England’s Civil War
The English Civil War began in the summer of 1642 over constitutional and religious issues, pitting Parliament against royalist forces. Fears were rife of religious sectarianism and covert support for Roman Catholicism, especially after a deluge of sectarian books and pamphlets followed Parliament’s early noncensorship policy. Parliament responded in 1642 by requiring every publication to bear the name of its printer; but on June 14, 1643, Parliament went even further by requiring approval and licensing of all publications before printing, instituting a regime of prior censorship.
Milton was an ideal writer to respond to Parliament’s order. A brilliant student at St. Paul’s School in London and at Cambridge University, Milton read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew and was steeped in the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics. Urged to reply to Parliament, Milton published Areopagitica without official approval, in November, 1644. His tract’s title refers to a speech known as “Logos aeropagitikos” that the ancient Athenian Isocrates addressed to Athens’ governing council. This council, drawn from ordinary citizens, had reduced the power of the Areopagus, a council of elders named for the Athenian hill on which it met. Milton’s essay did not take Parliament to be the Areopagic council; rather, the Areopagus was the English people, whose powers had been diminished by the censorship order.