William Caxton – Literary Life

William Caxton (c1422-1491)

Before Henry VIII became king there had already been devised on the continent the most powerful instrument of all for common enlightenment–the printing press. It was to make cheap and accessible the means of nurture by which the world was to grow.

The art of printing was late in reaching England. William Caxton, a well-educated Kentish man, went abroad in his youth and became well off in the cloth business so that in his forties he could afford to abandon himself to literature. A printing press at Cologne in 1471 fascinated his practical mind, and three or four years later he printed his first book at Bruges, his own English translation from French called The Recayell of the Histories of Troy. This was the first book printed in English. In 1476 he returned press and all, to England.

At his press in Westminster, he issued nearly eighty other items, great and small, before his death in 1491. They include Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, old romance, the Golden Legend (1483) of saints’ lives, and liturgies; the works of Boethius, Chaucer and John Gower, but for his edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485) that work might hitherto have been unknown. Caxton’s books and those of his apprentice and follower, Wynkyn de Worde, show the survival of medieval taste, but about 1510 the press responded to the stimulus of Erasmus and the New Learning, and humanistic and religious works multiplied apace. Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s assistant, took over the presses after Caxton’s death, preprinting many of the most popular titles.

Caxton was not a mere printer, but a literary man. He made his own translations from the French, and his little prefaces and conclusions are rare blendings of good critical sense, humour, and mellow quality of mind and style. He is a fine specimen of the mingling of old and new–the old language, whose rapid change he laments, the old chivalry and romance, the new enterprise and individualism meet in this self-reliant, rising young layman, holding in his hand the instrument which has moulded the modern mind.