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Rescript on Post-Publication Censorship (1773)

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Commentary on documents sc_1770, sc_1771 & sc_1773


Legislation on Censorship and Printing during and after the Struensee intermezzo (1770-1773)

Håkon Evju

Jesper Jakobsen


Please cite as:

Evju, Håkon, and Jesper Jakobsen (2023) ‘Commentary on Abolishment of Censorship in Denmark-Norway', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Context: Censorship in Denmark-Norway before 1770

4. J.F. Struensee and the Abolition of Pre-Publication Censorship

5. Context: Changes in Print Culture after the Order of 14 September 1770

6. Restrictions on the Freedom of the Press in the Order of 7 October 1771

7. The Fall of Struensee and Restrictions of the Press, 1772-73

8. The Order of 20 October 1773: Post-publication Censorship

9. Conclusion


1. Full title

14 September 1770: Order (to Copenhagen University, Bishops in Denmark and Norway, High Chamberlain of Sorø Academy, and to be made known to all printers as well as the General Collegium for Church Matters  [?]), on the printing of books without censorship and imprimatur.

14 September 1770: Rescr. (til Kjøbenhavns Universitet, Biskoperne i Danmark og Norge, samt Overhofmesteren ved Sorø-Academie, til egen Efterretning og Bekjendtgjørelse for samtlige Bogtrykkere, saa og til General-Kirke-Inspections-Collegium), ang. at Bøger maa trykkes uden Censur og Approbation.


7 October 1771: Order (to Copenhagen University, all Provincial Governors and Bishops in Denmark and Norway, as well as to the High Chamberlain of Sorø Academy, and to be made known to all printers, with notice to the Chief of Police in Copenhagen), by which the freedom granted in the Order of 14 September 1770 is restricted.

7 October 1771: Rescr. (til Kjøbenhavns Universitet, samtlige Stiftbefalingsmænd og Biskoper i Danmark og Norge, samt Overhofmesteren ved Sorø-Academie, tillige at bekjendtgjøres alle Bogtrykkere, og Notits til Politimesteren i Kjøbenhavn), hvorved den ved Rescr. Af 14 Sept. 1770 tilladte Trykkefrihæd indskrænkes.


20 October 1773: The Etatsraad and Police Master Christian Fædder, to instruct the publishers of the Addresse Contoirets Efterretninger and the newspapers and other weeklies that they must not include anything in them that should not be included in such journals, etc.

(20. oktober 1773: Etatz-Raad og Politiemester Christian Fædder, anlangende at tilholde Udgiverne af Adrese Contoirets Efterretninger og Aviserne samt andre Ugeblade, at de intet maae indføre deri, som ikke i slige Tidender har Sted med videre.)


2. Abstract

Danish and Norwegian legislation concerning censorship and print changed dramatically in the years between 1770 and 1773, following three distinct royal orders issued during and shortly after the German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee’s time in power at the Danish court. The Order of 14 September 1770 abolished, with one swift stroke, the old system of pre-publication censorship by expert readers, and set in motion the world’s most radical experiment in press freedom. Soon, however, Struensee discovered that this experiment was not to his advantage and on 7 October 1771 another royal order restricted press freedom, emphasizing that authors needed to stay within the bounds of law and clamping down on the use of anonymity. Still, conditions continued to be favorable for both authors and printers until Struensee’s downfall in January 1772 and the ensuing reaction. In a third royal order, on 20 October 1773, a new regime of post-publication censorship was put in place, which, combined with a deterring show trial, put an end to the press freedom experiment in Denmark-Norway.

