History of Book Censorship By Frederick William Hamilton 1918
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TO the mind of the fifteenth or sixteenth century man the protection of church and state and of the public was a very much more important matter than the protection of the printer or the author, and it was seen that the printing press might easily distill a venom which would poison the minds of men and threaten the health of institutions. Measures to prevent this occurrence went hand in hand with the granting of privileges. It was only natural that they should do so as they might well be regarded as conditions upon which the privilege should be granted, or, as the idea developed, upon which the trade should be exercised. France early decreed that every piece of printing put out in the kingdom must be certified as "containing nothing contrary to faith, good manners, public peace, and the royal authority." Theoretically, nothing could be more admirable. Doubtless many of us today would like to be assured that all printed matter should meet these requirements. It is obvious, however, that such regulations were liable to work very badly in practice. What constitutes faith, good manners, public peace, and the royal authority? These are, to a considerable extent, matters of opinion. It may happen that the royal authority becomes tyranny and ought to be opposed rather than supported. In the hands of the narrow-minded, ignorant, and unscrupulous, censorship laws may easily open the way to intolerable abuses. As a matter of fact, they have only too often done so, and it is for that reason that we in the United States today insist upon freedom of the press.
Possible injury to the faith was very early perceived by the church. As guardian of the faith and morals of the people, the church felt constrained to see that nothing with heretical or immoral tendencies should be placed in the hands of the faithful. Just as Venice led the way in laws relating to privilege, so she was prominent in the matter of censoring books. Usually the body which issued licenses had charge of the censorship as well. It might not distrust the ecclesiastical examination and censoring of the books, but it made the censorship effective by its refusal of privilege. Later, as we shall see, when this procedure did not prove entirely effective other methods were taken to punish the printers and the authors of books which were deemed injurious. The first book which appeared with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities was printed in 1480. This approval at first had nothing to do with the privilege to print, but was rather a commendation to the attention of the faithful.
In 1487, however, the Pope (Innocent VIII) issued a bull against objectionable books. This bull was addressed to the States of the Church, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, England, and Scotland. As a result, probably, of this bull, Venice enacted a requirement in 1508 that the approval of the Church should precede the granting of any privilege to print. In 1515 the Lateran Council established the principle of strict censorship. The religious troubles of the sixteenth century had much to do with the application of this principle. In the Protestant countries it was applied much less vigorously than in the Catholic countries. It must not be understood, however, that the Protestants had any broader or more intelligent views on the subject of censorship than the Catholics had. They were just as ready to recognize the principle of censorship and apply it, but the occasions for applying it were, or seemed to be, less frequent. Venice, although always a Catholic country, was careful to keep herself as independent of Rome as possible. The Venetians consequently kept the reins in their own hands with regard to the censorship of books as well as in other matters, although they co-operated with the church authorities and offered no hindrances to the work of the Inquisition.
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In 1503 Venice extended the scope of censorship to cover the literary quality of books and translations, the political effect of books, and their effect upon morals. The political and moral censorship appears to have been less effective than the religious and literary. In 1547 the Inquisition took charge of the censorship of books and the punishment of those who offended against the press laws, and continued to exercise those functions- until 1730. It is interesting to note that the greatest activity of the Inquisition was in the first half century of its work, a period when religion was still the subject of bitter controversy and bloody warfare. The Inquisition took cognizance of 132 cases between 1547 and 1600. Between 1600 and 1700, however, it only dealt with 55, while from 1700 to 1730 it dealt with only four.
In 1571 Pope Pius V started the Index Expurgatorius. This Index was and is a list wherein are registered books and other publications which are condemned by the Commission in charge of it, called the Congregation of the Index, as being immoral and unsound either in religion or politics. By this means the church undertakes to protect its members from the reading of books calculated to injure their morals or to unsettle their faith.
Lines of legislation in Venice regarding censorship ran in certain very definite directions, namely: the legalizing of custom and precedent, protection of the industry against foreign competition and preservation of the excellence of the nation's press, protection of the buyer of books against poor workmanship and excessive charges (protection of the author's right has already been discussed), and the development of a Bureau to administer the press laws and regulate the industry. In 1549 the book trade was organized by the creation with definite legal recognition of the Guild of Printers and Booksellers. It was believed that the trade could be dealt with better and could do its own work better if it were organized.
The purpose of the guild was three-fold:
1. To protect trade interests—the purpose of trade organizations at all times.
2. To assist the state and church in watching the output of the press.
3. To suppress pernicious books.
As the years went by the tendency was for the state censorship to relax and for the church censorship to become more severe. In time the censorship became very harrassing and very troublesome. In 1671, although the Inquisition had ceased to be very active in dealing with the enforcement of press censorship laws, the requirements preliminary to printing a book were so severe that one wonders that printing existed at all.
