- Censorship and Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England
Censorship and Cultural Sensibility aims to reconfigure the categories by which scholars understand censorship in early modern England. Like other revisionist accounts of the last twenty years, it argues that censorship was not a monolithic system promulgated by state authority. In contrast to much recent work on the local, contingent nature of censorship practices, however, the book argues that there was a coherent, moral intelligibility underlying the restraint, prohibition, or punishment of speech and text. Though Shuger discusses a few well-known cases of ideological censorship, her primary focus, as indicated by her subtitle, is on the regulation of language.
In her most sweeping claim, Shuger argues that the regulation of language in Tudor-Stuart England was not directed toward the circulation of dangerous or transgressive ideas per se, but rather concerned with libel and defamation, with the injuries words do to persons and their reputations. English practices are thus sharply distinguished from the dominant Continental practices exemplified by the Index librorum prohibitorum, though both systems derive from Roman law and are modified by medieval canonical, civil, and theological interventions. English regulation of language, Shuger argues, derives from the Roman law of iniuira, a category which included not only physical injury, but any act that could bring harm, contempt, or loss of dignity to a person. The Roman law concept of "mediate injury" (80) allowed iniuria to be actionable in broader social, rather than strictly interpersonal, terms so that, for example, the injury could be one done to the household, kin, or community of the direct object of an attack. About half of Shuger's discussion is devoted to tracing developments and elaborations in the law of verbal iniuria, not only in continental canon and civil law and theology, but also in English common law and politico-juridical discourse. Thus the discussion contributes, in passing, to revisionist accounts of the alleged insularity of English common law. But Shuger's primary focus is on the evolution of three concepts that became increasingly central to the law of verbal iniuria: intent, charity, and honor. The first two of these, in particular, are heavily indebted to the Christian reworking of Roman law, particularly in discourses about penitence and penitential practice. "Sins of the tongue" redound upon the speaker: a libel is not justified by [End Page 1297] its truth but reveals the malicious intent of the libeller. Charity requires a concern for the secrets of one's neighbor, whatever they may be, and an attention to the neighbor's honor. Criticism or correction can be offered, but in private, as "fraternal correction" (147-56). Shuger traces these concepts in both jurisprudence and specific legal cases. She also argues that verbal iniuria and its related concepts underpin more general, normative views about appropriate and transgressive language in Tudor-Stuart England, using brief discussions of the Whipper pamphlets and plays by Shakespeare and Jonson to demonstrate her point.
The central argument of Censorship and Cultural Sensibility emerges from a scene-setting chapter that dramatically foregrounds slanderous and vituperative pamphlet literature, including forgeries as well as propaganda and polemics. Such exemplars also serve to ground Shuger's point that in Tudor-Stuart England, pace Milton (and Christopher Hill), freedom of the press was not a desideratum. Rather, the malice and fraudulence of such unrestrained speech, she suggests, made the necessity of censorship seem self-evident. This rhetorical positioning in relation to the historiography of Tudor-Stuart England is supplemented by offhand references to "hate speech" and to modern examples of exceedingly malicious public discourse of widely ranging import (the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, Howard Stern). Shuger's jockeying for the advantage of her argument is unfortunate. The initial overplay of vicious pamphleteering inhibits a more nuanced account of the range of rhetorical posturing — and the range of printed polem-ic — elsewhere evident in her discussion. Shuger recognizes the concurrent existence of a hermeneutics of suspicion (rather than charity) and a Tacitean...