3. Context: Censorship in Denmark-Norway before 1770

The order of 14 September 1770 abolished a system of censorship that, despite institutional and legal variations, had been in place since the 16th century. Prior to the Freedom of the Press Order of 1770, the organization of censorship in Denmark-Norway was based on the basic provisions of Chapter 21 of the Danish Law of 1683 (see comment 11). The key principle was that all manuscripts had to be subject to censorship and approval by expert readers before they could be printed. As both the number of printers in the realm and the overall production of printed works increased throughout the 18th century, this principle became increasingly difficult to enforce.[1]

Censorship of theological and religious manuscripts was more extensive compared to other genres, which reflects the particular caution that surrounded these types of writings. First, theological/religious writings had to be approved by the diocesan bishop. Next, the manuscript and the bishop’s written assessment had to be sent to the Faculty of Theology in Copenhagen, which also had to approve the manuscript for printing. In 1737, an additional layer of censorship was added to theological/religious manuscripts when it was decided that the so-called General Church Inspection College (Generalkirkeinspektionskollegiet) would approve the printing permissions granted to the manuscripts by the Faculty of Theology.[2]

Throughout the 18th century, the demand for printed manuscripts increased across the kingdom and new printing houses were founded around the kingdom’s provinces. For a printer trying to establish himself in Northern Jutland or Norwegian towns, for example, it was both difficult and expensive to transport manuscripts back and forth to the University of Copenhagen to get the necessary approvals. Internal reports from the central administration in Copenhagen show that the government recognized this problem in the years before 1770, and in order to make it easier to run a printing house in the provinces, some provincial printers were given the privilege of printing manuscripts after they had been approved by their respective bishops.[3]

Newspapers, with their ever-increasing frequency of publication, posed a genre-specific challenge to the principle of blanket censorship. Newspapers were not specifically mentioned in the censorship provisions of the Danish law, a reflection of the fact that newspapers were still limited in their reach and influence at the time. In 1701, a regulation was issued that described in detail the procedure for the censorship of the so-called political newspapers and set a framework for what the newspapers were allowed to print and, in particular, what they were not allowed to print (see comment 12). Throughout the 18th century, the range and variety of newspapers grew rapidly, and from the mid-18th century a new genre of commercial newspapers became widespread, whose content consisted mainly of sales advertisements and various types of notices that people paid to have printed. In 1761, a separate censorship procedure was established for the Copenhagen advertising newspaper Adresseavisen. The responsibility for censoring this paper was placed in the hands of the Copenhagen City Council (Københavns Magistrat).[4] During the 1760s, the censors of the Adresseavisen repeatedly complained to the central administration about the heavy workload associated with pre-censorship and the fact that it was almost impossible to do it sufficiently thoroughly when the newspaper was published in new editions several times a week.[5]

By 1770, the censorship of printed matter in Denmark-Norway had developed into a complex system. It involved several central and local authorities. The traditional organization of the censorship regime around Copenhagen, and especially the University of Copenhagen, was increasingly challenged by the growing production of printed matter and the wider geographical distribution of printing presses across the extensive kingdom. As a result, although the Danish-Norwegian absolute monarchy’s censorship regulations on paper appeared to be an almost complete system for controlling everything that was printed, by 1770 it was proving increasingly difficult to control both the domestic production of printed texts and the import of printed texts from abroad.


4. J. F. Struensee and the Abolition of Pre-Publication Censorship 

The Order of 14 September 1770 was unique in that it introduced the world’s first – and perhaps so far only – legally guaranteed and completely unrestricted freedom of the press. The man behind the order was the physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737-1772). Originally from Halle, where he was educated, Struensee worked in Altona as a doctor when he was called on to follow the mentally ill King Christian VII (1749-1808, reigned 1766-1808) on a European tour in 1768-69. He quickly built up a close relationship with the king as his personal physician and confidant, while at the same time becoming Queen Caroline Mathilda’s (1751-1775) lover. Struensee’s closeness to the royal family gave him great political influence, and from the summer of 1770, he was able to convince the king to rule through his cabinet rather than the state council and his old ministers.[6] 

The order concerning censorship was one of the first pieces of legislation issued after Struensee’s coup and did not follow standard administrative practice in Denmark-Norway at the time, which would have required the document to go through a range of committees and bureaucratic procedures. It was emblematic of the version of enlightened absolutism that he embodied until his downfall in January 1772; one which was influenced by his reading of Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) and other philosophers of the French Enlightenment and which led him to initiate a plethora of reforms of state and society in Denmark and Norway. 

