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The Book as a Cultural Icon: 17th Century

The trend of burning books and banning authors continued during the 17th century. However some began to call for freedom of speech and expression.

Book Burning

Book burning continued to be used as a way to suppress books during the 17th century. During the English Civil War in the mid 17th century, individual books as well as private libraries were burned. For instance Thomas Fairfax ordered the burning of the Earl of Worcester's library at Raglan Castle.

burningIn 1651, the first book burning incident in the American colonies occurred with the burning of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption by William Pynchon which criticized Puritans. This book was also the first known banned book in North America.

The image on the right shows the burning of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.

Around 100 books were confiscated from Quakers Ann Austin and Mary Fisher upon their arrival in Boston from Barbados. Labeled as "corrupt, heretical, and blasphemous," the books were burned in Boston's Market Square.

Banned Authors and the Underground Press

In the second half of the 16th century and into the 17th century, radical authors were banned in many countries. Holland was a country where authors like Descartes, Spinoza, Bayle, and others could print freely. According to Lommen (2012, 140-141,

"Willem Jansz Blaeu printed his 1617 Copernicus in the knowledge that its 1616 prohibition stifled foreign competition."

The underground press was used to print books banned by the King. French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) published as series of letters written between 1656 and 1657 known as Lettres Provinciales or Provincial Letters through the underground press. The eighteen letters were written under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte. They were written to address the controversy between the Jansenists and Jesuits. Most educated French citizens read the book. In 1660, King Louis XIV ordered the book to be shredded and Pope Alexander VII condemned the letters. However just a few years later, Alexander seemed to agree with Pascal when he condemned the laxity of the church.

The Index of Prohibited Books

The Index of Prohibited Books continued to have an impact in the 17th century. Scientific works such as Epitome astronomiae Copernicianae by Johannes Kepler were placed on the list.

The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was published in 1632. Galileo compared the Copernican system with the Ptolemaic system. This book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. In 1633, Galileo was convicted of "grave suspicion of heresy" based on the contents of the book.

The image below is from The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems .

dialogue

Freedom of the Press

miltonIn John Milton's 1644 speech titled Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England, he conveys an impassioned plea for freedom of speech and expression. Speaking in opposition to the Licensing Order of 1643, the treatise arguments for eliminating censorship. Milton spoke from personal experience having had his own books censored. In particular, Milton was concerned with pre-publication censorship that threatened materials prior to publication.

To read the text of the book, go to Wikisource.

The book was published at the height of the English Civil War. Although his treatise didn't persuade the Parliament to change the law, his work was overwhelmingly praised.

His document had a long-term impact on society influencing the writers of the United States Constitution. The United States Supreme Court has referenced Areopagitica in explaining the First Amendment protections.

A quote from Areopagitica can be found in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library.

"A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life"

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