Evidence of contemporary censorship of manuscripts is scanty, partly as oral rather than written communication still predominated in the Middle Ages and also because far fewer manuscripts survive, one of the earlier means to censor a work was to destroy it. A manuscript owned by John Caius narrowly survived a bonfire set by College Fellows who raided his rooms in search of ‘Popish trumpery’ in 1572. This Catholic missal also bears prior marks of the most common form of censorship found in surviving manuscripts; defacement like words or images inked over, scratched off or even cut out entirely.
However, it largely appears that censorship of manuscripts occurred retrospectively, sometimes hundreds of years later, in response to changing political or religious contexts. One rare example of an early work banned outright after publication was Wycliffe’s unauthorised translation of the Bible in 1409. Wycliffe’s association with the Lollard movement (which advocated the reform of Christianity) triggered Henry IV to enact the harsh religious censorship law ‘De Heretico comburendo’ so heretics could be burnt at the stake. Caius Library possesses one of the few surviving Wycliffe manuscripts in Britain and notably Wycliffe’s name has not been referred to anywhere in the manuscript! At this time censorship was not systematic but reactionary and even in the early days of printing in England the state did not attempt to restrict the printing trade wholesale. This could easily have been achieved by controlling paper imports because a lack of materials, technology and expertise meant paper was not produced in England until 1588.
Although there were fragmentary attempts to apply post publication censorship to the emerging format of print (mainly using the same techniques for correcting errors) it was not viewed as a serious issue until the latter half of sixteenth century. This was largely triggered by the Protestant Reformation where the dangers posed by the new technology of mass printing and the rapid dissemination of texts gave Protestant authors a voice which could challenge the Catholic Church. In response both Church and State began to develop centralised control over print. To influence the reading habits of people and catch books already in circulation, or which had evaded censorship, the first edition of the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ was published in 1529. This is a list of books deemed heretical and which Catholics were banned from reading, and new editions continued into the 20th and final edition in 1948. The key change was to establish a system of pre-publication censorship and to do so the Crown granted a Royal charter to The Stationers Company placing the print trade under a monopoly which was largely confined to London and to just 21 licensed printing houses. This was supported by Parliament enacting ‘The licensing of the press act’ in 1662 which also covered imported books and the appointment of licensors and would be renewed every couple of years. An author now had to enter their work in The Stationer’s register and a guild officer would check the work before licensing it for print and refer suspect works to an ecclesiastical authority.
If approved the printer retained the ‘right to copy’ or copyright; it was not until 1710 that copyright was established as the author’s ownership of the work. Establishing the identity of an ‘author’ also allowed censors to target an individual whereas in the manuscript age texts were often anonymous and might be copied by scribes but not ‘authored’ by them. Although some individuals printed anonymously or under a pseudonym the risks meant others eschewed print and continued to privately circulate controversial political or religious texts in manuscript form. One of many who ended up on trial accused of libel was Elizabeth Cellier, dubbed the “Popish midwife”, who had evaded an earlier charge of treason but sparked a war of pamphlets when she defended her case. Caian Stephen Valenger, who donated a manuscript to the Library, wrote a ballad in support of a Jesuit martyr and was charged with libel. As punishment his ears were ‘cropped’ on the pillory and he was imprisoned for four years in 1582.
Ironically the end of the licensing system in England was brought about in 1693 after the ‘Licensor of the Press’ Edmund Bohun allowed the publication of an anonymous pamphlet questioning the legitimacy of William and Mary’s rule which echoed his earlier political views. Bohun was removed from the post and imprisoned triggering the publication of another anonymous pamphlet - Reasons Humbly Offered for the Liberty of Unlicens‘d Printing - which defended Bohun and drew heavily on John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) in which Milton argued passionately for freedom of the press. The possibility that the Licensor of the Press could be influenced to promote certain political views meant that in 1695 the House of Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act. Despite the end of the licensing system the suppression of texts and censorship continued and endures to the present day.