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.
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.
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).
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. □
In the late fifteenth century, as printing presses on the continent were gaining prominence, one man, William Caxton, had the foresight to bring printed works to England. Although his career began in textiles, Caxton retired from the textile business before learning the art of printing. He set up a printing business in Bruges in 1474, the same year he printed the first known book in the English language, Recuyell of theHistories of Troie, which he translated from the French. In 1476 Caxton returned to England and set up his printing and publishing business near Westminster Abbey. In the ensuing years his press introduced many of the literary masterpieces of his day, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1478) and Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1485).
Born around 1421 in Kent, England, William Caxton received schooling before entering the Mercers' Company, an influential London guild, and being apprenticed to Robert Large, a leading textile merchant, in 1438. He learned the export trade in textiles and, around 1441, moved to Bruges, Belgium (modern Brussels), where he developed a successful trade business. In 1462 Caxton was appointed Governor of the English Nation at Bruges, an appointment for an organization created by the Mercers and the Merchant Adventurers. After some time devoted to diplomatic missions for this organization, Caxton retired from commerce and became secretary of the household of Princess Margaret of York, the Duchess of Burgundy and sister of King Edward IV of England. The Duchess was a noted scholar of literature, and she encouraged Caxton to begin producing fine manuscripts, which he copied by hand, making translations from the French.
In 1471 Caxton traveled to Cologne to learn the art of printing. He returned to Bruges and in 1474 set up a printing business with partner Colard Mansion, calligrapher and bookseller, whom it is thought Caxton taught the art of printing. The same year, the first known book published in the English language, Recuyell of the Histories of Troie by Raoul le Fevre, was produced. The duo also printed, in 1475, The Game and Playe of the Chesse Moralised, before Caxton moved his printing and publishing business to England.
In the vicinity of Westminster Abbey, conveniently near the court and members of Parliament he expected to serve, Caxton established his printing and publishing business in 1476. In December he produced the first piece of printing done in England, a Letter of Indulgence (a collection of rules showing how to deal with the concurrence of religious festivals). In November 1477 Caxton produced the first dated book printed in England, The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres, translated from French, which had been translated from Latin. In 1481 Caxton's press also produced the first illustrated book in England, The Mirrour of the World, which included 27 crude woodcuts. Caxton did much to promote English literature, producing works from Chaucer, such as The Canterbury Tales (which he published in 1478 and, in second edition, in 1484) and Troilus and Creseide, Gower and Lydgate, Malory, and others.
Before his death in 1491, when Caxton left his press to his former apprentice and current foreman, the publisher produced about 100 printed works, including 74 books, of which 20 were his own translations from Latin, French, and Dutch (he even published a French-English dictionary). Because he adopted the language of London and the court, Caxton had a tremendous impact on fixing a permanent standard for written English. The products of his press, which included many of the first editions of the literary masterpieces of the Middle Ages, hold an eternal place of honor in English literature. Caxton's scholarly vision, as well as his anticipation of the importance of the printing press, made him very influential in the history of the written word.
ANN T. MARSDEN
D. C. Whaley