Censorship in France from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. A comparison with Great Britain at the turn of the century

Seminar Paper, 2002

19 Pages, Grade: 2-



1. Definition: ”censor“
2. Censorship from the Early Greek Democracy up to Modern Times
3. Some Examples of Censorship in Artistic Expression

1. Censorship of the written word in France from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century
a. Before the Fifteenth Century
b. Fifteenth Century
c. Sixteenth Century
d. Seventeenth Century
e. Eighteenth Century
f. Nineteenth Century
g. Twentieth Century
2. Censorship in Great Britain at the Turn of the Last Century
a. A Very Brief History of Censorship in Great Britain
b. The Printing Press and Censorship in Great Britain
c. Censorship by the Circulating Libraries Association at the Turn of the Century (according to Nicholas Hiley)
3. Comparison of Reasons for Censorship in Turn of the Century France and Great Britain
4. Imitation and Development: The United States on the Traces of Great Britain

1. The Dilemmas of Censorship
2. Open Questions and Interesting Aspects
3. The Present and the Future



Robert Atkins in his essay A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Censorship observes that censorship is unique to the human species and that it both transcends cultural boundaries and predates recorded history. Wondering if this phenomenon of preventing certain ideas to be heard by the vast majority of people is caused by a “hormonal instinct to dominate and control”1 he concludes that it may come from a “misguided but ever-so-human nature,”2 and that its results vary from very tragic to very amusing as the examples cited a little later will prove.

Beginning with a commonly acknowledged definition of the term “censor,” a short history of the phenomenon from the early Greeks up to the present, and some examples of censured works of art, this paper is going to address the issue of censorship in France from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. The historical development in France will be followed by a description of censorship in Great Britain at the turn of the last century, i.e. the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, as well as a contrastive analysis between reasons for censorship in France and Great Britain at the time. Finally, there will be a very short outline of censorship in the United States, which is based on the structure of censorship in Great Britain but has undergone quite some changes from the very beginning.

1. Definition: ”censor“

There are many ways of defining the term “censorship.” For some it is a “tyrannical evil, gradually erased in the histories of the most progressive societies,”3 others view it as a tool of rulers, i.e. an indicator of power relations, which is used to suppress an author’s digressing opinion towards shared values. Many times in history, those inflicting censorship on others claimed to bring about common good from their supposedly enlightened position by censoring harmful and backward attitudes. At any rate, censorship reaches into every aspect of life, and especially concerning literature and artistic expression it has often been a matter of life and death, of torture and suffering. This is the reason why many people, when confronted with the concept of censorship, immediately associate violence with it.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term “censor” as follows:


1. A person authorized to examine books, films, or other material and to remove or suppress what is considered morally, politically, or otherwise objectionable.

2. An official, as in the armed forces, who examines personal mail and official dispatches to remove information considered secret or a risk to security.

3. One that condemns or censures.

4. One of two officials in ancient Rome responsible for taking the public census and supervising public behavior and morals.

5. Psychology The agent in the unconscious that is responsible for censorship. [Transitive Verb]

To examine and expurgate.

In a narrower sense, as can be read in the Encarta Encyclopedia4, censorship is the supervision and control of circulating information by the state or other institutions. Censorship manifests itself in altering or suppressing - sometimes in part, sometimes completely - books, plays, films, television, radio, news, etc. In order to protect the three basic social institutions - namely the Family, the Church, and the State - immoral, obscene, heretical, blasphemous, seditious, treasonable elements, as well as those injurious to national security are obliterated.

There are basically two kinds of censorship: censorship before publication and censorship after publication. In democratic societies in the modern world the latter is still applied to protect the youth, as well as with foreign movies and in newspapers produced by students for circulation in their schools. According to the constitutionally secured freedoms of speech and of the arts, pre-publication censorship is not allowed. However, it still occurs at times in the form of a limited perception of events due to culturally or otherwise transmitted world views. This phenomenon, often referred to as “scissors in the head,” has been noticed, for instance, with journalists. When it comes to totalitarian states, however, censorship preceding publication is a very common instrument of power against nonconformist opinions, which is dominant on all levels of artistic, intellectual, religious, political, public, and personal life. Despite all this, up to the present day, no constitution and not even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) include the explicit right of freedom from censorship. This is why censorship has been and continues to be one of many issues in the worldwide struggle for Human Rights.