The order of September 14 granted printers an “unlimited liberty” to print without authors having to submit manuscripts to censors beforehand. An approbation (the so-called “imprimatur”) was no longer necessary. The justification provided for this measure emphasized utility in an Enlightenment way. Freedom of the press would correct “age-old prejudices and misguided thinking” and further “the common good and the true interests of individual citizens”. Authors were presented as “well-meaning patriots” engaged in a “search for the truth” in an “impartial” way.

Marking the world’s first full press freedom,[7] the abolition of censorship was hailed by Enlightenment luminaries such as David Hume (1711-1776) and Voltaire (1694-1778),[8] and became the start of a three-year experiment in Denmark-Norway. The amount of printed material, especially in the capital, exploded in these years, with pamphlets and journals being the most popular formats. Printers and booksellers, especially in Copenhagen, saw the commercial potential in the new government policy and writers from different social classes were quick to grasp the chance to express their opinions publicly in a wide variety of styles, tones and genres.[9] The order marked a big step in the direction of a market for print in Denmark-Norway.


5. Context: Changes in Print Culture after the Order of 14 September 1770

The ideal of the writer-as-patriot, dedicated to uncover the truth and contribute to the common good, played an important part in the language of the order of 1770 and can be seen as a mechanism meant to inculcate a certain self-discipline among authors when censors no longer exerted direct control. The Danish-Norwegian absolute monarchy had promoted such an ideal for some time. In 1755, the king’s High Chamberlain, Adam Gottlob Moltke (1710-1792), oversaw a public invitation calling on all true patriots to put in writing proposals for economic improvements, especially within agriculture, manufacture and trade. The best ones were published in a new journal, Danmark og Norges Økonomiske Magazin (Economic Review of Denmark and Norway, 1757-1764).[10] Still, the ideal of the writer-as-patriot had also long been in tension with a different conception of what it meant to be a writer, one which emphasized writing and publishing as activities addressing not just a multitude of faceless readers in a public sphere, but particular persons with influence over money, pensions and positions. To put something in writing and get it printed was a way of furthering one’s career or attaining some kind of advantage. The frequent use of dedications in print during the first part of the 18th century is one indication of this aspect of print culture, which stood in an uneasy relationship with the ideal of the disinterested patriot writing to uncover the truth and benefit the common good.[11]

When censorship was abolished in September 1770, some of these tensions concerning authorial motivation were eased. It became more attractive to write for a public audience. Censors were no longer there, neither as gatekeepers nor as possible patrons worth impressing, and the new freedom gave writers a chance to address the public less encumbered and much more directly than before. It also quickly stimulated demand for print and enlarged the prospective audience for new writings. Increasingly, writers could direct their works toward a market.

At the same time, it quickly became clear that even if writing for patronage became less prominent, motivations for people to express themselves in print were still mixed. Not everyone who wished to publish a text was driven by patriotism, as the order of 1770 took for granted. The widespread use of anonymity or pseudonyms by authors after the abolition of censorship exacerbated this problem. While the use of such practices served to focus attention on the argument, the content of the piece of writing in question, they also raised doubts and speculation about authorial motivation.[12] As a mechanism meant to police the public sphere, the ideal of the writer-as-patriot quickly ran into trouble after 1770. 


6. Restrictions on the Freedom of the Press in the Order of 7 October 1771

Not long after Struensee came to power, his poorly hidden romantic relationship with the queen caused a public scandal and became an object of scorn and indignation in the newly liberated press, to the point where calls were made for someone to intervene and put an end to the affair. Struensee realized that public opinion was not necessarily on his side. In an attempt to rein in the press, he got the king to issue another order on 7 October 1771, emphasizing that the provisions in the Danish and Norwegian law codes still applied, even though he had abolished censorship. Writers were liable to be punished if they broke the law. In order to enforce these restrictions, the order also forbade printers to publish the work of any author whose identity they did not know. The name of the author or the printer had to be displayed on the title page of all printed texts. The widespread use of anonymity, which had been an important part of the experiment in press freedom, was thus curtailed.


7 The Fall of Struensee and Restrictions of the Press, 1772-73


Struensee’s regime came to an abrupt end after the coup d’état in January 1772. Subsequently, the free and more or less unregulated public debate was quickly replaced by new restrictions. Struensee’s reformism, combined with a disregard for the traditional hierarchies of the absolutist state, created, not surprisingly, widespread discontent among the traditional political elites.


