Early Modern Censorship and Libel

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UCR (dis)junctions
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The relationship between censorship and slander, libel, obscenity and copyright - particularly as these legal doctrines existed in the early modern period, along with the institutions that enforce them - is a concept that has received critical attention in the academy; however little attention has been paid to how these relationships have evolved from the early modern to the post-modern period. The central question of this project is how these methods of censorship have changed and how those changes can be defined and explained. This paper will consist of an examination of the interaction of libel, slander and obscenity as forms of censorship in the 16th, 17th and 18th century in relationship to the Stationers’ Guild and its licensing schemes. This includes an analysis of the pivotal role that John Milton played in this debate with the publication of Areopagitica and Eikonoklastes. To illustrate the role of censorship during this period with concrete examples, the project will undertake a case study of two critical figures of the 17th century: Edward Tylney (Master of the Revels) and Robert L’Estrange (Surveyor of State Censorship). It will then investigate the controversies surrounding Edmund Curll, an 18th century bookseller known for establishing obscene libel as a misdemeanor under common law. I expect to find that even as these legal doctrines have evolved, their impact on artistic production remained relatively stable. The implications of this examination are enormous. If the effects of censorship are relatively stable even as doctrines such as slander and libel have changed radically then the assumption that the doctrine of freedom of expression has developed radically over that three hundred year period needs to be reexamined.

The theme of 21st annual (dis)junctions conference, hosted by UC Riverside, is “irreverent readings,” featuring keynote speakers Virginia Jackson (UC Irvine) and Constance Pendley (UC Santa Barbara). Abstracts of 250 to 300 words should be submitted via the form at www.disjunctions2014.org by February 10th, 2014.

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