FREE SPEECH HISTORY TIMELINE

Dive into a timeline covering the subjects of Clear and Present Danger. The timeline will expand as we travel through the history of free speech.

Free speech history

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

“In a free state, tongues too should be free.”
The Education of a Christian Prince (1516)

1517: Martin Luther and the reformation

1517: Martin Luther and the reformation

Portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529

 

Martin Luther unleashes the protestant reformation in 1517. The fuse is lit in October when Luther publishes a list of 95 theses critical of the church. He reportedly nails a copy to the local church door in Wittenberg. He quickly becomes Europe’s most published man, according to some estimates selling more than 300,000 copies between 1517 and 1520.

 

In 1521, Luther is excommunicated by the pope. The same year, Emperor Charles V issues a ‘Law of Printing’, banning all printing, selling, possessing or reading of Luther’s works in the Holy Roman Empire.

 

The reformation quickly spins out of control. In the early 1520s, Hyldrich Zwingli starts his own reformation in Zürich. In 1524, the Peasants’ Revolt breaks out killing an estimated 100,000. In the 1530s, Henry VIII separates England from the Catholic Church, and Christian III of Denmark declares Denmark and Norway Lutheran states.

 

‘You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.’
– Martin Luther

1521- : Confessional cartoon wars

1521- : Confessional cartoon wars

The pope’s birth according to an anti-Catholic pamphlet from 1545 (Public Domain)

 

With the new print technology, the reformation becomes the first testing ground for political and religious memes. Europe is flooded with cartoons or ridicule or (literal) demonisation. Here are a couple of examples:

 

The pope as a donkey with scales and breasts. The flag in the background bears the papal coat of arms with the two keys of heaven (Public Domain)

 

Luther helping the devil stir the cauldron of heresy

c. 1560: Witch hunts

c. 1560: Witch hunts

Witch-burning in Saxony-Anhalt, 1555. Woodcut after original leaflet, Germanisches Nationalmusem in Nuremberg (Public Domain)

 

Europe’s early modern witch hunts spread with the advent of print in the late 15th century. Culminating around 1560, the with fever tail off in the 18th century. An estimated 100,000 (mostly women) are accused. According to a conservative estimate, 40,000 of them are killed.

 

The witch fever is enforced by best selling books on witchcraft and demonology. The most influential is the ‘Hammer of Witches’ from 1487. Selling 30-50,000 copies, the book is only surpassed by the Bible in terms of popularity.

Episode XI: The Great Disruption Part II

Episode XI: The Great Disruption Part II

In episode XI we continue to survey the wreckage after hurricane Luther was unleashed on Europe with the Reformation, with a superstar cast including Calvin, Servetus, Castillio, Acontius, Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, Pope Paul IV, Giordano Bruno, Galileo and many more.

When the Reformation mutated and spread across the continent a burning question arose: Can people of different faiths live together in the same state? Should social peace be based on tolerance or intolerance? We look into questions such as:

  • How did other Protestant reformers like Calvin and Zwingli react to religious dissent?
  • In what manner did English and continental censorship laws differ?
  • How did the Catholic Church react to the Reformation?
  • Which states were the first state to formalize religious tolerance?
  • How did the scientific and philosophical ideas of Galileo and Giordano Bruno conflict with the religious monopoly on truth and what where the repercussions?

1509-1547: Henry VIII

1509-1547: Henry VIII

Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537-1547 (Public Domain)

 

Henry VIII sparks the English Reformation in the early 1530s so he can divorce his wife. He issues an Index of Forbidden Books and declares it an act of treason to call him a ‘tyrant’ and a ‘heretic’.

1542: The Roman Inquisition

In 1542, Pope Paul III signs the papal bull launching the Roman Inquisition. For the next two centuries, the inquisitors conduct at least 50,000 secret trials. A total of around 1,250 are executed.

1553: The execution of Miguel Serveto

1553: The execution of Miguel Serveto

Copper engraving of Serveto and his execution by Christian Fritzsch, c. 1740

 

The Spanish theologian and polymath Miguel Serveto is burned alive in Calvins’s Geneva in October 1553. Because of his anti-Trinitarian theology, he is found guilty of blasphemy and questioning the divinity of Christ. Calvin attend the trial as star witness.

 

The execution moves the theologian Sebastian Castellio to advocate for religious tolerance in his book Concerning Heretics:

 

‘Men are puffed up with knowledge or with a false opinion of knowledge and look down upon others. Pride is followed by cruelty and persecution so that now scarcely anyone is able to endure another who differs at all from him. Although opinions are almost as numerous as men, nevertheless there is hardly any sect which does not condemn all others and desire to reign alone. Hence arise banishment, chains, imprisonments, stakes, and gallows.’
– Sebastian Castellio

1553-1558: Mary I

1553-1558: Mary I

Portrait by Hans Eworth, 1554

 

Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, ascends the throne in 1553. To reverse the English Reformation, she burns around 300 heretics at the stake and earns the unflattering nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

 

Mary also issues a revised Index of Forbidden Books and punishes slanderous writings with hand amputations.

1555-1559: Pope Paul IV and the Counter-Reformation

1555-1559: Pope Paul IV and the Counter-Reformation

Gian Pietro Carafa is promoted from inquisitor general to Pope Paul IV in 1555. He becomes the biggest Counter-Reformation pope, odering fig leaves added to nude statues and paintings, making Jews wear distinctive yellow hats and compiling an Index of Forbidden Books.