At the royal court, resistance intensified during the winter of 1771-72. Dissent was mobilized around Queen Dowager Juliane Marie (1729-1796), who was King Frederik V’s second wife, and her son, Prince Frederik (1753-1805), who was the king’s half-brother. They were supported by the theologian Ove Høegh-Guldberg (1731-1808) and high-ranking military officers. These prominent figures formed the core of a circle of prominent conservative forces that successfully staged a coup d’état on 17 January. Struensee was arrested at night and taken to the fortress of Copenhagen (Kastellet), where he was imprisoned while a trial by commission was being prepared against him. On 25 April, the commission delivered its verdict. Struensee was found guilty of lese majeste and sentenced to death.[13] 


When the Struensee regime was replaced by conservative forces, many of his progressive reforms were rolled back, including the freedom of the press, which was quickly curtailed. The new government’s restrictive approach to press freedom became apparent to the public in 1772, when a Copenhagen-based writer, Christian Thura (1730-1787), published a pamphlet entitled Den Patriotiske Sandsiger. Among other things, it criticized the clergy and indirectly the monarch for allowing ungodly behaviour and blasphemous government to flourish in the realm. The text was banned and Thura was sent to prison on the island of Munkholm; in 1779 he was exiled to the island of Bornholm, where he spent the rest of his life. 


The new government also considered the re-introduction of compulsory pre-censorship. From the spring of 1772 to the beginning of 1773, legal preparations were made for a new regulation on censorship. The new government considered the reintroduction of compulsory pre-publication censorship. The contours of an adapted form of prior censorship aimed particularly at theological and political writings were outlined in a draft of a new censorship ordinance from the winter of 1772-73. Other genres were to be exempted from censorship, provided they did not print anything against religion, the government, or what was more vaguely understood as immoral.[14] However, preparations for renewed pre-publication measures were abandoned sometime in 1773. Instead, the order of 20 October 1773 introduced a series of post-publication measures. Initially these new measures were aimed specifically at publishers of newspapers and periodicals, but at a later point the new restrictions were also applied to authors and publishers of books and pamphlets.


8 The Order of 20 October 1773: Post-Publication Censorship


The order of 20 October 1773 introduced a series of post-censorship regulations. It contained two key elements of future significance for the state of press freedom in the realm. First, it set out a series of specific instructions about what could not be printed in newspapers. It introduced a general prohibition on print criticism of “the state and the government”, on the publication of what were considered to be “writings of strife, especially where persons are attacked thereby”, as well as so-called “urban rumours or other invented stories containing anything insulting or indecent”. [15] Secondly, the order clarified which authorities were responsible for prosecuting and punishing printers, publishers and authors who violated the provisions.


In Copenhagen, responsibility for enforcing the new law fell to the chief of police, Christian Fædder (1712-1793). He was empowered to impose fines of between 50 and 250 rigsdalers. Moreover, there was no right of appeal against the decision of the Chief of Police. Initially, the order of 20 October 1773 applied only to the content of newspapers and magazines, but the restrictions were soon widened to cover prints, books and leaflets as well. [16]


The new restrictions had an immediate impact on the content of Copenhagen newspapers, as they authorized the Chief of Police to swiftly punish newspaper publishers for printing anything considered to violate the provisions. For example, in 1774 when the publishers of Adresseavisen were charged for having printed a controversial text entitled “Letter from the Countryside”. The Chief of Police reported to his superiors in the Danish Chancellery that he “according to his most submissive duty shall not fail to pursue the matter in accordance with your Majesty’s most supreme letter of 20 October 1773”.[17]


9. Conclusion

In the years between 1770 and 1773, the conditions for publishing and public debate in Denmark-Norway were completely reconfigured. All forms of censorship were abolished with the order of 14 September 1770, which installed freedom of the press as a legally guaranteed principle, and although this initially completely unrestricted freedom was restricted with the order of 7 October 1771 and new post-publication measures were introduced with the order of 20 October 1773, pre-publication censorship remained abolished until 1799 (see commentary on document 23).

