c. 1422 - 1491
First English printer
· William Caxton is the first English printer and the introducer of the art of printing into England.
· He designed his mark in 1489. The symbol between W and C is usually interpreted as 74, probably referring to 1474, when printing was introduced into
· He was born in
Kent in the early 1420s (probably in 1422) and died at in 1491. When he died he was in the midst of his work and his industry was very great. Westminster ’s first printer was more than a skilful master printer and publisher of books. He was, to some extent, a man of letters, – an editor, author and translator – with a certain style of his own and a true enthusiasm for literature. And, undoubtedly, his work as writer and translator helped to fix the literary language of England in the sixteenth century. England
· The exact place and date of Caxton’s birth are unrecorded, and nothing is known of his parentage. However, he himself wrote (mainly in the prefaces and epilogues to his printed books) that he was born in
and that his parents gave him an education that fitted him to earn a living (but nothing is said about the place where he had been educated). From the records of the Mercers' Company of Kent London we learn that in 1438 (the first definite date of his life that is known) he was working as an apprentice for Robert Large, a well-known and wealthy London mercer. [As for that kind of work the minimum age was 14, it is highly likely that he was born about 15 years earlier, in the early 1420s].
By 1446 he had become a merchant on his own account and, being a good man of business, soon became prosperous.
The members of the Mercers’ Company were specialized in exporting woollen cloth and they also dealt in other textiles. Much of this trade was with the Low Countries, and that’s why by 1449 Caxton was living in
. There he became a leading member of the English merchant community. Bruges
In 1453 he went to England for his formal admittance to the Mercers' Company and then he went back to
again. Here, in 1465, he was appointed governor for Bruges of the Merchant Adventurers, an association of English merchants. This important position involved delicate and responsible commercial negotiations, and Caxton seems to have fulfilled his duties honourably and with success. Bruges
In particular he was involved in negotiating commercial treaties with the dukes of
Burgundy, who then ruled this part of Europe.
1470 a change took place in his life.
Already in 1469, just for recreation, Caxton had begun translating a French prose work on the history of
and it is soon after this period that the direction of his career changed. Troy
He gave up his post as governor of the English merchants as well as all his connections with commerce and became secretary to (entered the service of) Margaret of Burgundy (the sister of Edward IV of
), who had married Charles, Duke of Burgundy in 1468. It is not known why he did this, but it may well be that he wished for greater freedom for literary work. England
Margaret encouraged Caxton’s literary activities, and in 1471-1472 he spent about 18 months in
, where he learned the still fairly new technique of printing. While he was in Cologne , Caxton finished his translation (1471) dedicating it to his patroness. Cologne
On his return to
he printed the text, entitled “Recuyell [= Compilation] of the Historyes of Troye”. This, the first printed book in English, was published probably around 1474-75 at the press of Colard Mansion, an illuminator of manuscripts, who had set up a press in that city in 1473. Bruges
It was this piece of work which led William Caxton to turn his attention to the art of printing. (= the book in manuscript was much sought after, and the labour of copying was too heavy and too slow to meet the demand).
Later in the same year he issued (at the same press) his second book — another translation by himself from French, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, in which chess is treated as an allegory of life.
· In 1476 Caxton returned to
London, where he set up a printing press of his own in a shop that he rented near Westminster Abbey.
His first known publication in
England was a single sheet — an indulgence dated December 13, 1476 (the only copy known to survive is in the Public Record Office, ). London
His first dated book, and the first book to be printed in
, was “The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophers” published in 1477. England
From this date (1477) to the end of his life Caxton printed about 100 books (ninety-six!) from his Westminster press, including, amongst others, most of the works of Chaucer, the Confessio Amantis by Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" (1485) (for this prose epic he wrote a very good and famous preface), and various translations of more or less classical works from French, Latin, and Dutch, together with a number of smaller books, a good many of which are dealing with subjects such as religion (the lives of saints), history, geography, fables, and also instructional books (for example, on good manners and learning French).
Caxton also wrote a lot of prefaces or epilogues to many of the works he published. Most of Caxton’s books do not bear a date, but they can usually be given a fairly accurate place in his output by expert examination of the paper and typography.
· In 1480 he began using woodcut illustrations in his books, the first dated example of which is The Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), a kind of popular science. At his death, probably late in 1491 or early in 1492, when he was aged about 70, his business was taken over by his assistant Wynkyn de Worde. [= Caxton's precise date of death is still uncertain. The records of his burial in St Margaret's,
, show that he died or was buried in about March 1492]. Westminster
Specimens of his printed books exist in various public and private libraries. The
possesses eighty-three Caxton volumes, twenty-five of which are duplicates. Sixty-three of his publications survive, in single copies or in fragments, in the British Library. British Museum
Although Caxton’s books do not rank highly in terms of skill in typography or illustration, they firmly established the practice of printing in
. He also displayed a lively, humorous style that considerably influenced 15th & 16th-century English literature. England
The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects.
Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.) (His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems).
Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This was said to have led to the expansion of English vocabulary, the development of accidence and syntax and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word.
[ It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the unnecessary letter h was
adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits].
adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits].