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William Caxton


CAXTON, WILLIAM (c. 1422-1491), the first English printer, was born somewhere in the Weald of Kent. The name, which was apparently pronounced Cauxton, is identical with Causton, the name of a manor in the parish of Hadlow. The date of Caxton's birth was arbitrarily fixed in 1748 by Oldys as 1412. Blades, however, inferred that in 1438, when he was apprenticed to Robert Large, he would not have been more than 16 years of age. Robert Large was a rich silk mercer who became lord mayor of London in 1439, and the fact of Caxton's apprenticeship to him argues that Caxton's own parents were in a good position. When Large died in 1441, Caxton was probably sent direct to Bruges, then the central foreign market of the Anglo-Flemish trade, for he presently entered business there on his own account. In 1450 his name appears in the Bruges records as standing joint surety for the sum of L100; and in 1463 he was acting governor of the company of Merchant Adventurers in the Low Countries. This association, sometimes known as the "English Nation," was domi nated by the Mercers' Company, to the livery of which Caxton had been formally admitted in London in 1453. In 1464 he was appointed to negotiate with Philip, duke of Burgundy, the renewal of a treaty concerning the wool trade, which was about to expire. These attempts failed, but he was again employed in a similar but successful mission in Oct. 1468 to the new duke, Charles the Bold, who had just married Princess Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV. The last mention of Caxton in the capacity of governor of the "English Nation" is on Aug. 13, 1469, and it was probably about that time that he entered the household of the duchess Margaret, possibly in the position of commercial adviser.

He had already begun his translation of the popular mediaeval romance of Troy, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, from the French of Raoul le Fevre ; and, after laying it aside for some time, he resumed it at the wish of the duchess Margaret, to whom the ms. was presented. From July 1471 until after Midsummer 1472 Caxton was in Cologne, and it was there, as his disciple Wynkyn de Worde tells us, that he learned the art of printing. On his return to Bruges, he set up a press, in partnership with Colard Mansion, and there his Recuyell was printed in 1474 or 1475. His second book, The Game and Playe of Chesse, from the Liber de ludo scacchorum of Jacobus de Cessolis through the French of Jehan de Vignay, was finished in 1474, and printed in 1476; the last book printed by Mansion and Caxton at Bruges was the Quatre derrenieres choses, an anonymous treatise usually known as De quattuor novissimis.

Then Caxton returned to Eng land and established himself, at Michaelmas, 1476, in the al monry at Westminster at the sign of the Red Pale. The first known piece of printing issued from the Caxton press in England is an Indulgence printed by Caxton and issued by Abbot Sant on Dec. 13, 1476, which was discovered in the Record Office in 1928 by Mr. S. C. Ratcliffe. The first dated book printed in England was Lord Rivers' translation (re vised by Caxton) of The Dictes or sayenges of the phylosophers ('477) (see BLACK LETTER) . The date, Nov. 18, 1477, is given in the colophon to the copy in the John Rylands Library, Man chester, the only one which possesses the colophon. From this time until his death Caxton was busy writing and printing. His services to English literature, apart from his work as a printer (see TYPOGRAPHY), are very considerable. His most important origi nal work is an eighth book added to the Polychronicon (vol. viii. in the Rolls Series edition) of Ralph Higden. Caxton revised and printed John of Trevisa's work, and brought down the narrative himself from 1358 to 146o, using as his authorities Fasciculus temporum, a popular work in the 15th century, and an unknown Aureus de universo. He printed Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1478? and 1483), Troilus and Creseide (1483?), the House of Fame (1483?), and the translation of Boethius (1478?) ; Gower's Confessio Amantis (1483), and many poems of Lydgate. His press was, however, not worked for purely literary ends, but was a com mercial speculation. For the many service-books which he printed there was no doubt a sure sale, and he met the taste of the upper classes by the tales of chivalry which issued regularly from his press. He printed Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and himself trans lated from the French the Boke of Histories of Jason The Historye of Reynart the Foxe (from the Dutch, 1481 and 1489?), Godfrey of Boloyne or The Siege and Conqueste of Jherusalem (1481), The Lyf of Charles the Grete (1485), The Knyght Parys and the Fayr Vyenne (1485), Blanchardyn and Eglantine (1489 ? ), The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1489?) ; also the Morale Proverbs (1478), and the Fayttes of Armes and of Chyualrye (1489) of Christine de Pisan. The most ambitious production of his press was perhaps his version of the Golden Legend, the translation of which he finished in Nov. 1483. It is based on the lives of the saints as given in the 13th century Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, but Caxton chiefly used existing French and English versions for his compilation. The book is illustrated by 70 woodcuts, and Caxton says he was only encouraged to persevere in his laborious and expensive task by the liberality of William, earl of Arundel. The idleness which he so often deprecates in his prefaces was no vice of his, for in addition to his voluminous translations his output as a printer was over 18,000 pages, and he published g6 separate works or editions of works, with apparently little skilled assistance.

William Caxton

The different founts of type used by Caxton are illustrated by Blades and Duff, and there is an excellent selection of Caxtons in the British Museum and in the University library at Cambridge. His books have no title-pages, and from 1487 onwards are usually adorned with a curious device, consisting of the letters W.C. separated by a trade mark, with an elaborate border above and below. The flourishes on the trade mark have been fancifully interpreted as S.C. for Sancta Colonia, implying that Caxton learnt his art at Cologne, and the whole mark has been read as 74, for the date of his first printed book. This device was subse quently adopted with small alterations by his successor at the Westminster press, Wynkyn de Worde. The first of his books containing woodcut illustrations was his Myrrour of the World (1481) , translated from Vincent de Beauvais, but he had used a woodcut initial letter in his broadside Indulgence printed in 1476.

No record of Caxton's marriage or of the birth of his children has been found, but Gerard Croppe was separated from his wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Caxton, before 1496, when Croppe made certain claims in connection with his father-in-law's will.

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