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  • Rebekah Day

Finding Purpose in Pitfalls - Using the Areopagitica as a Primary Source

Task: Select any single primary source from any seminar. Place the source in its historical and historiographical context, consider its methodological uses and limitations, and suggest the broader relevance of the source to historians.

(Written for assessment as part of the 2021-22 module - HS1721 Reformation and Revolution: Stuart Britain, 1603-1714 at Cardiff University)

Plate 1: Aeropagitica, pamphlet cover page archived in the British Museum
Plate 1: Aeropagitica, pamphlet cover page

For this assessment I will analyse the pamphlet ‘Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc'd printing, to the Parlament of England,’ published in London in 1644 by author John Milton. I will situate the purpose and significance of this text as a primary source for historians of 17th century England, by first summarising the historical context and historiographical discourse surrounding the text. I will then examine the basis of Milton’s primary argument, summarizing its merits and limitations. I will conclude by analysing the contradictory nature of the Areopagitica, revealing conceptual issues such as bias of the author, and unintentional social commentary. This will demonstrate the continued value of the text as a primary source for scholars today.


Milton is primarily well-known for his epic fictional story Paradise Lost, but prior to this was a prolific publisher of political opinion pieces. To understand the circumstances that inspired Milton to write this particular argument for amending licensing laws, we can look to the title of the pamphlet as a window into the political and social climate of the period. Areopagitica appears to be an evolution of the Greek word Areopagus; an ancient Athenian meeting place where council members from the community met to discuss and administer law and justice.[2] The title therefore invokes the idea of a space where difficult concepts were open for debate[3] – perhaps meant to satirise the ‘supprest’ situation that Milton’s contemporary authors found themselves in when the Areopagitica was published in 1644.[4] By this time, the English and Scottish parliaments were three years deep into a civil war against King Charles I and had implemented strict censorship rules for publishers. Thanks to an act known as the Star Decree, the Stationers’ Company were the sole providers of publishing licenses in Britain[5] and would not grant these to texts that were deemed to be ‘…Seditious, Schismatical, or offensive...’ [6] This was an attempt to quash any radical literature that might have ignited uprising against authority, who declared it a ‘…concernment in the Church and Commonwealth,’ to keep a ‘…vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men.’[7] The subsequent punishment of political activist John Lilburne proved just how deep this ‘concernment’ was, when in 1638 he was arrested, fined and publicly flogged for publishing books without a license.[8] Although a wealth of scholars have scrutinised the ‘large gap between theory and practice’[9] of enforcing these licensing restrictions, it is clear that by the time Milton wrote the Areopagitica, the powerful Stationers’ Company fully expected the current licensing and censorship laws to be upheld and punishment delivered to those who ignored them.


Many scholars praise the Areopagitica for its progressive intentions as an argument in favour of a free press, with Stephen Dobransky even labelling it ‘a landmark argument against censorship.’[10] In the pamphlet, Milton declares the existing licensing acts are dysfunctional and should be replaced with ‘a social process by which knowledge is shared.’[11]However, any tangible influence the text might have had has since been scrutinised, as scholar Pierre Lurbe points out that ‘no response to Milton’s Areopagitica has been traced in the extensive literature that has survived from the period.’[12]Indeed no correlation has been made between the Aeropagitica and the parliamentary decision to relax printing laws which came 31 years later.[13]


Despite using the text to plea for an end to pre-publication censorship, and describing the role of a censor as ‘the perpetuall reader of unchosen books and pamphlets’ whose work was ‘tedious and unpleasing,’[14] Milton was later employed to work as a censor himself. This contradiction does not necessarily invalidate Milton’s integrity or the usefulness of the source - but rather it reminds us how nuanced bias within any historical text can be. In lines 24-33 on page 12 of the Areopagitica, Milton shares the foundation of his argument; explaining that because God gifted freewill to Adam and Eve after committing original sin, pre-publishing censorship was allowing the state to take away an individual’s opportunity to use this free will.[15] Using biblical rhetoric as the basis for disputing legislative reform clearly demonstrates a strong bias within the text – being directed only to readers that adhered to the same protestant doctrine Milton did. With this moral code in place, censorship of Catholic literature for example could theoretically be justified because protestant belief viewed the ‘popery’ and ‘superstitious’ nature of Catholicism as a threat to ‘all religions and civill supremacies…’[16] This demonstrates that Milton’s interpretation of press freedom was ‘certainly not meant to be universal’[17] and so his convictions would not have prevented him being employed as a censor.[18] As far as Milton was concerned, he was using his free will righteously and in pursuit of being a ‘true wayfaring Christian.’[19]


