I’m currently reading Randy Robertson’s extremely interesting Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division, which was published earlier this year. In one of his chapters Robertson focuses on John Milton and his attitudes to censorship. This is one of the great paradoxes of Milton’s life: particularly his decision, in 1649, to take on responsibility for pre-publication licensing for the Commonwealth of newsbooks and other publications. How could Milton, champion of freedom of the press, take up a position that was directly contradictory to the critique of pre-publication licensing that he had set out five years earlier in Areopagitica?
For some scholars, like Milton’s early biographer David Masson, and more recently others like Christopher Hill, William Riley Parker and Sabrina Baron, Milton never gave up his radical commitment, and either carried out his duties rather perfunctorily or was able to work for reform from the inside. For others, like Stephen Dobranski and Abbe Blum, Milton acted inconsistently. This is one of those questions that scholars will probably argue about forever, because of the lack of surviving evidence. We have the Stationers’ Company records for the issues of Mercurius Politicus which Milton approved – although these don’t tell us whether content was ever altered or deleted before editions were licensed. The minutes of the Council of State record various licensing or censoring tasks which they asked Milton to carry out. And that’s about it, save for second-hand remarks by contemporaries and a later reference Milton made to the Licensing Act of 1649. Unless other evidence turns up, we will probably never know for certain what made Milton take on the role.
Robertson’s argument is that there is less conflict than many have thought between the Licensing Act which the Commonwealth introduced in September 1649, and the critique of pre-publication licensing set out in Areopagitica. There are two central planks to his argument.
First, he suggests that Milton helped soften the drafting of the 1649 Licensing Act, and was hence happy or at least grudgingly content with the end product. However, there is no direct evidence for this. The only person we can be confident was involved in actually drafting the act was John Bradshaw, because the Council of State minutes record an agreement that he should lead the work on the Bill. The Commons journal also records a committee being appointed to steer the Bill through, but we should be wary of assuming that nomination to a committee necessarily meant an MP actually sat on it or contributed to it. Behind the scenes, there’s a good chance that Bradshaw probably did talk to Milton about the Bill. They were colleagues and perhaps also relatives, who shared an interest in the book trade. Bradshaw had acted as legal counsel to Milton earlier in the 1640s. But there is no way of telling from this circumstantial link what impact Milton may actually have had on the legislation.
Secondly, Robertson argues that the 1649 Act only introduced pre-publication censorship for newsbooks. Other books and pamphlets, he suggests, were to be pursued after publication if they had objectionable content. I think this is a misreading of the Act. It’s true that, on the face of it, the only licensing arrangements set out by the Act were to introduce three new licensers to approve newsbooks before they could be published: the clerk to Parliament, the secretary to the army, and an appointee of the Council of State. But the Act is also clear that previous licensing arrangements from the licensing ordinances of 1643 and 1647 were to remain in place, save for where the 1649 Act repealed or strengthened them:
“Be it by the authority aforesaid Enacted and Ordained, That the Laws made formerly, and at this present Parliament, now in force for punishment of devisers and spreaders of false and seditious news, lyes and rumors, by writing, printing, speaking or otherwise, shall be put in due and diligent execution, according to the tenor of the same Acts”.
“So much of the said Ordinance as specifies the imposition of Penalties upon such Offenders as are beforementioned, in respect that higher Penalties are in stead thereof herein limited and designed, shall stand from henceforth repealed, and be of no further effect”.
For me, at least, the 1649 Act is fairly clear in reinforcing the pre-publication licensing regime that the 1643 licensing ordinance had started.
Other scholars have suggested Milton was able to radically reinterpret the 1649 Act, so as to work for reform of the system from within. Sabrina Baron draws attention to Milton’s possible involvement in licensing the Rachovian Cathecism, a work that denied the existence of the trinity. The work’s printer, William Dugard – an old acquaintance of Milton’s – shopped him to the Council of State as having licensing its publication. Milton’s role as licenser ended after this, although it is not clear whether this was due to losing his sight or because of actual links to the controversial publication. Milton did later comment in a letter to Samuel Hartlib that:
‘There are no licensers appointed by this last Act, so that everybody may enter in his book without license, providing the printer’s or author’s name be entered, that they may be forthcoming if required’.
But this is surely wishful thinking on Milton’s part: his role in licensing a range of publications for the Commonwealth must have made him aware that in practice, even if he interpreted the legislation differently, his role was to ensure controversial publications did not make it as far as the reading public. In June 1649, for example, Milton was ordered to ‘examine the papers of [the royalist newsbook] Pragmaticus”, an ad-hoc investigatory role that he played with a number of other writers or pamphlets considered scandalous by the Commonwealth.
As for me, I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments of Stephen Dobranski on this issue:
‘We can use his inconsistency to see beyond the theoretical construction of “the author” and glimpse the real person, John Milton, operating wihin his specific historical environment’.
Or to put it another way, Milton was a human being like the rest of us. Nobody’s political or religious ideologies are internally consistent, let alone consistent over time, so why do we expect Milton’s political ideals to have remained constant? Dobranski suggests it is because of the assumption that Milton, one of the foundation stones of the Western canon, must have possessed authorial autonomy. He quotes Foucault’s observation that the author “constitutes a principle of unity in writing” and “serves to neutralise the contradictions that are found in a series of texts”. There may be something in this: compare the adjectives Sabrina Baron uses to describe Milton and those she uses to describe his predecessor as Secretary for Foreign Tongues, George Weckherlin:
‘Milton’s was a radical interpretation of the law and a radical involvement of personal authority that a professional bureaucrat like George Weckherlin could never have made’.
Sabrina Baron, ‘Licensing readers, licensing authorities in seventeenth-century England’, in Jennifer Andersen & Elizabeth Sauer (eds.), Books and readers in early modern England: material studies (Philadelphia, PA, 2002), p. 235.
But Weckherlin was a poet, just like Milton, in the same way that Milton was a bureaucrat, just like Weckherlin. Dobranski’s efforts to historicise Milton’s actions and ideas within their wider social and political context seems to me a more successful way of trying to unpick his motives during the heady days of the late 1640s. Dobranski suggests that Milton’s commitment to classical republicanism was what convinced him that supporting the Commonwealth supported a greater good. Possibly, too – although we cannot know it – there was an element of personal gain or even fear that lay behind Milton’s decision to accept a role as one of the Council of State’s spin doctors. There need not necessarily have been one sole reason that convinced him to take on the role. 1649 was a year, if ever there was one, when the world was turned upside down. Friendships, allegiances and entire political systems were being broken, changed and reshaped at astonishing speeds. It was left to Milton, like his contemporaries, to make sense of these changes and feel his way into a new era of government.
My image is an etching of a bust of Milton made by Jonathan Richardson Jr. in around 1730-1750; AN339250001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.