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Censorship and Cultural Sensibility

The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England

By Debora Shuger

Publication Year: 2011

In this study of the reciprocities binding religion, politics, law, and literature, Debora Shuger offers a profoundly new history of early modern English censorship, one that bears centrally on issues still current: the rhetoric of ideological extremism, the use of defamation to ruin political opponents, the grounding of law in theological ethics, and the terrible fragility of public spheres. Starting from the question of why no one prior to the mid-1640s argued for free speech or a free press per se, Censorship and Cultural Sensibility surveys the texts against which Tudor-Stuart censorship aimed its biggest guns, which turned out not to be principled dissent but libels, conspiracy fantasies, and hate speech. The book explores the laws that attempted to suppress such material, the cultural values that underwrote this regulation, and, finally, the very different framework of assumptions whose gradual adoption rendered censorship illegitimate.

Virtually all substantive law on language concerned defamation, regulating what one could say about other people. Hence Tudor-Stuart laws extended protection only to the person hurt by another's words, never to their speaker. In treating transgressive language as akin to battery, English law differed fundamentally from papal censorship, which construed its target as heresy. There were thus two models of censorship operative in the early modern period, both premised on religious norms, but one concerned primarily with false accusation and libel, the other with false belief and immorality. Shuger investigates the first of these models—the dominant English one—tracing its complex origins in the Roman law of iniuria through medieval theological ethics and Continental jurisprudence to its continuities and discontinuities with current U.S. law. In so doing, she enables her reader to grasp how in certain contexts censorship could be understood as safeguarding both charitable community and personal dignitary rights.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-11

In his famously provocative essay on the licensing of books in Tudor-Stuart England, Christopher Hill noted that Milton's Areopagitica, first published in 1644, was among the "many principled defenses of freedom of the press ...

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1 "That Great and Immoderate Liberty of Lying"

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pp. 12-55

In 1641 the licensing system that had been set up under the Tudors collapsed, and despite intermittent efforts to reimpose some sort of controls, the press remained effectively unregulated for the next two decades. In his noblest ...

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2 The Index and the English: Two Traditions of Early Modern Censorship

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pp. 56-77

Perhaps the single most significant fact about Tudor-Stuart censorship is how different it was from the ecclesiastical censorship system of Counter-Reformation Europe-from ...

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3 Roman Law

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pp. 78-102

The hallmark of the Roman law model of language regulation is the treatment of verbal transgression, oral and written, as the counterpart to physical assault. The Corpus iuris civilis classifies verbal transgression as a species of ...

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4 The Christian Transmission of Roman Law Iniuria

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pp. 103-138

For modern legal historians, "Roman law" calls up images of Mommsen's nineteenth-century Corpus iuris civilis with its three unglossed volumes of double-column fine print. Similar editions, equally user-hostile, were certainly available ...

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5 The Law of All Civility

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pp. 139-170

The Tudor-Stuart understanding of verbal transgression construed language as ethical activity, rather than as personal expression, whether aesthetic or ideological, but also, it should be added, rather than as propositional ...

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6 Defendants' Rights and Poetic Justice

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pp. 171-182

To this point my focus has been on the moral norms that forbade certain sorts of communication regarding another person, even if true. These norms upheld rights to privacy and respect, rights that Tudor-Stuart persons generally ...

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7 Hermeneutics, History, and the Delegitimation of Censorship

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pp. 183-218

From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century English defamation law operated with the hermeneutic rule known as mitior sensus (literally, the milder sense). The rule stipulated that if a statement can be construed in both ...

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8 Intent

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pp. 219-229

The charitable hermeneutic outlined in the first half of the previous chapter seems to disallow speculation, particularly ungenerous speculation, about people's mental states. The mitior sensus rule implies that the law accepts this restriction as binding on its own judgments: the courts will not ...

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9 Ideological Censorship

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pp. 230-276

This final chapter was to turn from the iniuria model, which provided the dominant but not the only basis of Tudor-Stuart language regulation, to examine the role of ideological censorship-by which I mean, as before, ...


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pp. 277-316


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pp. 317-335


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pp. 337-343

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pp. 345-346

For the opportunity to spend a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, provided with stacks of obscure nineteenth-century monographs and long, quiet days in which to read them, I am profoundly thankful. Among the highlights of ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203349
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812239171

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2011