Aeropagitica, page 12 of the pamphlet, archived in the British Museum[20]
Plate 2: Aeropagitica, page 12 of the pamphlet

The text also provides a fascinating glimpse into the origins of what sociologist Jürgen Habermas has labelled ‘public sphere,’ which blossomed in the 18th century.[21] This cultural change saw the very purpose of publishing transform from that of a tool for religious and political instruction, to becoming a medium for debate of these topics that was now accessible across social classes.[22] Despite being addressed to the ‘Parlament,’ analysis of the physical copy of the Areopagitica, held in the British Library, indicates that the texts intended audience was not members of parliament at all. [23] Being pocket-sized and made of folded-paper meant that producing this type of literature was a cheaper alternative to the traditional book.[24] The format was quickly favoured by readers from 17th century England’s emerging middle-class, as they could easily be carried around and shared between peers in the coffee-houses and salons of London - which had become hubs for unrestricted political and religious debate.[25]

In fact, the vast amount of 17th century opinion pamphlets like the Areopagitica that survive in archives across the UK today[26], provide us with evidence of just how eager authors like Milton were to stimulate intellectual debate among this new bourgeois audience - whose social status between the noble and working classes meant they prioritised the making of ‘public political and administrative decisions’ more ‘transparent’[27] in pursuit of having their interests upheld by parliament.

This unintentional social commentary made in the Areopagitica, alongside its main objective of criticising publishing laws, means this text is not restricted in relevance just to historians. It also provides key evidence for literary scholars researching the social context and personal motivations behind the other works John Milton produced, including those of fiction. The features of the text that I have discussed have introduced a fraction of the insights available to be gleaned from the Aeropagitica, proving its enduring value as a primary source and establishing how its usefulness can be applied to more than one scholarly discipline.


Footnotes: [1] John Milton, ‘Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc'd printing, to the Parlament of England,’ (London, 1644), British Library, shelfmark: G.608, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/areopagitica-by-john-milton-1644 Accessed 13 January 2021 [2] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Areopagus,’ Encyclopædia Britannica, (2011) https://www.britannica.com/topic/Areopagus-Greek-council Accessed January 4 2021. [3] Mark Rose, ‘The Public Sphere and the Emergence of Copyright: Areopagitica, the Stationers’ Company, and the Statute of Anne,’ Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright, (eds) by Ronan Deazley et al., 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, (Cambridge: 2010), JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjt9v.7. Accessed 7 January 2021. p. 73 [4] Thomas H Luxon (eds), ‘Areopagitica; A Speech Of Mr. John Milton,’ The John Milton Reading Room, (Dartmouth, 1997-2020) https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/areopagitica/text.html Accessed 21 November 2020. Line 70 [5] Mark Rose, p. 72 [6] John Rushworth, 'The Star Chamber on printing, 1637,' in Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 3, 1639-40 (London: 1721). British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol3/pp306-316 Accessed 7 January 2021. Lines 17-18 [7] ‘Areopagitica,’ British Library, p.4 lines 9-11 [8] Contributors, ‘What prompted Milton to write the pamphlet?’ The British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/areopagitica-by-john-milton-1644# Accessed 4 January 2021. Lines 2-7 [9] Anthony Milton, ‘Licensing, Censorship, and Religious Orthodoxy in Early Stuart England,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, 1998, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2639897 Accessed 2 January 2021. p.627, para 2, lines 1-2 [10] Stephen B. Dobransky, ‘Milton’s Social Life,’ (ed.) Dennis Danielson, A Cambridge Companion to Milton, (Cambridge: Cambridge: 2003) p.1, line 9 [11] Dobransky, p. 12, lines 25-26 [12] Pierre Lurbe, ‘Areopagitica, or the Uses of Literacy according to John Milton,’ Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – no.1, (2013) http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5195 Aaccessed 4 January 2021. Para 2, lines 9-10 [13] Philip A. Hamburger, ‘The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press,’ (Columbia: 1985) https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/656 Accessed 7 January 2021. Pp. 714-5 [14] Luxon (eds), Areopagitica, para 12, lines 4-6 [15] ‘Areopagitica,’ British Library, p. 12 [16] Luxon (eds), Areopagitica, para 28, lines 32-33 [17] Lurbe, para 3, line9 [18] In another example of how a person’s personal convictions could influence their work in publishing, licenser Daniel Featly showed sympathy toward puritan texts by fixing factual errors but still allowing their publishment. Scholar Anthony Milton describes this as a kind of ‘benign censorship’ which demonstrated that ‘the thorough revision of material by a licenser need not in itself be a sign that the author stood in disfavour.’ Anthony Milton, ‘Licensing, Censorship, and Religious Orthodoxy in Early Stuart England,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, 1998, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2639897 Accessed 2 January 2021. p.629 - 630 [19] ‘Areopagitica,’ British Library, page 12, line 33 [20]‘Areopagitica,’ British Library, p. 12 [21] “One revision that must be made, however, has to do with the period to which the nascent public sphere is assigned. Habermas emphasises the economic foundations of the public sphere and therefore locates its appearance in the early eighteenth century. But in fact many of the institutions of civil exchange that Habermas cites date from the seventeenth rather than the eighteenth century.” Mark Rose, p.71, lines 4-9 [22] “The principal instrument for doing this was the newly unfettered press.” Mark Rose, p. 71, lines 26-27 [23] ‘Areopagitica,’ British Library, cover page [24] Critically described as ‘rubbishy single-sheet pamphlets’ by Sheila Lambert in Censorship and the Control of Print in England and France: 1600-1910, (eds) Robin Myers and Michael Harris, Winchester: 1992) p.23 [25] Matthew White, ‘Newspapers, gossip and coffee-house culture,’ British Library, (London: 2018) https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/newspapers-gossip-and-coffee house-culture. Accessed 2 January 2021. [26] “…they imply a crucial expansion of the market for printed text and a significant change in the role and efficacy of print in the dissemination of ideas.” Maureen Bell, ‘Book Reviews: Robin Myers and Michael Harris, eds. Censorship and the Control of Print in England and France, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 87, no. 3, (Chicago: 1993) JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24304395 Accessed 7 January 2021. p. 381, para 2, lines 15-17 [27] “One of the primary goals of this bourgeois public sphere was to make political and administrative decisions transparent,” Peter Hohendahl and Patricia Russian, ‘Jürgen Habermas: ‘The Public Sphere’ (1964) New German Critique, no. 3, 1974, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/487736 Accessed 2 January 2021. pp. 45-48


