1.2.9: 1460 - 1585 - Censorship

The explosive increase in the availability of information as a result of the introduction of printing, soon greatly worried the ecclesiastical and secular authorities all over Europe. They feared an unbridled dissemination of knowledge and ideas thereby endangering the existing order. As early as 1475, the Pope had granted the university of Cologne the right to censor writers, publishers, printers and readers, followed in 1487 by a papal bull prohibiting the publication of books without permission from the ecclesiastical authorities.

The extent to which such early forms of censorship had an effect in the Netherlands as well is not known. No coherent policy existed, however, until after the promulgation of the papal bull Exsurge domine in 1520 which stated strong opposition to the heretical ideas of Martin Luther and strictly forbade the printing, distribution and reading of his writings. These provisions were taken over a year later by the emperor, Charles V, after which a whole series of proclamations followed against heretical books and translations of the Bible. These determined, among other things, that printers must have the texts they were to print approved by an ecclesiastical censor. A patent must then be applied for from the local or central authorities. Both the imprimatur and the patent must be printed in the publication. It was also mandatory for the name of the author and the address of the printer to appear in every edition and an oath of compliance had to be sworn. As far as distribution was concerned only officially registered booksellers could run a bookshop; they had to have a copy of the Index displayed in their shop and had to hand over stock lists to the authorities. The sale of pamphlets, songs and almanacs was also forbidden.

The penalties had been harsh from the start: confiscated books were burnt; printers and booksellers often had heavy penalties imposed on them or were banned from their place of residence. A few were even executed, among them the reformed Antwerp printer and bookseller, Adriaen van Berghen. After various convictions for publishing and selling heretical books, he fled to Holland where he was active in a number of cities. He was finally decapitated in The Hague in 1542.

It was, however, not always possible to discover the identity of the printers and publishers of forbidden texts. Many publications appeared without any imprint or year or with a false one. Printers moved regularly to avoid being traced. Some established themselves outside the territory of the Netherlands. Emden, just across the German border, was a major haven for Protestant printers and booksellers, serving the market in the Netherlands with Bibles and other heretical publications.

The coronation of King Philip II in 1555 did not mean any alleviation of censorship. On the contrary, new and stricter laws were promulgated in order to suppress the increasing religious and political unrest. Thus, in 1570, the function of prototypographer, supervisor of the printers and publishers, was introduced. Christopher Plantin was the first and last to hold this office; it was already abolished in 1576.

Due to the harsh persecution of heretics under Philip II, the attitude of local authorities to the centrally imposed policy of censorship, which was often irresolute, changed more and more into open opposition. Urban highhandedness played a role, but tolerant humanist ideas and Protestant sympathies of those in authority were also influential. In the 1560, the local ruler of Vianen, Hendrik van Brederode, offered his personal protection to heretic printers. When, in 1579, the rebellious northern provinces decided upon political co-operation under the leadership of William of Orange and when, two years later, Philip II was officially renounced, Habsburg censorship came to an end. This, however, did not mean that from then on freedom of the press was guaranteed in the Dutch Republic.

author: P.G. Hoftijzer