|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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|EARLY PRINTING IN ENGLAND.
The first name on the list of early English printers, it is hardly necessary to say, is that of Caxton. In his Life and
Typography of William Caxtoll, the late Mr. Blades has told all there is to be known of Caxton's life, and a great deal
about Caxton's work; and although as regards the latter half of the subject there are authorities who dissent from some
of the theories he advances, Mr. Blades' monograph remains the standard work on the matter of England's first printer
and the recognised source of information concerning him and his books.
But notwithstanding Mr. Blades' industry and learning, our knowledge of the early part of Caxton's life is very scanty,
and is derived mainly from what Caxton himself tells us in the prologue to his first literary production, the English
translation of the French romance by Le Fevre, entitled Le Recueil des Histoires de Troyes, or, Anglicised, The
Recuydl of the Histories of Troye. Speaking of his boldness in undertaking the work, he refers to the "symplenes and
vnperfightness that I had in both languages, that is to wete in frenshe and in englissh, for in france was I neuer, and
was born & lerned myn englissh in kente in the weeld where I doubte not is spoken as brode and rude englissh as is in
ony place of englond." He was born probably in 1422 or 1423, and further than this we know nothing of him till his
apprenticeship to Robert Large, a London mercer. Large died before Caxton's term of apprenticeship expired, and the
next we hear of young Caxton is that he was living on the Continent, probably at Bruges. At the time he wrote the
prologue from which quotation has just been made, that is about 1475, he had been for thirty years "for the most parte
in the contres of Braband, flanders, holand, and zeland." Yet not withstanding so long a residence in the Low
Countries, he describes himself as "mercer of ye cyte of London."
As a wool merchant in Bruges he prospered, and in time rose to be Governor of the Company of Merchant
Adventurers, or "The English Nation," and in that capacity probably dwelt at the Domlts Anglia, the Company's
headquarters in Bruges. In 1468, and while holding this honorable and important position, he began his translation of
Le Remeil, but soon laid it aside, unfinished. Two years later he took it up again, but by this time he had resigned the
governorship, and was engaged in the service of the Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV. of England.
When or why he took this position, and in what capacity he served the Duchess, is known, but it was her influence
which brought about the completion of his literary work and indirectly caused the subsequent metamorphosis of the
mercer into the typographer. In the prologue to The Recuyell he relates that the duchess commanded him to finish the
translation which he had begun, and this lady's" dredefull comadement," he says, "y durste in no wyse disobey
because y am a servat vnto her sayde grace and resseiue of her yerIy ffee and other many goode and grete
The Recuye!l of the Histories of Troye, when finished, immediately found favour in the eyes of the English dwellers in
Bruges, who, rejoiced to have the favourite romance of the day in their own tongue, demanded more copies than one
pair of hands could supply. So because of the weariness and labour of writing, and because of his promise to various
friends to provide them with the book, "I haue practysed & lerned," he tells us, "at my grete charge and dispense, to
ordeyne this said book in prynte after the manner & form as ye may here see, and is not wreton with penne and ynke,
as other bokes ben, to thende that every man may haue them attones."
Where Caxton gained his knowledge of printing is a matter of dispute. Mr. Blades holds that he was taught by Co lard
Mansion, the first printer of Bruges, others that he learned at Cologne. Mr. Blades adduces in support of his view the
similarity of the types of Mansion and Caxton, the reproduction in Caxton's work of various peculiarities to be observed
in Mansion's, the improbability that Caxton would have travelled to Cologne to get what was already at hand in the city
where he lived, and the absence in his work" of any typographical link between him and the Mentz schoo!." For the
Cologne theory Wynkyn de Worde, who carried on the work of Caxton's printing-office at Westminster after the latter's
death, supplies some foundation in his edition of Bartholomreus De Proprietatibus Rerum, where he says:
"And also of your charyte call to remembraunce
The soule of William Caxton, the first prynter of this boke
In laten tongue at Coleyn, hymself to avaunce,
That every well-disposed man may thereon loke."
As usual there is something to be said on both sides, but leaving this debateable ground we will only add that the
Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated by himself from the French, is generally considered to be the first book
printed by Caxton, perhaps with Mansion's help, and probably at Bruges, and in or about the year 1475. It is also the
first printed book in English. It was followed about 1476 by the French version of the same work, and by the famous
Game and Play of the Chesse Moralised. This was once believed to be the first book printed on English soil, but it is
now assigned to Caxton's press on the Continent, probably at Bruges.
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