Monthly Archives: April 2010

Censorship as language

Sorry for the delay.  I recently finished a little foray into a series of censorship events (let’s just go with that for a term) in 1645-6.  I will try to sum up.

To set the scene, parliament, the Scots, and the king are trying to come to some kind of peace.  Unfortunately, everybody wants something different, and all are keen to justify their behavior and demands to the larger public.  In a series of pamphlets, the Scots Commissioners tried to make their case.  For the most part, these pamphlets were made up of the Scots Commissioners’ own papers.  Parliament responded by making gestures through censorship. When it finally succeeded in censoring an entire Scot pamphlet, it appeased the Commissioners by making another gesture.

Parliament had a difficult time trying to silence the Commissioners.  On one occasion, it made an inquiry into an offending pamphlet clearly published with the Commissioners’ consent, only to let the matter drop.  Without punishing anyone, parliament was trying to make its displeasure clear.

On another occasion, parliament ordered the preface and introduction to a Scot pamphlet burnt, condemning David Buchanan, a friend of the Commissioners and author of the preface as well as another condemned pamphlet.  Buchanan was relatively safe to attack, but the Scots managed to smuggle him out of England in time anyway.  The pamphlet also contained 3 of the Scots’ papers, which were left unscathed by the flames.  Parliament managed to avoid an open conflict with the Scots by not burning their papers, but successfully conveyed its displeasure with the pamphlet.  As well, parliament seems to have intentionally avoided carrying out a further inquiry into the authorship of the introduction after it discovered that it was likely authored by either the Commissioners’ secretary or the earl of Lauderdale.  Parliament thus sidestepped another complication by avoiding knowingly condemning a work by the Commissioners themselves.  This was certainly a more threatening gesture, but fell far short of censoring the Scots.

In one final move, parliament managed to block the publication of some of the earl of Loudoun’s speeches in a conference with parliament.  The Scots were offended and made a few attempts to retrieve the seized pamphlets.  Parliament could not return the pamphlets, but not wishing to force a breach with the Scots, appear to have tried to mollify them with a further act of censorship.  This time, it brought in Henry Walker for publishing a pamphlet that had particularly offended the Scots.  Walker claimed that he had received Mabbott’s permission for publication, and parliament ordered him to bring in proof.  As far as I can tell, that is where the matter ended.  Unable to satisfy the Scots’ demand for the return of their papers, parliament made another gesture, this time toward censoring an offender against the Scots, again without punishing anyone.

There is certainly a language to all of this.  I find it useful to remember that censorship was a tool in the early modern government’s toolbox which could be used for many purposes.  Here, it was a soft sort of diplomacy.  It also carried some important ramifications for some of the publishers, printers, and authors involved, their allegiances, and Mabbott, but I think that is a story for another time.

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Filed under censorship, Henry Walker, Long Parliament, Mabbott, Print Culture, Samuel Pecke

a new site

I am working on a new post on the way parliament exercised censorship in the mid-1640s which should be up soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to draw your attention to a new site, the Athenian Mercury Project (not mine, but I do know the editor).  Those of us who have looked at this newspaper know that it is available only on microfilm (or at least it was when I was looking at it), and this site aims to slowly publish and annotate the rag electronically.  So far, it looks like the Pepys’ Diary in format, transcribing individual queries from an issue at a time, however the editor is already developing some useful tags for the future.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in popular culture, natural philosophy, natural history, or religion in the late seventeenth seventury.

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