2. Censorship from the Early Greek Democracy up to Modern Times

Censorship in the early Greek democracy occurred only on very rare occasions. Socrates believed in intellectual freedom, which includes the freedom of discussion. His disciple Plato, on the other hand, already thought of art as a means of transmitting moral values. For him, intellectual, religious, and artistic censorship was necessary in case the transmission of morality was not provided. Suffice it to say that this view was not typical for his time and that the term “censorship” as such did not yet exist. It was not until the introduction of the office of the censor in Ancient Rome that the term was coined. Originally, a censor was responsible for conducting the census in order to rationalize the collection of taxes. The setting up of standards for citizenship was soon to be followed by moral standards, which were put under censorial surveillance, too. Public prosecution and punishment were nothing uncommon, and only persons in authority had the privilege of speaking freely. These prosecutions already involved religious matters. Despite the policy of toleration towards the many religions existing in the Empire, worship of the imperial person or image was indispensable. This obligation, however, contradicted for instance early Christian and Jewish beliefs in so far as it constituted idolatry. Therefore, quite a number of people were martyred for their religious beliefs.

The toleration of Christianity, which dates back to 313 AD, was soon to be replaced by religious censorship. When Christianity became the established religion of the Empire both the church and the government began to persecute pagans and Christian heretics. In order to suppress heresy books were prohibited, often burned, and their authors were punished. In 1231, the Inquisition was established and constituted the agency of religious censorship for almost five hundred years. With the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, pre- publication censorship became the prevailing method. The Roman Catholic Church continued to publish an Index of Forbidden Books until 1948, and it was not until 1965 that the penalty of excommunication for reading any forbidden book was abolished. However, occasionally, there are still recommendations circulating as to which books a good Roman Catholic is supposed not to read.

During the reformation, the Protestants did nothing to abolish censorship. The leaders of the Reformation claimed the liberty of conscience only for themselves and their followers and prosecuted Protestant heretics and Roman Catholics.

In the modern world, i.e. from the eighteenth century onwards, with the spread of democracy, there has been an ever-growing emphasis on toleration and liberty in all areas of life, from religion to politics, science, and literature. As far as religion is concerned, there is no democratic country whatsoever without the basic constitutional principle of freedom of religion, including peaceful relations between church and state. On the other hand, in communist countries atheism is the established ideology, and there are also theocracies like Iran. Political censorship in democratic continental Europe continued until the mid- nineteenth century and the establishment of republican governments. During the 1930s occurred a new wave of political censorship, mainly in the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy and Spain, and it was not until after World War Two that political censorship has diminished in Western nations. Communist countries, basically one party-nations, continued to exert state censorship and arbitrary punishment in censorship matters. One of the best examples is the Soviet Union which even denied free speech to world wide recognized scientists and writers. When the situation relaxed in the late 1980s, it did not take long until formerly suppressed dissidents overthrew the government. Other examples of state censorship in the late twentieth century include mid-1970s India, Argentina and France5.

In the late 1980s, there were sixty countries with a relatively high level of freedom - including North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand - whereas thirty-nine countries limited freedom to some degree, and sixty-eight countries denied their citizens most political and civil rights.6

3. Some Examples of Censorship in Artistic Expression

Throughout history and throughout the world, censorship has occurred in every area of artistic expression. Many of these earlier banned works are considered milestones of art today.

In sculpture and painting, a lot of objection came up because of nudity. Two of the most famous examples are the Venus de Milo, which was condemned for nudity in Mannheim, Germany, in 1853, and Michelangelo’s “David” in 1501. In writing, Shakespearean plays have been expurgated more often than those of any other English language author except Chaucer. In the United States - and not only there - many books have been banned at one time or another, for one reason or another since 1965, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Brave New World by Alduous Huxley, and Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. Finally, music has been another field given much attention to by censors. Among censored musicians of the twentieth century are the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.7

Apart from works being simply banned, in the time before modernity set in it has often happened that writers were burned along with their books or that their lives were taken in another way.


Looking at censorship and its development in general, one easily realizes that France, Great Britain, as well as the United States of America - in so far as they took over and modified Great Britain’s methods - have set pattern and pace of this development, thus becoming models for the modern world. Some of the documents involved in this development are the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States (1787), the Bill of Rights (1789-91), and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). I think that this selection sufficiently justifies an approach in which reasons for censorship in Great Britain at the turn of the last century are projected against the background of French censorship. This makes necessary a very close look at the development of French censorship from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

1. Censorship of the written word in France from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century

Before going back in time, it is necessary to address a couple of questions concerning terminology, as well as content, form, and aim of censorship of the written word in France. Censorship needs not be named “censorship” in order to be exactly that. Censorship existed long before the term was coined, and even later, Napoleon and other rulers preferred to use other names to designate it. Most often, when we talk about censorship we mean preventive or repressive censorship. Out of convenience, in the following, the term “censorship” is supposed to be equivalent to “censorship of the written word.”

The very books which were banned or altered by censors have been referred to in quite a number of different ways. They have been called libels, lampoons, forbidden or prohibited books, clandestine books, evil books, bad books, “mazarinades,” philosophical articles, and brochures.8

Regarding the content of these writings, they supposedly contained insults, reproaches, accusations against the honor or reputation of someone, as well as polemics. These contents were usually expressed in short and precise form.

Official definitions of the seventeenth century claimed religion as the main goal of censorship, i.e. the protection of the mores in the Roman tradition as well as the prevention of delinquency. In the eighteenth century the religious connotation seems to retreat in favor of control and suppression of writings for political and security reasons, as prevailing in the nineteenth century. A modern definition involves verbal attacks on either religion or society or the state.

a. Before the Fifteenth Century

From the Middle Ages until the fifteenth century, censorship mainly aimed at maintaining the quality of a text because people believed that the ideas to be transmitted - mostly moral values - were closely linked to its formal aspects. At that time, censorship was put forth by people who worked for the University, usually those who were responsible for copying the books.

b. Fifteenth Century

The invention of printing in the fifteenth century had both negative and positive consequences. On the one hand, printing made the circulation of knowledge and the holy word very easy. However, it also brought with it a far too large number of printed writings to be controlled. The existing structures were unable to adapt to this development fast enough. Therefore, religion was thought to be threatened, and so were the social order and moral values. Despite this anxiety, there was no real censorship until Luther and the Reformation came along. In fact, problems with the content of a book were very rare.

c. Sixteenth Century

The sixteenth century brought about change. Censorship became the instrument of power in civil and religious wars. Luther used printing to distribute his religious propaganda, and in 1521 repressive legislation was inaugurated with the banning of his theses.


1 Atkins, p.1.

2 Ibid.

3 Smith, p. vi.

4 this refers to both the English online version and the German version on CD-Rom

5 This refers to France starting criminal proceedings in 1980 against Le Monde for publishing a number of articles that allegedly cast discredit on French courts (s. Encarta Online Deluxe, p. 4.)

6 Encarta Online Deluxe, p. 3.

7 Atkins, p.3 f.

8 The English terms are translations of the corresponding French terms found in Netz, p.4.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Censorship in France from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. A comparison with Great Britain at the turn of the century
Université de Paris VII - Denis Diderot  (Département Sciences et Lettres Humaines : Lettres Modernes)
La lecture en France et en Grande-Bretagne
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ISBN (eBook)
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censorship, france, middle, ages, great, britain
Quote paper
Stephanie Wössner (Author), 2002, Censorship in France from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. A comparison with Great Britain at the turn of the century, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/138141


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