Censorship in the Dutch Golden Age – 1



Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) lived in Rotterdam, where he published his rightly famous Dictionaire in 1697. The importance of this book for the dissemination of the ideas of Descartes and Spinoza can hardly be underestimated.

According to the French writer and philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) there was no country in the world where writers and their publishers enjoyed so much license as in the Dutch Republic. Bayle remarked that Milton would not have written his De typographia liberanda if he had only lived in the Netherlands, as it would never have occurred to him that the press was not free, let alone that it needed to be liberated. In the Calvinist United Provinces catholics and protestants of all denominations used the press to disseminate their views without questions asked and according to Bayle catholics were indeed more free to publish in the Netherlands than in catholic countries. [Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. Mois de Mars 1684. Amsterdam, Henry Desbordes, 1684: *2-verso-*3-recto]

By 1684 Bayle had been living in Rotterdam for three years and he must have known by then how the Dutch society functioned, with it’s special form of liberty. A liberty that was in fact circumscribed by unwritten rules that may have been hard to fathom for a foreigner. Indeed Dutch censorship differed radically from the usual practice in other European countries in the sense that it was not institutionalized. From time to time publications were forbidden but for anyone who, like Bayle, compared the Dutch republic to, for instance, France, it must have seemed clear that the press was free and that Holland was indeed an author’s heaven. The grand total of forbidden publications in the period 1570-1720 was about 200: less than 0.1 percent of the number of titles counted for that period in the Short Title Catalogue, Netherlands (that contains about 200.000 editions at the moment).


Spinoza’s work was published in the Netherland and of course banished. In fact the government took little notice of this book, although it’s invitation to atheism was duly noted. But the author was left alone and was never prosecuted by the government. Imagine how he – an outcast jew and supposed atheist – would have ended up in France.

A recent study paints a bleak portrait of censorship in the Dutch Republic. Although the author does not deny that the actual number of forbidden books was small, writers and publishers had, according to her, constantly to cope with clear and present danger. This view of the Dutch Republic as a sort of police state deserves to be redressed. It makes heroes out of men who probably saw themselves as honest businessmen and who indeed would have been surprised to find themselves framed as champions of the free word. Probably another Frenchman, who in 1687 called Amsterdam the Mecca for writers was more to the point – especially as he was not the only one to think so. As we will see censorship in the United Provinces was in fact a quirky affair that largely depended on individual whims, on local magnates but also on ambassadors or even on kings and of course on orthodox calvinists who roamed the streets looking for dissident opinions. [Olga van Marion. Verboden in de Gouden Eeuw. p. 31. In: M. Matthijsen. Boeken onder druk. Amsterdam 2011. The  unknown ‘frenchman’ of Van Marion was the in fact the philosopher Pierre Silvain Regis (1632-1707) who was a follower of Descartes. For those who – like me – are interested in the genesis of footnotes: he is ‘a frenchman’ too in her source and in the source of that source. Regis never left France and became a respected member of the French Academy in 1699. His observation on the Dutch ‘Mekka of authors’ was of course wishful thinking of a ‘modern’ thinker, haunted by reactionaries and not based on any direct experience with the Dutch.]

From time to time the States General or the States of Holland (the province were about 90% of all Dutch publications were printed) would forbid a specific book or even whole categories, like pamphlets that concerned themselves with foreign heads of state, but Dutch booksellers cared little for their placards. In a certain sense it can it be said that they practised self-censorship. When they expected that they might run into difficulties they published their books and pamphlets without the name of the printer or publisher (and of course without the name of the author!). This was explicit forbidden by laws that were repeated time after time but few seem to have cared about it.

[To be continued …]