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

c. 1560: Witch hysteria

c. 1560: Witch hysteria

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

 

Like the printing press, the witch hysteria spreads in the late 15th century. It culminates around 1560 and ebbs away in the 18th century. An estimated 100,000 people, mostly women, are accused of witchcraft. A conservative etimate of 40,000 are killed in the most horrible ways imaginable.

 

The witch hysteria is initiated or at least enforced by a great surge in books covering witchcraft and demonology. The most influential one is the Malleus Maleficarum or  “Hammer of Witches” from 1487. According to some estimates it is only surpassed by the Bible, selling between 30 and 50,000 copies.

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 technolog, the Reformation becomes the first real testing grounds for political and religious memes. Europe is flooded with cartoons ridiculing or (literally) demonizing the other side. Here you can see a few examples.

 

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

 

Luther helping the devil stir the cauldron of heresy

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: Calvin, Castellio and Serveto

1553: Calvin, Castellio and Serveto

In October 1553, the Spanish polymath Miguel Serveto is burned alive in Calvins’s Geneva. As a notorious anti-Trinitarian, Serveto is found guilty of blasphemy and questioning the divinity of Christ.

 

The execution moves the theologian Sebastian Castellio to pen his famous book on religious toleration, 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: ‘Bloody Mary’

1553-1558: ‘Bloody Mary’

Portrait by Antonis Mor, 1554 (Public Domain)

 

Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary I, ascends the English throne in 1553. In an attempt to reverse the English Reformation, she burns around 300 heretics at the stake. She also declares it an act of treason to prey that her heart might be turned from popery. She issues a revised Index of Forbidden Books and punishes slanderous writings with hand amputations.

1555-1559: Pope Paul IV

1555-1559: Pope Paul IV

The Roman Inquisitor-General, Gian Pietro Carafa, is promoted to Pope Paul IV in 1555. He adds fig leaves on nude statues and paintings, makes Jews wear distinctive yellow hats and initiates 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.

1558-1603: Elizabeth I

1558-1603: Elizabeth I

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

 

When Bloody Mary dies in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth takes over the family business and declares England a Protestant nation. Queen Elizabeth makes it illegal to skip church and declares it an act of treason to call her a ‘bastard’ or a ‘usurper’.

1568: The Edict of Torda

The Edict of Torda is issued by the Transylvanian Diet in 1568. The edict recognizes the legal status of Lutherans, Reformed, Catholics, and even the heavily 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.”

 

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”.

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.

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…”

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 is signed in January 1579 – the founding document and de facto constitution of the Dutch Republic. Article 13 guarantees 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 each province to determine the degree of freedom of conscience. 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.

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.

The Mughal Empire

Episode XIV: ‘Universal Peace’ – Religious tolerance in the Mughal empire

Episode XIV: ‘Universal Peace’ – Religious tolerance in the Mughal empire

Episode 14 leaves the West and heads to 16th and 17th Century India and the Mughal empire. In particular, the rule of Akbar the Great.

 

A century before John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” Akbar developed a policy of “Universal Peace” repudiating religious compulsion and embracing ecumenical debate. We’ll also discover why the history of the Mughal empire still tests the limits of free speech and tolerance in modern India. Among the questions tackled are:

  • Why, how, and to what extent did Akbar abandon orthodox Islam for religious tolerance?
  • How did religious tolerance in the Mughal empire compare to contemporary Europe?
  • How did English travelers get away with openly blaspheming Muhammad, the Quran, and Allah?
  • Was the emperor Aurangzeb really the uniquely intolerant villain that history has portrayed him as?
  • Why do India’s current laws against religious insults hamper modern historians’ efforts at documenting events during the Mughal empire?

1556-1605: Akbar the Great

1556-1605: Akbar the Great

Akbar receives two Jesuit priests at his court, miniature c. 1605 (Public Domain)

 

The Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) is famous for his religious tolerance: He abolishes the Jizya tax on non-Muslim subjects, allows forced converts to re-convert and invites priests from different religions to discuss their believes. He even lectures the Persian Shah ‘Abbas and the Spanish king Philip II about the values of tolerance.

 

“Formerly I persecuted men into conformity with my faith and deemed it to be Islam. As I grew in knowledge, I was overwhelmed with shame.” – Akbar the Great