the book logo

The Book as a Cultural Icon: 18th Century

Book burning and censorship continued in the 18th century. However the underground press became more active allowing those unable to print and distribute their works through traditional means an opportunity to publish.

Book Burning

Like prior centuries, book burning continued in the 18th century. In 1731, the Archbishop of Salzburg ordered the persecution of Lutherans expelling tens of thousands Protestant and burning all Protestant books.

Throughout the 18th century, the Siku Quanshu was being compiled in China. This Chinese history was intended to supersede all previous works. As a result, the Emperor destroyed around 3000 books that were decreed as evil along with 53 authors.

The works of French philosopher Voltaire were often burned including his Dictionnaire philosophique which was burned upon its release in 1764. As an outspoken advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state, he was an easy target. A number of times he was forced to flee Paris for London or visa versa depending on the politics of the particular location. He once stated "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them."

songSongbook Censorship

When people think of censorship, political works come to mind. However during the 18th century even songbooks were sanctioned.

Pierre-Jean de Beranger (1780-1857) was a poet and songwriter known as a chansonnier who joined the liberal opposition in the 1820s. According to Harthan (1981, 168), Beranger was twice imprisoned for writing satirical songs attacking the government. His songs gained cult status during the 1830s and 1840s. His songbook Chansons published in 1787 was sentimental and mildly improper.

The image on the right shows a song from Chanson.

Puritan Authorities

Colonial American authors were constrained by Puritan authorities. Rice (1997) notes that this censorship actually brought prestige to sociopolitical criticism.

In Colonial America the censorship practiced by Puritans made underground political writing popular. Authors used publishing as a way to share their individual conscience and political leanings.

In his Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington (1792, 222), Lackington acknowledges that as a beginning booksellers he practiced censorship. He states that his book shop

"contained very little variety, as it principally consisted of divinity; for as I had not much knowledge, so I seldom ventured out of my depth. Indeed, there was one class of books, which for the first year or two that I called myself a bookseller, I would not sell, for such was my ignorance, bigotry, superstition (or what you please) that I conscientiously destroyed such books as fell into my hands which were written by freethinkers; for really supposing them to be dictated by the devil, I would neither read them myself, or sell them to others."

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (c 1660-1731) was a proponent of novels and is famous for his book Robinson Crusoe. However he was also known for his political pamphlets. He was found guilty of seditious libel in 1703 for his writings and sent to prison. In 1704, Defoe's An Essay on the Regulation of the Press was published. It addressed his concerns about freedom of the press and censorship.

Pre-Revolutionary France

Prior to the French Revolution, two very separate book trades existed. Books that were legally published and sanctioned by the royal press were in one category and items produced illegally in another. According to Darnton (1996, xix) in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France,

"Instead of attempting to confiscate everything published outside the law, Malesherbes (the official in charge of suppression) opened loopholes in his administration, which left room for unofficial but inoffensive works to circulate without receiving legal recognition by the state. This practice went back to the seventeenth century, when the state tried to control the printed word by subjecting it to institutions that typified the absolutism of Louis XIV: censorship; police; and a monopolistic guild. In order to be published legally, a book had to clear all sorts of hurdles within this system and to appear with a royal privilege printed out in full. Like a modern copyright, the privilege gave its owner the exclusive right to reproduce the text. But it also served as a royal stamp of approval. It guaranteed the quality as well as the orthodoxy of the text, and so did the approbations of the censors, which usually accompanied it at the beginning or end of the book. To be fully legal, a book had to conform to elaborate standards set by the state."

Authors, printers, and publishers found it nearly impossible to work their way through the system legally. As a result, an underground system emerged. Darton (1996, xx) states that

"Anything that deviated from those standards were usually printed outside France and smuggled into the kingdom. Dozens of publishing houses sprang up all around France's borders. Hundreds of agents operated an underground system, which brought the books to readers. But this enormous industry drained a great deal of wealth from the kingdom, while spreading a great many unorthodox ideas inside it. Finding itself unable to destroy the competition that it had helped create, the French administration devised categories to permit the trade in books that could not be given a royal privilege but did not attack the Church, the state, or conventional morality."

