Regulating the press

May 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

To understand the measures taken by the crown and parliament to regulate printing in the 17th century, you have to know something about the Stationers’ Company, which figures in Lena’s time line about important post-Gutenberg developments in the printing business. Think of the Company as a sort of trade union for folks in the printing business, the early modern equivalent of, say, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.

The Mark of the Stationers' Company. Source: Printers' Marks: A Chapter in the History of Typography by William Roberts. Available from Project Gutenberg.

As Lena explained a few weeks ago, a basic thing to know is that regulating the 17th-century English press wasn’t, as you might imagine, only the concern of whoever held the reins of state: it was a money-making enterprise for the Stationers’ Company. (Thanks to Lena for the interesting tidbit about Gutenberg’s career as goldsmith, by the way. Our liberal values have turned him into an altruistic champion of literacy, but he was mostly just a smart guy with an eye on his wallet.)

Some facts. Stationers in London organized themselves into a company around 1403. Skip to 1557. Catholic Mary, Elizabeth I’s predecessor, granted it a Royal Charter of Incorporation that year. What the charter did was to give the Stationers’ Company rights and privileges some of the older crafts guilds had—e.g, it could regulate the printing business, have apprentices, seize illicit books, prevent non-SC folks from engaging in the business, and try to get rid of hopelessly inept printers. What made the SC distinct among city companies (there were many—the Merchant Taylors, the Goldsmiths, and so on) was that only members of the SC could participate legally in the printing trade. In other words, the SC was a monopoly.

Having a Royal Charter allowed the SC to apply in 1560 for a livery.* Among other things, a livery gave the SC the right to vote in Parliamentary and London elections.

In the first chapter of her recent Press Censorship in Caroline England (2010), C.S. Clegg points out that the right to print something or have it printed could be understood as a kind of property right. “The printed book,” she writes, “… had material value. It represented both the costs of the publisher’s investment in his shop and all its material accoutrements—press, letters, paper, print, and labor—and the means by which he could assure his continued interest in this property” (7). But it was an unusual kind of property, as it had no value until sold and could be appropriated a whole lot easier than, say, a cow. This squishyness was the cause of some anxiety.

A lot of people assume the SC was just a puppet for the crown or Parliament or whoever was in control of the state. That’s not really true. Yes, it was in the SC’s best interests not to get up the nose of the crown or Parliament—because the Charter and livery status could be revoked—and the Charter did say that the SC couldn’t do anything “repugnant or contrary to the laws or statutes of this our kingdom of England, or to the prejudice of the commonwealth of the same.” But you can argue that the SC was in the regulating business to make money. Cracking down on non-SC activity was in their best material interest.

Decrees and Statutes, 1637–1649

Here are the major attempts at censorship in our period with which you should be familiar. Now this is a gross exaggeration—and debatable—but none of the attempts, with the possible exception of the 1649 Act, seem to have had much of a consistent dampening effect.

I haven’t attempted to summarize each law, but have instead picked out passages that suggest time-specific anxieties. If you find the passages too elliptical, read them in the context of the entire document, all of which can be accessed from the Primary Sources page. Notice how the fears shift…

1637 Star Chamber Decree Concerning Printing

  • “Seditious, Schismatical books or pamphlets” printed in “Parts beyond the Seas”
  • “printing in corners without license”
  • ”Books … contrary to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England”
  • no more than 20 master printers (i.e., presses), 4 master founders
  • journeymen of “honest and good Behaviour” in London without employment
  • No master founder can employ someone who isn’t an apprentice, except in the case of “the pulling off the Knots of Metal hanging at the ends of the Letters when they are first Cast,…it shall [then] be lawful…to Employ one Boy only…upon Pain of being for ever disabled to use or exercise that Art” (added this one because it’s a rare human moment)