The short-lived freedom of the press in Denmark-Norway between 1770 and 1773 was not the first time in Europe that pre-publication censorship was abolished, nor the first time that freedom of the press was legally guaranteed. England and the Netherlands had abolished pre-publication censorship in the 17th century, but post-publication censorship was still used to suppress undesirable texts. Sweden had introduced the world’s first legally guaranteed freedom of the press in 1766, but religious and theological texts were explicitly excluded from this general law. Thus, for a brief period, Denmark-Norway enjoyed the world’s first – and perhaps only – completely unrestricted, legally guaranteed freedom of the press.

The abolition of pre-publication censorship in Denmark-Norway not only had an impact on the political and public climate, but also on the development of the printing industry throughout the kingdom. Firstly, manuscripts no longer had to be sent to Copenhagen for censorship, which improved conditions for setting up a printing press in the provinces, and the frequency of publication increased throughout the country. Secondly, the two orders of 1771 and 1773 reaffirmed the principle that writings could not be printed anonymously, which can be seen both as an affirmation of the authors’ and printers’ ownership of printed writings, and thus as a form of stately guarantee of their copyrights following the 1741 Ordinance (see commentary on document 17), and as an emphasis of their responsibility for the content of the texts they printed.



[1] Jakobsen, Uanstændige

[2] Jakobsen, ”Omorganiseringen”; Jakobsen & Nørgaard, ”Changing practices”.

[3] Maliks, “Imprimatur i Provinsen”; Jakobsen, Uanstændige, 148-154.

[4] Jakobsen, ”Commercial Newspaper”, 103-6

[5] Jakobsen, Uanstændige, 132-146

[6] On Struensee, see Langen, Struensee; Amdissen, Til nytte og fornøjelse.

[7] Langen & Stjernfelt, The World’s First Full Press Freedom.

[8] Laursen, “David Hume and the Danish Debate about Freedom of the Press”.

[9] The standard work on this great experiment is now Horstbøll, Langen & Stjernfelt, Grov Konfekt. See also, Holm, Nogle Hovedtræk.

[10] Maliks, Vilkår for offentlighet, 51-61, 206-226.

[11] Evju, ”’Skrivefrihedens Rigsdag’”; Evju, “Enevelde, trykkefriheten og ytringskulturen”.

[12] Horstbøll, “Anonymitet, trykkefriheden og forfatterrollens forandring”, 156-158

[13] Langen, Den afmægtige; Langen, Struensee, 32-69, Horstbøll, Langen & Stjernfelt, Grov konfekt, 185-203.

[14] Jakobsen, ”Christian Gottlob Proft”; Jakobsen, Uanstændige, 179-194, 210-230; Horstbøll, Langen & Stjernfelt, vol. 2, 373-377, 399-410.

[15] ”Staten og Regjeringen”, ”Strids-Skrivter, især hvor Personer derved angribes”, ”Bye-Rygter eller andre opdigtede Fortællinger, som indeholde noget fornærmeligt, eller Uanstændigt”, Fogtmann, Kongelige Rescripter, 328.

[16] Jakobsen, Uanstændige, 219-230; Horstbøll, Langen & Stjernfelt, Grov konfekt, 399-404.

[17] ”efter Allerunderdanigst Pligt ikke skal undlade Sagen følges deres Mayts allerhøjeste Rescript af 20. Octbr 1773 [unreadable word] at bedrive og til Strafs liidelse at paakiende, samt søge forfatteren om mueligen opdaget.”, DNA, Politimesterens korrespondanceprotokol, Nr. 1,2 1774, 8 Nov. 1786.




Amdissen, A. Struensee. Til nytte og fornøjelse, Copenhagen: Lindhart og Ringhof, 2012.


Evju, H. “Eneveldet, trykkefriheten og ytringskulturen i Danmark-Norge 1784-1797”, T. Bjerkås & K. Dørum (eds.), Eneveldet før undergangen. Politisk kultur i Norge 1660-1814, Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2017, 353-384.