However this new systems still left out many books that were "irredeemably illegal". The authorities had a dilemma regarding what to do with these "bad" books. They knew that too much publicity made books "cultural icons" to be sought out. Darnton (1996, 3) notes that

"When the public hangman lacerated and burned forbidden books in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice in Paris, he paid tribute to the power of the printed word... Knowing that nothing promoted sales better than a good bonfire, they preferred to impound books and imprison bookseller with as little fuss as possible."


Abramson, Paul R. (2002). With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality. Oxford University Press US.

Baez, Fernando (2008). A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. Atlas & Co.

Borin, Jacqueline (Fall 1993). Embers of the soul: the destruction of Jewish books and libraries in Poland during World War II. Libraries & Culture, 28(4), 445-460.

Bosmajian, Haig A. (2006). Burning Books. McFarland. Preview Available:

Boyer, Paul S. (2002). Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age. University of Wisconsin Press. Preview Available:

Clegg, Cyndia Susan (2001). Press Censorship in Jacobean England. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Clegg, Cyndia Susan (2004). Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Clegg, Cyndia Susan (2008). Press Censorship in Caroline England. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Darnton, Robert (2001). Literary surveillance in the British Raj; the contradictions of liberal imperialism. Book History, 4, 133-176.

Darnton, Robert (1996). The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. W. W. Norton & Company. Preview Available:

Daniel Defoe (1704). An Essay on the Regulation of the Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Downs, Robert Bingham (2004). Books the Changed the World. Penguin.

Doyle, Robert P. (2010). Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read. ALA.

Edwards, Mark U. (2004). Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther. Fortress Press. Preview Available:

Farge, Arlette (1995). Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth-Century France. Penn State Press. Preview Available:

Fishburn, Matthew (2007). Books are weapons: wartime responses to the Nazi bookfires of 1933. Book History, 10, 223-251.

Fishburn, Mathew (2008). Burning Books. Palgrave Macmillan. Preview Available:

Foerstel, Herbert N. (ed). (2006). Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. IAP. Preview Available:

Green, Ian (2000). Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press.

Green, Jonathon, Karolides, Nicholas J. (2009). Encyclopedia of Censorship. Infobase Publishing. Preview Available:

Heins, Margorie (2007). Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. Rutgers University Press. Preview Available:

Henningsen, Gustav (1980). The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition. University of Nevada Press.

Higman, Francis M. (1979). Censorship and the Sorbonne. Librairie Droz. Preview Available:

Holman, Valerie (2005). Carefully concealed connections: the ministry of information and British publishing, 1939-1946. Book History, 8, 197-226.

Karolides, Nicholas, Burress, Lee, & Kean, John M. (2001). Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. Scarecrow Press. Preview Available:

Kaufman, Will (2006). The Civil War in American Culture. Edinburgh University Press.

Knuth, Rebecca (2003). Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Greenwood Publishing Group. Preview Available:

Knuth, Rebecca (2006). Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. Greenwood Publishing Group. Preview Available:

Lackington, James (1792). Memoirs of the First Forty-Five Years of the Life of James Lackington. Available:

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Murphy, Priscilla Coit (2007). What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. University of Massachusetts Press. Preview Available:

Rice, Grantland S. (1997). The Transformation of Authorship in America. University of Chicagoo Press.

Rose, Jonathan (2001). The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation. University of Massachusetts Press. Preview Available: or Project Muse:

Rose, Mark (1993). Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Harvard University Press. Preview Available:

Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1972). Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press.

Sawyer, Jeffrey (1990). Printed Poison: Pamphlet Propaganda, Faction Politics, and the Public Sphere in Early Seventeenth-Century France. University of California Press. Preview Available:

Shuger, Debora K. (2006). Censorship and Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England. University Pennsylvania Press. Preview Available:

Stark, Gary (2012). Banned in Berlin: Literary Censorship in Imperial Germany, 1871-1918. Berghahn Books. Preview Available:

Tilley, Carol L. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsification that helps condemn comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History, 47(4), 383-413.

Vollaro, Daniel R. (Winter 2009). Lincoln, Stowe, and the "Little Woman/Great War" Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 30(1).

| eduscapes | IUPUI Online Courses | Teacher Tap | 42explore | About Us | Contact Us | © 2013-2017 Annette Lamb

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.