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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

November 2019: John Milton, Paradise Lost, London, 1749

November’s Treasure of the Month – an illustrated 18th century edition of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost – was described by Samuel Johnson as “a poem which...with respect to design may claim the first place … among the productions of the human mind”. First published in the mid-17th century, and with over 10,000 individual lines of verse, it tells the story of the Fall of Man: of God, Satan, Adam and Eve. It is thought to have taken Milton around five years to complete the work, which he started in his mid-50s: having gone completely blind five years earlier, it was dictated in full to friends and assistants (one of whom was the poet Andrew Marvell).

Like a number of other volumes that will be on display in Durham Cathedral’s Refectory Library on Wednesday 27th November, as part of our Treasures of Durham Cathedral Library: Banned Books event, Paradise Lost was added to the Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) in 1694 (or, as Milton referred to it, “two or three glutton Friars” who would “rake through the entrails of many an old good author”). However, it was two entirely different works by Milton that caused particular controversy in 17th century England.

An opponent of Charles I during the Civil War, Milton had become a civil servant in the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, and during this time produced a number of anti-Royalist pamphlets. Upon the Restoration in 1660, Charles II issued a Royal Proclamation banning two works in particular by Milton – Defensio pro Populo Anglicano (His Defence of the People of England) and Eikonoklastes (a work which explicitly defended the execution of Charles I; it had been written in response to the popular work Eikon Basilike, which depicted Charles as a Christian martyr) – and called for them to be surrendered to be publicly burned by the hangman. Milton had used these works to argue against a system of monarchy and to dispute the concept of the Divine Right of Kings; he stated in the latter – printed weeks after the execution of Charles – that “it is lawfull … to call to account a Tyrant, or a wicked king … and put him to death”.

The Royal Proclamation issued by Charles II prompted Milton to go into hiding, in fear of execution for treason; two days after the public burnings of his books, however, the king issued an Act of Free and General Pardon, and Milton felt safe enough to surface.

The themes of kingship and tyranny run throughout Paradise Lost, prompting some to see the work as a reflection of his political stance. Milton himself, however, argued that its intention had simply been to “justify the ways of God to men”.

This annotated edition, which includes a biography of Milton, was prepared by Thomas Newton (1704–1782), a biblical scholar and clergyman, who went on to be Bishop of Bristol (1761–1782).

Treasures of Durham Cathedral Library: Banned Books gives visitors an opportunity to view a specially-curated exhibition of works that have been censored or suppressed – including this beautiful edition of Paradise Lost – from the historic collections of Durham Cathedral Library in the stunning surroundings of our 17th century Refectory Library – not usually open to visitors. For further information, or to book a ticket, please see www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on/treasures-of-durham-cathedral-library-banned-books-november