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Caxton, William (c. 1422–1491)

CAXTON, WILLIAM (c. 14221491)

CAXTON, WILLIAM (c. 14221491), English printer and publisher. William Caxton, the first English printer, began his career as a London trader, becoming, after an apprenticeship, a freeman of the powerful Mercers Company. For about thirty years, from the mid-1440s until 1476, he lived for the most part in Flanders, as a merchant adventurer trading from Bruges. From 1462 to 1470 he was the governor of the English merchant adventurers, whose dominant members belonged to the Mercers Company. His responsibilities involved him at times in English diplomacy on matters of trade.

In 1470 Caxton resigned or was forced from the governorship. He moved to Cologne, where he lived in 14711472. Here he first encountered the new phenomenon of printing shops, although he may well, while in Bruges, have seen some early printed books imported from Mainz and Cologne. Direct contact with Cologne's expanding printed-book trade seems to have awakened new ambitions, for Caxton soon took financial control of one of the Cologne shops, and produced there three printed books, all in Latin. The first was the massive natural history encyclopedia of Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum (1472; On the properties of things).

In 1473 Caxton returned to Bruges and set up a new printing shop. The first of some half-dozen books he produced was his own translation from the French of the chivalric romance Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, completed in late 1473 or early 1474. He dedicated it to Margaret, duchess of Burgundy and sister of King Edward IV. This was the first of a number of royal or noble dedications he made. Four of Caxton's Bruges books were in French and among the earliest to be printed in that language, making him a pioneer in both English and French vernacular printing.

In 1476 Caxton returned to England and set up his third printing shop, near the royal courts and Parliament, within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He produced some hundred editions, ranging in size from single-leaf printed indulgences to his most substantial translation, Jacobus de Voragine's late thirteenth-century collection of saints' lives, the Golden Legend (1484), a large folio of almost nine hundred pages. Caxton's publishing program ranged widely, including school books, law books, and prayer books, but the central emphasis was on vernacular literature, chronicles, and works of popular edification. The discursive prologues and epilogues he contributed to many of the books give them a lively actuality that remains attractive and accessible. No other early printer, in any language, addressed himself so directly, personally, and often amusingly to his intended audience.

In Caxton's lifetime and for generations after, the major Latin works of learning and literature, such as were studied in Oxford and Cambridge, were imported to England from continental shops. For readers of English, however, Caxton was the dominant figure in respect of both number and quality of publication. He produced the first editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1477; reprinted 1483 with woodcuts), of works by John Lydgate and John Gower, and of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1485). Among his many translations are The Game and Play of Chess (1474; reprinted 1483 with woodcuts), Aesop's Fables (1484, with woodcuts), The History of Charlemagne (1485), and Reynard the Fox (1481; reprinted 1489).

In 1478 and after, other printing shops were begun in London, Oxford, and Saint Albans; they all ceased operation around 1486, and their combined output amounted to little more than half of what Caxton produced.

From Caxton's death in 1491 to the end of the 1520s, as the quantity of English printing considerably expanded, two printing shops dominated: those of Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's former workman, who succeeded to his master's shop and equipment; and of Richard Pynson, who once referred to Caxton as "my worshipful master," but whose direct connection with Caxton is less clear. Between them, until Pynson's death in 1529, they produced about three-quarters of all printing in England: about 1,350 out of some 1,800 editions. About two hundred more editions were printed in Paris, Antwerp, and other continental cities for export to the English market.

Although they overlapped, it appears that, by and large, de Worde and Pynson divided rather than competed for single control of the bookbuying market. De Worde specialized in cheap pamphlets of popular reading, often illustrated from his large stock of woodcuts, partly inherited from Caxton. He was also active in printing Latin schoolbooks. Pynson's publishing program was in general aimed at a more learned audience, with a particular specialty in books of English common law.

Apart from Caxton himself, almost all the personnel of the English printing shops came from the continent: de Worde was a native of Holland, and may well already have worked for Caxton in Bruges; Pynson was a native of Normandy. An Act of 1484, under Richard III, had specifically exempted "merchant strangers" from any restrictions on either printing in England, or bringing in books from abroad. But the presence of foreigners was always unpopular in the turbulent London of this age, leading to many threats, personal attacks, and even riots. In 1534, under Henry VIII, a new act was passed, placing restrictions on the sale of foreign books and on printing within England by foreigners. A part of Henry's motivation was to exert tighter controls on books and printing at a time when Protestant pamphlet literature was spreading widely and clandestinely. The effects of the act, however, were also agreeable to London merchants in general, who were eager to see that it was enforced. The act of 1534 coincided closely with the death of Wynkyn de Worde. Within a few years, the printed-book trade of England was transformed from a primarily foreign occupation to one that was almost entirely native English.

See also English Literature and Language ; Printing and Publishing .


The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. 3, 1400 1557. Edited by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Duff, E. Gordon. The English Provincial Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders to 1557. Cambridge, U.K., 1912.

. The Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders of Westminster and London from 1476 to 1535. Cambridge, U.K., 1906.

Hellinga, Lotte. Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England. London, 1982.

Needham, Paul. The Printer & the Pardoner: An Unrecorded Indulgence Printed by William Caxton for the Hospital of St. Mary Rounceval, Charing Cross. Washington, D.C., 1986.

Painter, George D. William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography of England's First Printer. London and New York, 1976.

Paul Needham

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