Citizen Milton
Title page of Areopagitica (1644)

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley

3. 'This is True Liberty': Freedom of the Press

"So Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter." --Milton

To Milton, printing was a "privilege of the people." In the run-up to the English civil war, control over printing broke down and an avalanche of political pamphlets began in 1640. Among these were Milton's arguments for total reform of the church and his courageous proposals to legalize divorce in England. Parliament imposed censorship in 1643, and Milton's divorce writings were condemned. In response, Milton composed his testament to liberty of the press. His title, Areopagitica, reminded Parliament of the ancient court of Athenian justice. Milton's speech serves as a reminder to us of our great British tradition of defending liberty. "As good almost kill a man as kill a good book," Milton memorably wrote, and this work has been reprinted often over the last 400 years, in times when artists and writers have felt the lash of censorship.

Milton, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643)

Milton bravely argued marriage may be dissolved if the partners were incompatible. His views were labelled as "licentious, new and dangerous," though the book was widely bought, selling out its first and second editions and appearing in a pirate edition. Outrage from religious leaders led to a formal Parliamentary inquiry, although no records survive on whether Milton's formal examination took place. Milton was anxious about the fate of free speech from that time forward.
Pamph. C56(3)

Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

Milton encouraged debate and dialogue: "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions." On the title page of his great work defending press freedoms, he alludes to the ancient Greek court, the Areopagus, which decided matters of justice. Milton daringly signs his name on the title page, taking a great personal risk in so doing.
From the title page of Areopagitica (1644).
Title page of Areopagitica (1644).
[Full size image]
C 14.5 (14) Linc.

An Order of the Lords and Commons…. For the Regulation of Printing (1643)

This Licensing order was a crackdown on the press as a result of the surge of unregulated printing begun with the civil war, and instigated by the presbyterian anti-tolerationists who wished to silence alternative opinion. In his Areopagitica Milton asked Parliament to overturn this 1643 order which had limited printing and required pre-publication approval of books by state- and church- appointed censors.
Ashm. 1067(35)

Areopagitica (Eragny Press, 1903)

Issued from Lucien and Esther Pissarro's Eragny Press (established in London in 1894), with freshly designed woodcuts by Lucien and using the original 'Brook' type, this edition of Milton's Areopagitica (1903) thematically reflects Pissaro's anarchist and socialist political past, and was the only quarto volume issued by the Press.
Areopagitica (1903).
The Eragny Areopagitica (1903).
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Broxb. 66.7

Areopagitica (1944)

Under the direction of Charles L. Pickering, students in the typography department of the Maidstone School of Arts and Crafts produced this book in honour of the Tercentenary of its original publication. The Principal Edward J. Morss saw the work as a beacon of tolerance and a historical parallel to the Allies' defeat of Hitler: "we lay no claim to having foreseen the happy coincidence that Athens and Areopagus… would themselves be newly freed from intolerance."
Johnson d. 1492

Areopagitica (Doves Press, 1907)

Established by James Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and Emery Walker (1851-1933) in 1900, the Doves Press supported the ideals of the Book Beautiful movement, reacting strongly against mass production. This Areopagitica is a small quarto of 300 copies on paper, with little ornament in a perfectly classical text. This copy, using Doves bindery vellum, was a gift inscribed by Cobden-Sanderson to the Bodleian library.
Arch C d.15

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Top image: From the title page of Areopagitica (1644). C 14.5(14) Linc.