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 Confessio amantisby 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 on William Caxton

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 Biography 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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