Areopagitica Handout

English 513/622

Dr. Fike




1545-64:  Council of Trent, “the ecumenical gathering that launched the Counter-Reformation against the Protestant Reformation of Northern Europe….The mechanisms of press control devised by Catholicism to combat Protestantism were then taken up by English bishops to resist the necessary secondary Reformation of the Church of England, in ‘gay imitation…apishly Romanizing’ the legislation of England” (Thomas N. Corns, John Milton:  The Prose Works, pages 61-62).  See Areopagitica 1003, left column.  The Council of Trent is mentioned on pages 1002,


1637:  The Star Chamber decreed that new and reprinted books had to be examined by clergy appointed by the Bishop of London or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it empowered the Stationer’s Company to search for illegal printers.


1641:  The Star Chamber was abolished.


January 29, 1642:  Commons ordered authors’ and printers’ names to appear on the title pages of books.


1642:  The first civil war began.  Royalist army marched on London.


June 16, 1643:  Parliament passed Licensing Order.  This is the subject of Milton’s Areopagitica.


July 1, 1643:  Westminster Assembly of Divines met for first time.  “In the hope of generating a mutually acceptable religious settlement, Parliament created the Westminster Assembly, a convocation of 120 English clerics, 30 laymen from the Lords and Commons, and 8 Scottish representatives. Debate within the Assembly proceeded continuously for months at a high level of piety and prolixity. Intense and bitter disagreements persisted, however, on such issues as congregational autonomy and toleration. The fierce disputes within the Assembly spilled over into the House of Commons, the pulpits, the army camps, and the streets, and generated some notable essays on the subject of religious toleration. Several of these were published in violation of the Licensing Order of 1643” (


August 1, 1643:  Milton publishes Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.


February 2, 1644:  Milton publishes the augmented edition of DDD.


August 1644:  Parliament’s army destroyed the Royalist army.  Result:  heroic fervor, optimism, relief.  Milton tapped into these sentiments; for example, see 1019 left, comments on London; and 1020, right top.


November 23, 1644:  Milton published Areopagitica.  He criticized the Licensing Order, but he surely also responded to the furor over his writings about divorce. 


December 1644:  On the advice of the Stationers Company, the House of Lords appointed two justices to “examine” Milton on his recent writings.  The case was probably dismissed (we do not know for sure).


Milton’s Four Arguments


See the summary on the top of 999 left.


Large Group Questions


1.     What types of freedom does Milton favor in his overall writings, not just in Areopagitica?


2.     Does Milton favor freedom of publication for everyone, even the Catholics?  Why would Milton oppose freedom for Catholics?


3.     Check out the contradiction:  He doesn’t want equal rights for Papists, but he says things like the following:


4.     How is Milton the English Isocrates?  Is the title ironic? 


5.     Milton invokes Moses, Daniel, and St. Paul, but Paul is the key figure:


6.     What is Milton’s purpose in Areopagitica?


7.     Whom does Milton blame for censorship?


8.     What does Milton say about the nature of books?


9.     Does Milton believe that licensing is effective or ineffective?


10.  What are the negative consequences of licensing?


Small Group Discussion


How does Milton view human nature?


Group One:   Consider 1005-6:  start at the top of the right column on page 1005 through the business about Guyon.


Group Two:  Consider 1010 on reason and free will.


Group Three:  Consider 1017-18:  What is the point of the Isis/Osiris myth?  What is Milton saying about Christ and about the nature of truth?