If a man wanted to print a book in Venice at that time he had to secure the following:
1. A testamur (a sort of approval) from the Inquisition.
2. A testamur from the Ducal Secretary.
3. A certificate from the University of Padua.
4. Permission to print from the Council of Ten.
5. Revision of his work by the superintendent of the press.
6. Revision of his proofs by the public proof reader.
7. Collation of the original text with the printed text by the representative of the University.
8. A certificate by the Librarian of Saint Marks that a copy of the book had been deposited in the Library.
9. Examination by government experts to fix the price.
Almost every one of these processes had to be paid for. Italy outside Venice was strongly influenced by Rome and the press was comparatively strictly controlled by the influence of the church.
In Germany, on the contrary, the censorship was probably the least severe of any on the Continent. As already noted, there was substantially no printing of original work in Germany until 1500 and consequently no special need of censorship. Shortly afterward Germany was rent in twain by religious dissensions. It must be remembered that the Reformation, being very largely a political movement, the difference between Catholics and Protestants followed geographical lines for the most part. There were comparatively few Protestants in Catholic countries or Catholics in Protestant countries. The Protestants siezed upon the printing press as a method of propaganda. They consequently advocated its freedom and encouraged its use. The Catholics at first attempted to defend themselves from this attack by the suppression of printing and the destruction of imported books. After a little time, however, with greater wisdom, they themselves made use of the printing press for a counter propaganda. Those who were disturbed by the censorship in a country in either camp could and did move to one in the other. In this way unless a man had religious opinions which were unacceptable anywhere or wished to publish books which were seditious or immoral it would be entirely easy for him to find a place where he could be undisturbed and probably encouraged.
The early assertion of government control in France has already been described. Francis I, although a good friend of printing, was a loyal son of the church, and all the more so because of his unfriendly relations with Henry VIII of England who, for much of his life, was not on good terms with the church. Francis, therefore, issued edicts in 1521 enforcing the censorship which was called for by the decree of the Lateran Council already referred to.
This censorship was exercised by a considerable number of persons. This was always a defect in the French press laws and was the cause of a great deal of difficulty and hardship. At first censorship was exercised by the bishops, by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris, by the Parliament of Paris, by the Royal Chancellor, by the Director-General of the Book Trade, and by the Lieutenant of Police. Tendencies to consolidation, however, soon manifested themselves. The first important step was the centering of church censorship in the hands of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris to the exclusion of the bishops generally.
The tendency to centralize was naturally accompanied by a tendency to tighten the censorship of the civil authorities, a tendency quite opposite to that which we observed in Venice. In 1624 a Censor-Royal was appointed to whom everybody, even the bishops themselves, was obliged to submit his writing. The numerous civil authorities having charge of censorship caused confusion for a time, but gradually their powers were concentrated in the hands of the Director-General of the Book Trade.
The laws were administered by inspectors of book-selling and enforced by the police and the civil courts. The laws were very severe. They applied primarily to the printer and bookseller, probably because he was an easier person to get at than the author and much more likely to be financially responsible. The printer was obliged to make public the name of the author and printer, the place of manufacture, and the place of sale of every book which he printed. A printer might be prosecuted if an authorized book turned out to be objectionable. This was a particularly unjust law because the printer was obliged to take the chance that, after the book had been duly censored and approved by authority, some censor, perhaps not the one who had originally approved it, might find something in it which he considered objectionable.
The penalties for infraction of the press laws were very severe. They consisted of the burning of books, confiscation of books, fines, flogging, imprisonment, banishment, and even burning alive. From 1660 to 1756, 869 authors, printers, and booksellers were sent to the Bastille. At least one-third of these were printers.
The press laws in France were more severe than almost anywhere else in Europe. In practical operation they favored foreign printers at the expense of the French. Naturally the result of all of this regulation was that Frenchmen did not print, and the market was supplied from abroad. If the laws had been strictly enforced printing would apparently have been driven out of France. There were, however, certain mitigations. In the first place certain things were exempt from the operations of the press laws, such as legal documents, police papers, documents bearing the signatures of advocates, and small publications of two leaves or less for the spread of news or for other purposes. This particular exemption was always the cause of a good deal of question and a good deal of abuse. Again, these laws were largely held in reserve, that is to say, they made possible the punishment of offending printers, but in many cases the offender was not proceeded against unless someone complained. Again, the judges used large discretion in dealing with cases of infraction of the press laws. In many cases licenses were issued in a very informal way, so that official responsibility was not involved; and sometimes a clandestine permission was given, the printer being assured that although his book could not be approved no action would be taken against him if he published it. False statements as to place of printing were used as a means of avoiding responsibility, sometimes apparently with the connivance of the authorities. The personal influence of the Chancellor was very great in these cases, and it was entirely possible for him to protect authors or writers if he chose to do so.
By the eighteenth century the condition had become practically intolerable. There was a great mass of laws on the statute books. Legislation was confused and contradictory and of the most drastic sort. The enforcement was sporadic and irregular, depending upon a great many personal and local considerations. There was no underlying principle to control either the making or enforcement of the laws. All this, like so much else that belonged to the life of the old days, was swept away by the French Revolution. All the laws regarding privilege, censorship, and the like were annulled in a mass. The press was given absolute freedom and left without any control whatever. Of course, it abused this freedom and the condition of things for a while was extremely bad. It finally readjusted itself, however, and gradually settled down into the condition which is familiar today.
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