Bibliography:


Bell, Maureen, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 87, no. 3, 1993, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24304395 Accessed 7 January 2021. pp. 380–382


Contributors, ‘What prompted Milton to write the pamphlet?’ The British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/areopagitica-by-john-milton-1644# Accessed 4 January 2021.


Dobransky, Stephen B., ‘Milton’s Social Life,’ (ed.) Dennis Danielson, A Cambridge Companion to Milton, (Cambridge: Cambridge: 2003) pp.1-24


Hamburger, Philip A. ‘The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press,’ (Columbia: 1985) https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/656 Accessed 7 January 2021 pp. 714-5


Hohendahl, Peter, and Patricia Russian, ‘Jürgen Habermas: ‘The Public Sphere’ (1964) New German Critique, no. 3, 1974, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/487736 Accessed 2 January 2021. pp. 45–48


Klimt, Roberta, ‘‘Reason is but choosing’: freedom of thought and John Milton,’ British Library, (London, 2018) https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/reason-is-but-choosing-freedom-of-thought-and-john-milton Accessed 22 November 2020.


Lurbe, Pierre, ‘Areopagitica, or the Uses of Literacy according to John Milton,’ Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – no.1, (2013) http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5195 Accessed 4 January 2021


Luxon, Thomas H (eds), ‘Areopagitica; A Speech Of Mr. John Milton,’, The John Milton Reading Room, (Dartmouth, 1997-2020) https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/areopagitica/text.html Accessed 21 November 2020.


Milton, Anthony, ‘Licensing, Censorship, and Religious Orthodoxy in Early Stuart England,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 3, 1998, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2639897 Accessed 2 January 2021. pp. 625–651


Milton, John, ‘Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc'd printing, to the Parlament of England,’ (London, 1644), British Library, shelfmark: G.608, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/areopagitica-by-john-milton-1644 Accessed 21 November 2020.


Rose, Mark, The Public Sphere and the Emergence of Copyright: Areopagitica, the Stationers’ Company, and the Statute of Anne,’ Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright, (eds) by Ronan Deazley et al., 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, (Cambridge: 2010), JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjt9v.7 Accessed 7 January 2021.


Rushworth, John, 'The Star Chamber on printing, 1637,' in Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 3, 1639-40 (London: 1721). British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol3/pp306-316 Accessed 7 January 2021.


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Areopagus,’ Encyclopædia Britannica, (2011) https://www.britannica.com/topic/Areopagus-Greek-council Accessed 4 January 2021.


White, Matthew, ‘Newspapers, gossip and coffee-house culture,’ British Library, (London: 2018) https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/newspapers-gossip-and-coffee house-culture Accessed 2 January 2021.


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