 

“Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him.”
– Pope Paul IV

1559: The Index of Forbidden Books

1559: The Index of Forbidden Books

Index Librorum Prohibitorum, Venice, 1564 (Public Domain)

 

Paul IV issues the first papal Index of Forbidden Books in 1559. It bans the entire writings of 550 authors, including Erasmus, Machiavelli and Rabelais. To enforce the censorship, inquisitors scan manuscripts, erase passages with ink and cut out pages. Prohibited books are collected and burnt. The index is not formally abolished before 1966.

1568: The Edict of Torda

The Edict of Torda is one of the first edicts of religious freedom in European history. Issued by the Transylvanian Diet in 1568, it recognises the legal status of Lutherans, Reformed, Catholics, and even the persecuted anti-Trinitarians.

 

“Ministers should everywhere preach and proclaim [the Gospel] according to their understanding of it, and if their community is willing to accept this, good; if not, however, no one should be compelled by force if their spirit is not at peace, … no one is permitted to threaten imprison or banish anyone because of their teaching, because faith is a gift from God.”
– The Edict of Torda, 1568

 

Three years later, the edict is expanded with an amendment declaring that:

 

“the word of  God shall be preached freely everywhere. No one, neither preacher nor listener, shall come to harm on account of his confession”.
– The Edict of Torda, 1568

1558-1603: Elizabeth I

1558-1603: Elizabeth I

Portrait c. 1575. Unknown painter. (Public Domain)

 

When Elizabeth takes over the family business in 1558, she declares England a Protestant state again. She makes it illegal to skip church and declares it an act of treason to call her a ‘bastard’ and a ‘usurper’.

1572: The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

1572: The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

François Dubois, A masacre de San Bartolomé, painted between 1572-1584 (Public Domain)

 

On St. Batholomew’s Day in August 1572, royal troops are given the order to execute Huguenot leaders in Paris. Mass killings erupt and spreads to other major cities, resulting in the deaths and mutilations of thousands of Huguenots.

1579: The Union of Utrecht

1579: The Union of Utrecht

Iconoclasm in a Dutch Catholic church. Dirck van Deelen, 1630 (Public Domain)

 

The Union of Utrecht, the founding document and de facto constitution of the Dutch Republic, is signed in January 1579. Article 13 of the document guarantees religious freedom, stating that:

 

“… each person shall remain free in his religion and that no one shall be investigated or persecuted because of his religion.”
The Union of Utrecht, 1579

But in practice, the document allows the individual provinces to determine the degree of religious freedom. Catholicism is officially banned from all seven provinces, though the degree of enforcement differs. The Dutch Reformed Church enjoys a privileged position, which is officially confirmed in 1650. Lutherans, Anabaptists and Jews have to suffer various restrictions.

1573: The Warsaw Confederation Act

On 28 January 1573, the Sejm of Poland-Lithuania passes the Warsaw Confederation Act. It includes a clause on religious freedom:

 

“…we mutually promise for ourselves and our successors forever … that we who differ with regard to religion will keep the peace with one another, and will not for a different faith or a change of churches shed blood nor punish one another by confiscation of property, infamy, imprisonment or banishment…”

1582: Dirck Coornhert’s Synod on Freedom of Conscience

1582: Dirck Coornhert’s Synod on Freedom of Conscience

Portrait by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1686-88 (Public Domain)

 

The Dutch writer Dirck Coornhert issues his Synod on Freedom of Conscience in 1582. It takes the shape of a fictional Synod of Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics and various historical persons discuss freedom of speech and conscience. The basic argument is that discussion is the only way of establishing the Truth, allowing “with God’s word, not with the executioner’s sword” to ”kill not the heretic but the heresy in him”.

 

In chapter 15, on “The Writing, Publishing, Printing, Selling, Having and Reading of Tracts and Book” his fictitious alter ego, the Remonstrant of Leiden, states that:

“Freedom has always consisted chiefly in the fact that someone is allowed freely to speak his mind. It has been only the mark of tyranny that one was not allowed to speak his thoughts freely. Therefore it is truly tyrannical to… forbid good books in order to squelch the truth” – the Remonstrant of Leiden aka Dirck Coornhert (1582)

 

Coornhert draws his personal line at “notorious books” which “incite to sedition”.

1598: The Edict of Nantes

1598: The Edict of Nantes

Grands Documents de l’Histoire de France, Archives Nationales (Public Domain)

 

The Protestant Henry of Navarre converts to Catholicism in 1572, after the St. Bartholomew Massacre when he is almost killed at his own wedding. He is proclaimed King Henry IV of France in 1589.

 

In April 1598, the new king issues the Edict of Nantes, granting freedom of worship to his former co-religionists.

 

The edict remains in force for 87 years before it is revoked by Louis XIV.

 

“… we have permitted, and herewith permit, those of the said religion pretended Reformed to live and abide in all the cities and places of this our kingdom and countries of our sway, without being annoyed, molested, or compelled to do anything in the matter of religion contrary to their consciences…” – The Edict of Nantes, April 1598

 

Read the full edict here.

1600: The Execution of Giordano Bruno

1600: The Execution of Giordano Bruno

Bruno and the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de’ Fiori (Public Domain)

 

The natural philosopher and Domestic friar Giordano Bruno is best known for his controversial cosmology: His heliocentric worldview and his belief in an infinite universe where Creation takes place repeatedly.

 

In the winter of 1600, the Roman Inquisition convicts Bruno for an unknown offence. All his books are banished to the Pope’s Index of Forbidden Books. Bruno is burned alive at Campo de’ Fiori on February 7th.

1632: Galileo and the Inquisition

1632: Galileo and the Inquisition

Cristiano Banti (1857): Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (Public Domain)

 

In 1632, the astronomer Galileo Galilei finds himself in the clutches of the Roman Inquisition because of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The inquisitors force him to recant his theory of the moving Earth and live out the rest of his life in house arrest.