The Censor at Work


Johan van Oldenbarneveldt – the powerful Secretary of the States who lost his head in 1618, accused of treason by prince Maurice of Orange. His dead ended the first great struggle between the princes of Orange and the Dutch regents. More were to follow.

Half way a biography of the Dutch pensionary Johan van Oldenbarneveldt  published in 1648, almost 30 years after his death on the scaffold, the text takes an unexpected turn. When you turn to page 3f-recto the text suddenly breaks off in mid-sentence and the publisher takes up the pen. A dramatic effect that was used two centuries later by the famous Dutch author Multatuli to shock his readers who thought they were reading a novel and now were confronted with the harsh realities of colonialism.

Multatuli’s 17th century forerunner wrote something like this: ‘Dear reader. We had come this far with the printing of this book when on 12 march 1648 at half past nine in the evening the bailiff and three of his henchmen kicked in the door of the printer’s office. They had blank cutlasses in their hands and they also carried blinded lanterns as if they were common burglars. One of them posted himself at the door, another at the stairs to the first floor. Then the bailiff went through the premises, turning over tables and type-cases, kicking at the type that was waiting to be printed and tearing up already printed paper.  They had been stumbling back and forth from the attic to the cellar for at least two hours when at last the bailiff called for the printer. He told him that they had come on on orders of the burgomasters for the book that was on the press Het leven en sterven van Johan van Olden-Barnevelt (Life and Death of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt). The printer remarked that it was an offense to break in a house like that to seize a book that was not even finished. The bailiff told him to shut up and to hand over the copy. The attic, where the printed paper was kept in parcels, was sealed and guarded. The next day the bailiff came back with a few helpers and carried of the copy and all printed matter he could lay his hand on.’

And so, the publisher continued, I took the decision to publish this book as soon as possible, even when it was not complete since it lacked the chapter the bailiff had found and taken with him.

This little anecdote is a rare description of Dutch censorship in action: the bailiff dropping in after dark, kicking in doors, making threats and creating havoc before taking the copy with him. It has indeed all the trappings of censorship in action. Except for one thing. Not only did the printer answer back to the bailiff but he also told him that he could expect legal action. Which is what he did.  And when the bailiff and his minions had left printing went on. That a chapter was missing was something the readers had to put up with. The publisher promised that in time a second, completed, edition – and indeed such a book would appear ten years later. It counted twelve extra pages so we can calculate the damage the bailiff had done. Since the print run of the first edition seems to have been about 1700 copies, it may have costed the publisher about 50 guilders in profits. Of course the printing shop had to be cleared and type reset, which might have taken a few days.  Still one cannot but wonder if this paltry sum was the reason to sue the bailiff for years on, even up to the High Court at The Hague. Probably the publisher felt that the insult and the desultory way in which his rights as a citizen were disregarded deserved to be punished. The little scene also shows another peculiarity of Dutch censorship. It was not only arbitrary, it was also personal in the sense that the people who were involved knew each other, if not personally, at least by face. Censorship was an affair of individuals. There were no set rules for publishing in the Dutch Republic, nor was there a secret police working for a distant and indifferent government, that locked people up and no questions asked, as in France. Nobody was tortured or died at the stake on a public square.

The Dutch historian Paul Valkema Blouw spend a major part of his life on the study of 16th century subversive printing. Apart from tracing most if not all these subversive publications and bringing together the scarce facts on the lives of their printers, Blouw showed that printing forbidden books was a dangerous affair in the 16th century. The government did it’s best to catch and punish subversive elements and printers who were caught lost everything, often including their lives. It is in fact surprising to see how few where actually caught, but also how tenacious they kept on printing, moving their presses from town to town and often abroad, probably under difficult circumstances. The difference with the seventeenth century is striking. We know of a printer that was whipped because he had offended a powerful member of the Amsterdam oligarchy and also of one author of subversive pamphlets who ended on the scaffold – but not because of what he had written. Two died in prison, Koerbagh, who was convicted to ten years in a workhouse because of his atheism while pamphletist Eric Walten was kept there without a trail because of pamphleteering but also for his shady political deals.


The Rasphuys where Adriaen Koerbagh is often supposed to have been worked to death. In fact he was kept somewhere else where the work was light but the circumstances bad and there, after a year, he died of a disease.

The most striking characteristic of 17th century censorship – or it’s absence – is perhaps that on the one hand very few titles were forbidden but that bookshops also abounded with pamphlets that were illegal because the publisher had not printed his name and address on the title-page. In most years almost half of all published pamphlets did not carry the name of it’s publisher (nor that of the author of course) but in some years the percentage could climb as high as 80%. The standard fine for this kind of publication was 500 guilders, a substantial sum that was to be shared with the informer. The profit that a publisher made on his illegal pamphlet – most of them seem to have reached an edition of about 200-250 copies – was perhaps twenty guilders so it is obvious that the government did not spend much time maintaining their own placards. Nor was the promise of a substantial reward enough for the public to bring booksellers to justice. The avid readers seem instead to have run to the bookseller to ask for the latest pamphlet. Illegal publications were sought after and sometimes more expensive than their legal brothers. Thus they were the source of an interesting bit of extra income for the booksellers – if the publication had the succes they hoped. But that extra income would never have covered the costs of an arrest and condemnation so the risk must have been very small.


Henricus Slatius, the only Dutch author to die on the scaffold. He was accused of plotting against the life of prince Maurice of Orange and confessed under torture. But the real reason was probably his virulent pen that he used to poke fun at the calvinists. 

In most cases nowadays scholars can trace these illegal publications to their makers without much effort. One only has to compare the ornaments and historiated initials to find out who printed a specific text. But there are publications that hide their origins very well. The differences between the traceable pamphlets and the untraceable ones are of course of the greatest interest if you want to know what was dangerous and what was not.

(to be continued …)