1643 Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing

  • Gives impression of being prepared in haste. Shorter than the Star Chamber Decree.
  • emphasis on probitions as “constant custome”
  • ”notwithstanding the diligence of the company of Stationers” there are “great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditiou, libelous, and unlicensed Paper, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government”
  • “the most profitable vendible Copies of Books” belong “to the Company”
  • “for giving information against them,” unlicensed printers etc are taking revenge on Company members, “to their discouragement in this publike service”
  • “No Book, Pamphlet, or paper shall … be printed, bound, stitched or put to sale … unless the same by first approved of and licensed under the hands of such person as both or either of the Houses shall appoint”
  • Books whose printing was “granted to the said Company of Stationers for their relief and maintenance of their poor” ” (a portion of profits given to the/ir (?) poor) could no longer be printed without the license or consent of the Master, Wardens and Assistants
  • SC higher-ups and Parliament officials can search, as “they shall think meet,” for unlicensed printing presses and “all Presses any way imployed in the printing of scandalous or unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, Books… belonging to the said Company.” They may “carry away to the said Common Hall [Stationers’ Hall] … Letters, together with the Nut, Spindle, and other materials of every such irregular Printer which they find so misemployed … to be defaced and made unserviceable according to ancient Custom; And likewise to make diligent search in all suspected Printing-houses, Ware-houses, Shops and other places for such scandalous and unlicensed Books, Papers, Pamphlets and all other Books, not entred [in the Stationers’ Register], nor signed with the printer’s name”

1649 Printing Act

  • first phrase =  “The mischiefs arising from weekly Pamphlets”
  • “divers Scandalous, Seditious and Libellous Pamphlets, Papers and Books are daily contrived, printed, vended and dispersed, with officious care and industry by the Malignant party at home and abroad, for the better compassing of their wicked ends, the subversion of the Parliament and present Government… by lies and false suggestions, cunningly insinuated and spread amongst the people, and by malicious misrepresentation of things acted and done”
  • “the ignorance and assumed boldness of the weekly Pamphleteers, without leave or due information, taking upon them to publish, and at pleasure to censure the Proceedings of Parliament and Army, and other Affairs of State”
  • “no person or persons whatsoever, shall presume to Make, Write, Print, Publish, Sell or Utter, or cause to be Made, Printed or Uttered, any Scandalous or Libellous Books, Pamphlets, Papers or Pictures”
  • Fines specified. If offender unable to pay, then gaol.
  • Parliamentary Ordinance of 1547 “in respect that higher Penalties are in stead thereof herein limited and designed, shall stand from henceforth repealed, and be of no further effect”
  • “That all former Licenses granted by Authority of both or either House of Parliament to any person or persons, for Printing any Diurnal, News or Occurrences, shall be from henceforth void and of no further effect”
  • “And be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no person or persons whatsoever, shall presume, by the Post, Carriers, or otherwise to convey, send away, or endeavor to disperse any such unlicensed News as aforesaid, or any seditious or scandalous Papers, Pamphlets, Books or Pictures, to any place, or person or persons”
  • “they shall also to every Book, Pamphlet, Paper or Picture he or they shall imprint, in the Title-page of each Book prefix the Authors name, with his quality and place of Residence, or at least the Licensers names where Licenses are required, and his own Name and place of residence at length, upon pain to forfeit the sum of Ten pounds for every wilful failing, and to have all his or their Printing materials defaced; and for the second Offence, to be disabled from any more exercise of his Trade of Printing
  • “nor shall any person or persons demise or let, or being within his or their dispose, suffer to be held or used any House, Vault, Cellar, or other Room whatsoever, to or by any person or persons for a Printing-house, or place to print in, unless he … shall first give notice to the Master or Wardens of the Stationers”
  • “And whereas divers vagrant persons, of idle conversations, having forsaken their usual Callings, and accustomed themselves after the maner of Hawkers, to sell and cry about the streets, and in other places, Pamphlets, and other Books, and under colour thereof are found to disperse all sorts of dangerous Libels, to the intolerable dishonor of the Parliament, and the whole Government of this Commonwealth; Be it Ordained and Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no such Hawkers shall be any more permitted; and that they and all Ballad-singers … shall forfeit all Books, Pamphlets… and shall… be conveyed and carryed to the House of Correction, there to be whipt as common Rogues, and then dismissed”
  • “And all Officers Civil and Military, Soldiers, and other well-affected people, are hereby specially enjoyned to the aiding and assisting to the execution of this Act, and to seize upon the persons of all such as shall presume to rescue, or actually endeavor to rescue from apprehension or punishment”
  • “That the Council of State appointed by the Parliament, shall … from time to time to receive an accompt of all wilful defaults and contempts of Officers or others, who neglecting or refusing to do their Duties, shall thereby obstruct the Remedies provided by this Act

*For you OED fans, “Livery” is Anglo-Norman word derived from the French word for delivery and associated with an allotment of food or, especially clothing. Servants of a livery company wore garb distinctive in color and design–and the companies themselves signified (i.e., advertised) their trade with unique emblems.

Work Cited: C. S. Clegg, Press Censorship in Caroline England (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


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