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William Caxton

William Caxton

The first English printer, William Caxton (1422-1491), printed a total of about 100 different works. He also translated some 24 books, all but one of which he printed.

William Caxton said that he was born in the Weald of Kent, but his exact birthplace is unknown. In 1438 he became an apprentice to a prominent London mercer, Robert Large. Shortly after Large's death in 1441, Caxton moved to Bruges, where he worked as a merchant for 30 years. His success won him an important place in the Merchant Adventurers Company. He became governor of the English Nation, a company of English merchants, at Bruges. In 1469 he entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of King Edward IV of England. Margaret asked him to complete an English translation of Raoul le Fevre's history of Troy. Caxton finished his translation during 1471-1472 at Cologne, where he also learned the trade of printing.

When Caxton returned to Bruges, he and Colard Mansion set up a printing press. There the first book printed in English was made. It was Caxton's translation of Le Fevre, called The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. During his 2 years with Mansion, Caxton also printed his translation of the work of Jacobus de Cessolis, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, a moral treatise on government that he dedicated to the Duke of Clarence.

In 1476 Caxton returned to London, where he set up a printer's shop. Wynkyn de Worde became his foreman and, on Caxton's death in 1491, his successor. Among Caxton's early books was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He also printed Chaucer's translation of Boethius in 1479. Dissatisfied with his text of the Tales, he issued a second edition about 1484, when he also printed Troilus and Criseyde. About the same time he printed the Confessioamantisby John Gower. Malory's Morte d'Arthur was issued from his press in 1485. King Henry VII asked Caxton to translate the Faits d'armes et de chevalrie of Christine de Pisan, which he printed in 1489. Many of Caxton's books were religious. One of the most important of these was The Golden Legend, an enormous collection of legends of the saints.

As a translator, Caxton had to work with an unsettled medium, the English of his time. Recognizing that "English that is spoken in one shire varyeth from another," he sought, not always successfully, to employ "the common terms that do be daily used." Caxton and his successors among the printers did much to stabilize literary English, and especially to regularize its spelling.

Further Reading

The standard account of Caxton and his work, now somewhat outdated, is William Blades, The Biography and Typography of William Caxton (1877; 2d ed. 1882). There is a simplified biography by H.R. Plomer, William Caxton (1925). George Parker Winship, William Caxton and His Work (1937), provides a brief introduction. A lively essay together with a facsimile reprint of Caxton's preface to his Eneydos may be found in C. F. Bühler, William Caxton and His Critics (1960).

Additional Sources

Blake, N. F. (Norman Francis), Caxton: England's first publisher, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, 1975.

Childs, Edmund Lunness, William Caxton: a portrait in a background, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979 1976.

Deacon, Richard, A biography of William Caxton: the first English editor, printer, merchant, and translator, London: Muller, 1976.

Knight, Charles, William Caxton and Charles Knight; with an introd. by Kenneth Da, London: Wynkyn de Worde Society, 1976.

Painter, George Duncan, William Caxton: a biography, New York: Putnam, 1977, 1976.

Painter, George Duncan, William Caxton: a quincentenary biography of England's first printer, London: Chatto & Windus, 1976.

Pearman, Naomi, The Lincoln Caxton, Lincoln: Lincoln Cathedral Library, 1976. □

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CAXTON, William

CAXTON, William [c.1420–c.1491]. English printer, editor, and translator, who introduced PRINTING to England in 1476, and published the first printed editions of CHAUCER, Lydgate, Gower, and Malory. He was in Bruges in the Low Countries in 1450, where he became a leader of the English community and protégé of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. At her suggestion, he completed his first translation (from French), The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1471). Wearied by copying, he went to Cologne to learn the art of printing introduced at Mainz c.1450, and the Recuyell, the first book printed in English, was published in 1476 at his press in Bruges.

Caxton set up the first printing house in England near the court and Westminster Abbey, just outside London. He published about 100 works, mostly in English and rarely in fashionable French or revered Latin. His first dated book was Dictes and Sayenges of the Phylosophers (1477). His patrons included kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants, who sometimes commissioned books, but the religious works which he published were probably the most widely read. Many of his publications were his own translations, but many were by English authors, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (?1478) and Malory's Morte Darthur (1485). He sometimes set out his views on language and style in prologues and epilogues added to his publications. Best-known is the prologue to his translation of the French Eneydos (1490), where he confronted the difficult choice among late 15c styles: native ‘olde and homely termes’, courtly ‘fayr & straunge termes’, and ‘comyn termes that be dayli vsed’. He pondered the variation of English in time (‘our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that which was vsed and spoken whan I was borne’) and space (‘that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother’), weighty considerations to the publisher who, unlike a scribe who supplies a unique copy for his patron, sold his books nationwide.

