In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Censorship

  • Introduction
  • British Nondramatic Literature
  • Irish Nondramatic Literature
  • Irish Drama

British and Irish Literature Censorship
Cyndia Susan Clegg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0011


As Donald Thomas aptly suggests, the difficulty of writing about literary censorship “is to avoid writing the history of too many other things at the same time” (Thomas 1969, cited under General Overviews, p. xi). Censorship poses both a semantic and a diachronic problem. The word censorship may refer to the positive law that prescribes what may or may not be spoken or written under its definitions and to the punishment of the law’s transgressors. In English law this is complicated by the body of case law that mediates the positive law through interpretation and precedents and that can transform law over time. Censorship may also refer to prior restraint (usually licensing), that is, to efforts to vet texts prior to publication or performance. Licensing itself is not entirely a distinct category, however, because in the early years of British publishing, licensing was an early form of copyright that protected a publisher’s “ownership” of a book. Similarly, dramatic license might entail the permission of a dramatic censor—from early on through the office of the Lord Chamberlain—or it might involve a grant (usually royal) for an acting company or a theater to do business. In addition, although the word censorship is usually associated with government or church regulation and restraint, special interests—public, commercial, and personal—have influenced motives for and acts of control. With such pressures it is not surprising that censorship changes over time and reflects particular concerns and interests at any given cultural moment, resulting in a diachronic problem for defining censorship. This is further complicated with regard to the censorship of English and Irish literature. Ireland, though culturally different, for many years was subject to English rule, so for much of its history Irish literature was regulated by the same laws as English literature. With the creation of the Irish Free State in the early twentieth century, and later, the Republic of Ireland, Ireland enacted regulations that differed drastically from English regulation and that reflected very different cultural pressures. Literary censorship, then, is not a static category; instead, it encompasses cultural bias, politics, religion, law, publishing and trade relations, copyright, and the responses of individual writers to any or all these. To sort out this complexity, censorship and English literature must be considered separately from censorship and Irish literature, and dramatic censorship for each must be considered separately from censorship and publication (manuscript or print).

General Overviews

Even though categories of literary periods have fallen out of fashion in literary studies, diachronic changes in the motives for and practices of censorship mean that most studies of literature and censorship restrict themselves to specific time periods. There are a few resources on literary censorship. Moore 2016 offers an introduction to the topic. The organization Index on Censorship, founded in 1972, issues an eponymous quarterly journal that considers every aspect of censorship and free speech and frequently publishes articles on literary censorship. Thomas 1969 provides a historical narrative that encompasses the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the first half of the twentieth. Gillett 1932 gives a chronological account of banned books to the end of the seventeenth century. Heyworth-Dunne 2022 surveys best-known occasions of literary censorship as does Baltussen and Davis 2015. The bibliography in Feather 2006 addresses more than censorship and banned books but identifies the most important books about censorship. The other bibliographies, Hart 1872–1878 and May 2016, are restricted to specific time periods: Hart, from 1530 to 1660, and May, to the long eighteenth century.

  • Baltussen, Hans, and Peter J. Davis, eds. The art of veiled speech: Self-censorship from Aristophanes to Hobbes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

    Historical approach to literary self-censorship that contains two chapters on early modern literature.

  • Feather, John. A History of British Publishing. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    Originally published in 1988. This is essential reading for anyone new to studies in censorship and the history of the book. The bibliography in the second edition is comprehensive and extensive, but on far more than censorship and literature.

  • Gillett, Charles Ripley. Burned Books: Neglected Chapters in British History and Literature. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

    This frequently cited text covers censorship in England between 1509 and 1900, mistakenly assuming that any book that provoked objections constituted a “burned book.” Organized chronologically by date of author’s life even though the book in question may not have been condemned until the Oxford convocation decree of 1683. Cressy 2005 (cited under Tudor and Early Stuart Nondramatic Literature) clarifies the practice of book burning in England.

  • Hart, W. H. Index expurgatorius anglicanus; or, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Principal Books Printed or Published in England, Which Have Been Suppressed, or Burnt by the Common Hangman, or Censured, or for Which the Authors, Printers, or Publishers Have Been Prosecuted. London: Smith, 1872–1878.

    An annotated, chronological bibliography of books suppressed between 1530 and 1660. Explains how and why the books were censored, often providing evidence from calendars of state papers, records of state trials, and parliamentary journals. Late-20th and early-21st-century scholarship has revisited this material, finding and correcting errors. See Clegg 1997, Clegg 2001, and Clegg 2008 (all cited under Tudor and Early Stuart Nondramatic Literature).

  • Heyworth-Dunne, Victoria. Banned Books: The World’s Most Controversial Books, Past and Present. New York: DK Publishing, 2022.

    This volume includes consideration of some of the most familiar instances of censorship, from Wycliff’s Bible to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but it also visits some that are less well known. It is thorough and offers thoughtful considerations of the motives and mechanisms of literary censorship.

  • Index on Censorship.

    This is an organization founded in 1972 by Writers and Scholars International. It is headquartered in London and campaigns globally for freedom of expression. Its quarterly journal, Index on Censorship, publishes significant articles on censorship, including those on English and Irish literature, as well as on censorship’s legal, political, and cultural contexts.

  • May, James E. Recent Studies of Censorship, Press Freedom, Libel, Obscenity, etc., in the Long Eighteenth Century, Published c. 1985–2015. New York: Bibliography Society of America, 2016.

    A comprehensive bibliography containing material that appeared after 1986 in British and Continental publications. Expands upon a two-part bibliography published in 2004 and 2005 in the East-Central Intelligencer, the newsletter of the East-Central/American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, now published as Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer.

  • Moore, Nicole. “Censorship.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A comprehensive introduction to all aspects of censorship.

  • Thomas, Donald Serrell. A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England. New York: Praeger, 1969.

    A history of literary censorship in England that reflects the transformation in the motives for censorship, from political beginnings into the eighteenth century, to blasphemy for the remainder of that century, and then to obscene libel and sexual morality in the nineteenth century. The study concludes with a brief consideration of censorship in the twentieth century. A respectable, if slightly outdated, overview of the subject.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.