Evju. H., “’Skrivefrihedens Rigsdag’. Patriotisme, trykkefrihet og politisk deltakelse under det sene eneveldet”, Nils Rune Langeland (ed.), Politisk kompetanse: Grunnlovas borgar 1814-2014, Oslo: Pax forlag, 2014, 143-167.


Fogtmann, Laurids, T. Al (ed.), Kongelige Rescripter, Resolutioner og Collegialbreve for Danmark, og Norge, udtogsviis udgivne i cronologisk Orden, 6:1, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1786


Holm, E., Nogle Hovedtræk af Trykkefrihedstidens Historie, Copenhagen: J.H. Schultz, 1885 [1975]


Holm, E., Den Offentlige Mening og Statsmagten, Copenhagen: J.H. Schultz, 1888 [1975]


Horstbøll, H., «Anonymiteten, trykkefriheden og forfatterrollens forandring i 1700-tallets Danmark», Lychnos, 2010, 147-161.


Horstbøll, H., U. Langen & F. Stjernfelt: Grov Konfekt. Tre vilde år med trykkefrihed, 2. vol. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2020


Ilsøe, H., Bogtrykkerne i København ca. 1600-1810, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag 1992


Jakobsen, J., ”Commercial newspaper and public shame pole: Exposure of individuals in the Copenhagen gazette Adresseavisen 1759-73, S. Naumann & H. Vogt (eds.), Private/Public in 18th-Century Scandinavia, London: Bloomsbury, 2021, 99-117


Jakobsen, J. «Omorganiseringen af den Teologiske Censur. Generalkirkeinspektionskollegiets Censurvirksomhed, 1737-1747», Historisk Tidsskrift (DK), 111:1, 2011. 1-36


Jakobsen, J., “Christian Gottlob Prof og de utilladelige skrifter. Bogforbud i årene efter trykkefrihedsperioden”, Fund og Forskning, 51, 2012, 289-310


Jakobsen, J. Uanstændige, utilladelige og unyttige skrifter. En undersøgelse af censuren i praksis 1746-1773, uupublished PhD dissertation, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 2017


Jakobsen, J & Lars Cyril Nørgaard: »Changing practices of censorship: the faculty of theology at Copenhagen University, 1738-1770», Johannes Ljungberg & Erik Sidenvall (eds.), Reason and Orthodoxy. Religious Enlightenment in the Eighteenth-Century Nordic Countries, Lund: Lund University Press, forthcoming (autumn 2023)


Jakobsen, J., «Censur efter trykkefrihedstiden. Jacob Bøcher, Villads Borchenius og sporene efter forhåndscensuren, 1774-77», manuscript under editorial review.


Langen, U., Den afmægtige: En Biografi om Christian 7., Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, 2008


Langen, U., Struensee, Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2018


Langen U. & F. Stjernfeldt, The World’s First Full Press Freedom. The Radical Experiment of Denmark-Norway 1770-1773, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020.


Laursen, J. C. “David Hume and the Danish Debate about Freedom of the Press in the 1770s”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 59:1, 1998, 167-172.


Maliks, J., Vilkår for offentlighet. Sensur, økonomi og transformasjonen av det offentlige rom i Danmark-Norge 1730-1770, unpublished PhD dissertation, Trondheim: Norges Naturvitenskaplige og Tekniske Universitet, 2011.


Maliks, J., ”Imprimatur i provinsen – Sensuren av det trykte ord utenfor København 1737-1770”, Eivind Tjønneland (ed.), Kritikk før 1814, Oslo: Dreyers forlag, 2014, 78-102


Munck, T., “The Danish Reformers”, H. M. Scott (ed.), Enlightened Absolutism. Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, London: Macmillan, 1990, 245-264.


Seip, J.E., “Teorien om det opinionsstyrte enevelde”. Historisk tidsskrift (NO), 1957-58, 397-463


The Royal Danish Library

R. Nyerup, Forelæsninger over trykkefriheden under Christian VII, handwritten manuscript, Ny Kgl. Samling, 1216 9b 4o


Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet)


Københavns Politimester, Politimesterens korrespondanceprotokol, Nr. 1,2 1774


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