For Caxton, Chaucer ‘for his ornate wrytyng in our tongue may wel have the name of a laureate poete. For to fore that he by hys labour enbelysshyd, ornated and made faire our Englisshe, in thys royame was had rude speche & incongrue, as yet it appiereth by olde bookes whyche at thys day ought not to have place ne be compared emong to hys beauteuous volumes and aournate writynges.’ Such stylistic concerns influenced Caxton's practice as an editor-publisher: he altered the text of ‘beauteuous’ Chaucer little, producing a second edition when his first proved to rest on an untrustworthy manuscript; but he ‘enbelysshyd’ passages in Malory that showed the influence of their ‘olde and homely’ original. Though his introduction of printing was epochal for English language and literature, his own style, even with regard to choice of words, was variable: Germanic when he had a Dutch source, Romance when it was Latin or French. He was ramshackle when unguided by a source, ad-libbing his spelling (wrytyng/writynge, ornate/aournate) and doubling and tripling his terms (vsed and spoken, enbelysshyd, ornated and made faire). See CHANCERY STANDARD, EARLY MODERN ENGLISH, PROSE, PUNCTUATION, STANDARD.

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Caxton, William

William Caxton, c.1421–91, English printer, the first to print books in English. He served apprenticeship as a mercer and from 1463 to 1469 was at Bruges as governor of the Merchants Adventurers in the Low Countries, serving as a diplomat for the English king. He learned printing in Cologne in 1471–72, and at Bruges in 1475 he and Colard Mansion printed The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, his own translation from the French, and the first book printed in English. In 1476 he returned to England, and at Westminster in 1477 he printed Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres, the first dated book printed in England. Caxton is known to have printed about 100 books, many dealing with themes of chivalry. He was the translator, from French, Latin, and Dutch, of about one third of the books that he printed, and for some he wrote original prologues, epilogues, and additions. His books are of superb craftsmanship and are carefully edited. One of the typefaces used by Caxton is the original Old English type. The size of this type of Caxton's (14 point) is known as English. Wynkyn de Worde, his successor as a printer, was his assistant at Westminster, and the printers Richard Pynson and Robert Copland refer to Caxton (possibly figuratively) as their master.

See biographies by N. S. Aurer (1926, repr. 1965), H. R. Plomer (1925, repr. 1968), N. F. Blake (1969) and G. D. Painter (1977).

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Caxton, William

Caxton, William (c.1420–c.1492). A prominent merchant from Kent, Caxton established the first successful press in an England slow to adopt metallographic printing with movable type. Caxton learned printing in Cologne and the Low Countries, producing the first printed book in English—his own translation of Le Receuil des histoires de Troye—in Bruges c.1473–4. His press at Westminster, established in 1476, printed nearly 100 volumes, including works by Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and Malory, and translated writings on chivalry, morality, and religion. Formats varied, but volumes were typically in folio, on paper rather than vellum, in gatherings of four, with text in single columns. Illustrations were monochrome woodcuts. Although Caxton's printed books have been judged ‘neither textually accurate nor aesthetically appealing’, his impact on English culture is unquestionable. Apart from circulating numerous vernacular texts and taking the technological leap which provided the main means of disseminating information and ideas for the next four centuries, Caxton influenced English prose style and orthography, tending to standardize particular spellings at a time when linguistic upheavals such as the great vowel shift were still under way.

D. C. Whaley

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Caxton, William

Caxton, William (1422–91) First English printer. Following a period in Cologne (1470–72), where he learned printing, he set up his own press in 1476 at Westminster. He published more than 100 items many of them his own translations from French, Latin and Dutch. Among his most influential publications were editions of Chaucer, Gower, and Malory.

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Caxton, William

Caxton, William (c.1422–91), the first English printer. He printed the first book in English in 1474 and went on to produce about eighty other texts.

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