2.2.9: 1585 - 1725 - Censorship

In comparison to other European countries, the book trade in the Northern-Netherlands enjoyed a relatively large freedom of the press which does not imply, however, that there were no restrictions at all. The Republic had both preventive and repressive censorship of books. Preventive censorship was used prior to the production of printed matter but, since the end of the sixteenth century, after the establishment of the Republic, printers no longer had to apply for a privilege for their editions. In ecclesiastical terms this form of censorship lasted throughout the whole period; members of the congregation of the reformed church had, in principle, to submit their manuscripts in advance to the ecclesiastical authorities for approval. Repressive censorship entails control and prohibition measures relating to the distribution, possession and reading of specific texts which have already been printed.

Censorship legislation was imposed in the Republic by the secular and ecclesiastical authorities and was applied at the national, district and town levels. In the district of Holland in particular, where most book production took place in the seventeenth century, censorship proclamations were repeatedly issued which were adopted by the States-General. These measures which were strict in themselves could mostly not be implemented just as strictly. In everyday practice, district and town particularism often impeded effective implementation without there being any greater degree of tolerance here than elsewhere.

Whenever public order in the Republic was threatened by printed texts, the authorities acted harshly. Heavy penalties could be imposed in these cases such as confiscation of editions, heavy fines and exile. The secular authorities, once complaints reached them from ambassadors, also took repeated censorship measures against writings in which foreign powers were insulted. Often clergymen resisted the dissemination of unorthodox writings: especially publications with a rationalistic (Cartesian) content by representatives of sectarian groups or writings with traces of Socinianism which rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, suffered. The same sometimes applied to Catholic publications although a general prohibition against them was never promulgated. The Amsterdam bookprinters' guild had many Catholics among its members. Catholics were left in peace as long as they did not disturb public order. The Jews, who, after 1639, applied preventive censorship within their own community, were not impeded very much in spite of the complaints from orthodox, reformed theologians.

The issuing of privileges offered the authorities a good opportunity to curtail the freedom of the press somewhat. Requirements with respect to content could easily be set for newspapers and, if the rules were not obeyed, a publication prohibition could be imposed. The effectiveness of this measure was, however, limited because publishers and newspaper owners allowed their products more than once, without punishment, to be printed under another name or in another town.

It is clear that in spite of all the freedom that the special structure of the Republic engendered, censorship was never totally absent in this period. Besides, the measures taken will also have resulted in some self-censorship by authors.

author: J.A.H.G.M. Bots