major
- 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."
- "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
- Private, learned, individuals have been
respectfully heard by governments before: Isocrates
wrote to persuade Athens to change its current form of
- The Parliament of England will only make
itself seem all the wiser by respectfully hearing
- " . . . 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."
- Who are the inventors of licensing?
The Catholic church.
- What is to be thought of reading? It is a necessary
acquisition of knowledge of good and evil in a fallen world.
- This Order is ineffectual in suppressing
"scandalous, seditious, and libelous books."
- This Order will discourage learning and the pursuit
- In Athens, only two types of writings
were suppressed by the civil powers: blasphemous/atheistic
writings and libelous writings.
- Protagoras was banished and his books were burned
"for a discourse . . . confessing not to know whether there
were gods, or whether there were not."
- " . . . 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
- The same holds true for Rome (before its descent
- Naso (Ovid) was banished by Augustus not for
indecent poems but for an intrigue with Augustus’
- "Naevius was quickly cast into prison for his
unbridled pen" because he had attacked Scipio and the
aristocratic party in his plays.
- Even the earliest Christian emperors did not depart
from this relatively tolerant position.
- Books of those accused of heresy were not
prohibited until and unless those accused were "examined,
refuted, and condemned in the general councils."
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- Moses, Daniel, and Paul were skillful in all the
learning of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Greeks,
respectively. This can only have been through prodigious
- 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.)
- 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."
- Bad books may serve a "discreet and judicious
reader" to "discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to
- Solomon writes that much reading is "a weariness to
the flesh," but it is not therefore unlawful.
- The burning of books at Acts 19:19 was a voluntary
act—not mandated by any magistrate.
- 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
- 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."
- 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."
- No well-constituted nation or state ever used "this
way of licensing."
- 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]).
- If printing must be regulated, so must all other
trades and arts.
- Who shall decide? Who shall set the absolute
- 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."
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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."
- How can a man teach with authority if all he teaches
is under the authority of a licenser?
- 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
- This distrust is an "undervaluing and vilifying of
the whole nation."
- 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 . .
- 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 . . . "
- Description of meeting Galileo: "a prisoner to the
Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the
Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought."
- The complaints of the learned against the
Inquisition are now being made by the learned against the
Parliament’s order of licensing.
- 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.
- 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.
- England is the new chosen nation of God.
- "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?"
- "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?"
- England is an earthly type of the City of God.
- "Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the
mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with
To set right the wrong that has been
done is the highest and wisest thing that Parliament can do.
- 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.
- "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."
- 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
- 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."
- The "time seems come . . . when . . . all the Lord’s
people, are become prophets."
- 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
- 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
- Let Truth and Falsehood grapple in the open. Truth
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- If nothing else will work, "it would be no unequal
distribution . . . to supress the supressors themselves."
The Atheist Milton
(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
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
(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