Censorship and the DPS: Archbishop John Spottiswoode's imprimatur to the text

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

As Gesine Manuwald noted in her recent feature on Caspar Barlaeus, the DPS had a range of frontmatter appended to it, including two dedicatory verses by Barlaeus, and a sequence of poems and prose by Arthur Johnston and the Belgian humanist Isaac Gruter celebrating Scotstarvit's achievements in shepherding the anthology through to completion. 1 The collection also had another small, but important, prefatory text attached to it - a licence to print, or imprimatur, by Archbishop John Spottiswoode. The text of this statement 2 is found on page 2 of the first volume of the DPS, and runs as follows:

Delicias hasce Poetarum Scotorum hujus aevi illustrium a nobis recensitas, nihil doctrinae Christianae contrarium, moribus noxium, aut quod publice privatimve justo esse debeat offendiculo continere testamur; eoque nomine dignas esse censemus, quae typis commissae evulgentur, et ad philomouson 3 commodum et voluptatem ubivis locorum distrahantur.



[We testify that these Delights of the Illustrious Scottish Poets of this Age, having been reviewed by us, contain nothing contrary to Christian teaching, harmful to morals, or which publicly or privately ought to be a just cause of offence; and in that name we deem them worthy; so that, having been set down in print, they may be published, and scattered to places everywhere for the profit and enjoyment of lovers of the Muses.



This small snippet raises an interesting question - was the DPS censored or reviewed prior to publication? If so, was this a common practice for volumes of Scottish neo-Latin poetry? Who exactly wielded power to censor printed texts in early modern Scotland was a complex issue. The right to censor was initially granted to bishops in the printing act of 1551/2, and disseminated to ministers and presbyteries in the localities in the latter decades of the sixteenth century, though in reality the government were also actively involved in the process. However, by the time of the publication of the DPS, a large degree of control (at least over clerical works) had been assumed by the unified Court of High Commission created in 1619, and over which John Spottiswoode (as Archbishop of St Andrews from 1615 to 1639) wielded full control. 4 The DPS, as a text printed in Amsterdam, would also have been subject to the 1615 proclamation 'anent the prenting of Bookis beyond sea', which aimed to stop the publication of seditious texts (usually Catholic or radically Presbyterian in nature) for circulation in Scotland. 5 Although data on the activities of the High Commission in relation to censorship is sorely lacking, Spottiswoode did exercise a firm but moderate form of oversight in conjunction with the government in this regard, with a handful of texts censored in each decade during his tenure as archbishop. 6 Most famously, Samuel Rutherford was brought before the commission in 1630 for publishing his Exercitationes apologeticae pro divinae gratia in Amsterdam in the same year. Its anti-Arminian stance stood contrary to the religious policies of Charles I's government, and indirectly led to Rutherford's warding in Aberdeen in 1636-37, showing that censorshop of incendiary religious material could be taken very seriously. 7 However, permission to print could also be a positive phenomenon, in that major works - such as Joan Blaeu's Scottish volume of the Atlas Novus (1654) and John Slezer's Theatrum Scotiae (1694) - could be granted royal privilege ('cum privilegio regali') to protect the copyright of their works. 8

With these considerations in mind, what was the purpose of the imprimatur given by Spottiswoode? A survey of other anthologies of Scottish neo-Latin that one might expect to have a similar imprint - The Muses Welcome to the high and mightie Prince James (Edinburgh, 1618), the Eisodia Musarum Edinensium in Caroli Regis ... ingressu in Scotiam (Edinburgh, 1633), and the Charisterion Academiae Glasguensis ad augustissimum monarcham Carolum (Edinburgh, 1633) - reveals that they do not have such a statement. Given that all these texts were printed domestically, and given that there is no mention of the protection of copyright in the imprimatur, a plausible hypothesis is that the DPS was examined by Spottiswoode as part of the legislation covering books printed overseas.

However, if that is the case, the wording of the licence, focussing as it does on approving the text as upholding Christian teaching and containing nothing contrary to good morality, does raise an eyebrow. Although the project has not translated the full text, what we have seen so far indicates that a number of poems - epigrams by Robert Ayton, Hercules Rollock and Thomas Maitland emulating Catullus, for example - have highly questionable moral content and explicit sexual references, including discussions of adultery and sex outside of marriage. 9 There are also a range of poems peppered throughout the text - Thomas Maitland's 'inauguratio' for King James (1567) being perhaps the most strident 10 - that strongly uphold the views of George Buchanan on tyrannicide and popular accountability of the monarch. Perhaps the themes of obscenity and love were acceptable providing that they were dealt with as a form of emulation of Classical texts, in the way that epic ideas and the 'occasional' themes of sylvae were. Equally, perhaps the ideas of George Buchanan were not deemed by Spottiswoode to be a particular threat to Christian teaching or morality. However, another possible reading of the imprimatur (and more likely, given the size of the DPS) is that the archbishop or his reviewers simply did not read the whole text. If that is the case, then perhaps the imprimatur is not evidence of an active policy of censorship being exercised against the DPS. Instead, like the poems appended to the text by Arthur Johnston and Casper Barlaeus, it is simply another form of frontmatter, granted by the highest ecclesiastical authority in the land, and designed to impress an international audience - in other words, a form of early modern book-jacket review blurb.


1: On Johnston's contribution, see Gesine Manuwald, 'Arthur Johnston's "dedication" to the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum', in David McOmish and Steven J. Reid (eds), Neo-Latin Literature and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Scotland (forthcoming).

2: An image of it can be seen on the home page of the site, and also forms part of the website banner.

3: Transliterated from the original Greek in the text.

4: See Alistair J. Mann, The Scottish Book Trade, 1500-1720: Print Commerce and Print Control in Early Modern Scotland (East Linton, 2000), pp. 45, 50, 52-62, and chapter 6, passim.

5: RPC (1st series), vol. 10, pp. 339-40. This was followed by a 1625 proclamation specifically aginst books printed in the Low Countries. See Mann, Scottish Book Trade, pp. 57-58, 171-2.

6: 4 in the 1610s; 5 in the 1620s; and 2 in the 1640s. Mann, Scottish Book Trade, pp. 188-189.

7: Mann, Scottish Book Trade, p. 172; on Rutherford, see John Coffey, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: the Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge, 1997).

8: Mann, Scottish Book Trade, p. 140. Privileges were granted to Blaeu's work by Emperor Ferdinand III, Oliver Cromwell and the States General of the United Netherlands; National Library of Scotland, The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland (Birlinn, 2006), pp. 33-34 (available online here). Queen Mary provided privileges for Slezer; available online here.

9: Robert Ayton, 'Basia sive strena ad Iacobum Hayum equitem illustrissimum' and DPS, vol. 1, pp. 54-60; Thomas Maitland, 'Iocus in Gallum cuculum' and 'In Gillam', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 175-176; Hercules Rollock, 'Inter legendas nuces cum puellis', DPS, vol. 2, p. 386 (see Rollock, poem 23, in the Delitiae section of the site.

10: Thomas Maitland, 'Sylva I: Iacobi VI, Scotorum Regis Inauguratio', DPS. vol. 2, pp. 154-163.