The printer's device of William Caxton, 1478.
Facsimile of page 1 of Godefrey of Boloyne
, printed by Caxton, London, 1481.
The Prologue, at top of page, begins: Here begynneth the boke Intituled Eracles, and also Godefrey of Boloyne, the whiche speketh of the Conquest of the holy lande of Jherusalem. The blank space on this page was for the insertion by hand of an illuminated initial T.
William Caxton (c. 1415~1422 – c. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He was the first English person to work as a printer, and the first person to introduce a printing press into England. He was also the first English retailer of books (his London contemporaries were all Dutch, German, or French).
Caxton's date of birth is unknown, but records place it in the range 1415 to 1424. He was born in Kent, and went to London as apprentice to a mercer, a dealer in cloth.
In 1446, he departed for Bruges, where he was successful in business and became governor of the Merchant Adventurers. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy, and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of the English King. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry, and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1475: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476, and the first book known to have been printed there was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers, first printed on November 18, 1477), written by none other than Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, published in 1483, and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484, contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English, rather than copied.
Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical-authored works, and English and Roman histories. These books strongly appealed to English upper classes around the end of the fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by, but not dependent on, nobility and gentry.
The most important works printed by Caxton were Le Morte d'Arthur and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He produced two editions of The Canterbury Tales.
Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St Margaret's, Westminster, show that he died in about March 1492.
Caxton and the English language
Caxton printed 4/5 of his works in English. He translated a large amount of works into English. He translated a large amount of work himself, and edited as well, himself.
However, 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 often faced dilemmas of how much to standardise the language in the books he printed. (He actually wrote about this subject in at least one of his books.) 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 expansion of English vocabulary, the development of accidence and syntax, and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word.
However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492, was a more accomplished stylist, who favoured Chancery Standard, and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
- N. F. Blake, ‘Caxton, William (1415~24–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 1 July 2006
- The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts III and IV, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, Translated from the French By William Caxton And Printed By Him 1485.
- The Introduction of Printing into England and the Early Work of the Press: The First Book printed in English (1907), from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol II
- Caxton’s Views on the English Language.
- Caxton's Canterbury Tales: The British Library Copies Images and full transcripts of the whole of Caxton's two editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; a fuller version of this is published on CD-ROM by Scholarly Digital Editions
- Game and Playe of the Chesse A Verbatim Reprint of the First Edition, 1474
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