Sunteți pe pagina 1din 11

William Caxtons Contributions to the English Language and Books & Libraries

LIS 612 Dr. Rebecca Knuth Fall 2006

Dainan Skeem

Introduction Having been an English major, I already knew a little of whom William Caxton was; his role as the first English printer cannot be overlooked. However, not having had a chance to study him in-depth, I knew I wanted to take this opportunity to do so. I feel pleased with the decision I made, for through the research of the paper, I have discovered that Caxton was more than the first English printer, but also a translator and a linguist. It was through his efforts that the English language came out of obscurity and into everyday use. Without Caxton, the process would have taken longer or may have gone in a direction totally different than what it is today. A language that does not change is a language that is dead. Latin was once a thriving language, spoken by thousands of people all over the European continent. However, when the use of the language declined and few people spoke it (usually only scholars and religious figures), it ceased to morph and became a dead language. Through Caxtons efforts, English developed from a vulgar language to a common mans language, emerging into the limelight to never be obscured again, nor to become a dead language. Many of the texts used in colleges throughout the world are in English, a language that has become international. Millions of books are printed in English in England, the United States, Canada, Australia, and many other countries. Caxtons efforts to print books in the English language can be seen as a breath of life for books in general and in the old practice of collecting them in libraries.

Biographical Information William Caxtons date of birth is not known for certain. It is assumed to be close to 1415. However, most sources seem to agree that 1422 is probably a fairly accurate date. According to the book William Caxton, Much of what we know about him is derived from what he tells us about himself in the prologues and epilogues to the books he printed, written to persuade prospective purchasers that the books were worth buying (11). Caxton was born in Kent, England and was accepted as an apprentice in London in 1438. This was not a regular apprenticeship. According to N. F. Blake, [Robert] Large was an important and influential merchant. Caxton had thus become apprentice to one of the more important men in the city. That Large was his master would have been of great value to him. He became part of what was certainly a flourishing business, which would have provided him with useful contacts and future trading partners. (26-7) Seven years later, in 1445, he moved to Bruges, Belgium as a mercer to take part in the trade there of the Merchant Adventurers of whom the London Mercers where prominent members (William Caxton 10). Many Englishmen were attracted to Bruges due to its production of fine cloths, which also made other textiles of import. The move to Bruges was important in the scheme of Caxtons shift to printing. As the years progressed, so did his skills as a mercer and his career. He eventually became an important figure among his colleagues, which would again benefit him in the future with printing. In this period Caxton learned how to finance projects and he acquired considerable wealth. Both were necessary for the successful completion of his venture into printing (Blake 45). With the trouble that ensued with the government, Caxton began to look elsewhere for merchandise to sell. English mercers where not allowed to sell fine cloths for a while

and it is assumed that Caxton supplemented his sales with manuscripts. He worked closely with many of the noble who were the only ones that could afford such luxuries as reading materials. Through his handling of manuscripts and even books, he gained an interest in literature. (Blake 32-45)

Translator His first effort with literature was not in printing, but in translating. He knew enough Dutch, Flemish, French and Latin to translate books into English. This was unheard of before; English was not a scholarly language like French or Latin, but one used only by the common folk. The first book to be translated by him was the Latin book History of Troy (1475), that had been translated into French. However, he had such a difficult time in translating that hed almost given up on the notion. He had begun translating in 1469 and then given it up. The reason, according to Caxton, was his incompetence as a translator and his lack of command of English. It is not a convincing one, for in the centre of the European book trade he could probably have found someone else to do it for him if he had just wanted a translation. He evidently wanted to make the translation himself and was prevented from completing it for two years. (Blake 50) Luckily for English speakers today, he ended up showed Margaret of Burgundy his sampling of translated text, who ordered him to finish the translation and to improve his style, which he did (Blake 46). Opinions of Caxtons translations vary greatly. The following examples, given by Blake, illustrate the differences of opinions between two editors as to the quality of his translations. The first quote is from the editor Sommer: The language of the first English printed book is, to say the least of it, very peculiar, owing to the facts, that Caxtons rude englissh had probably become somewhat rusty during his long absence abroad, and, that his knowledge of French

must have been rather superficial. It is therefore not wonderful when William Fiston, who corrected the text for Th. Creedes edition (1607), doubted Caxtons being an Englishman. -Sommer 1894 p. 801 (125) The second example that Blake uses is from Kellners introduction to Blanchardin and Eglantine: I contend that he was as good and free a translator as any of the 15th century, and in his style certainly not inferior to Peacock, the greatest prosaist of this time. What makes Caxtons style appear so awkward in the eyes of a modern reader, is his repetitious, tautologies, and anacolutha. But these irregularities are, for the most part, conscious sins, committed not only by him, but also by all the writers of his time. Kellner 1890 p. cxi (125) Many of the translators in Caxtons day stated that they attempted to stay as close to the original text as possible, even though this was more of a selling point for their work than reality. Caxton made the same claims, probably out of obligation. How would it look if everyone were doing it except him? His number one priority was not accuracy of translation, but ensuring that there was always something on the press. Because he owned it, it was up to him how many books he had available for printing and if nothing was printing, he wasnt making money. To keep the presses working may have appeared more important than a finely wrought phrase (Blake 126). In his closing remarks on the subject of Caxton as a translator, Blake says, In general he can hardly be distinguished from the host of translators who crowd the fifteenth-century scene, except perhaps in the sheer quantity of his output. Of the 106 works printed by or attributed to Caxton, he translated at least 28. It is hardly surprising that he did not always have time to polish his version for the press. (150)

Printer Caxton eventually resigned as the Governor within the Merchant Adventurers, a post he held for several years, so he could travel to Cologne, Germany. He lived there from

1471 -72, a total of 18 months. It is assumed that his intention in traveling there was to learn how to be a printer so he could print his own book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated from the French. Cologne, with a press dating from about 1465, was the town nearest to Bruges which had a press at that time, and Caxton had little choice where to go (Blake 56). It had become the capital of the Low Countries because of its university, which attracted a lot of scholars and students; an important archbishopric; and strong trade, especially with English tradesmen. An interesting aspect to the printing world is the fact that there was an immediate division of labor within the profession. There were the skilled craftsmen who actually did the work on the presses and then there were the tradesmen that already had connections to sell the books who were considered the publishers and entrepreneurs. Paper was the most expensive investment that had to be available upfront, before any books were sold, and it was the tradesmen who had the money readily available for purchasing. Surely Caxton learned how to print, for it was his responsibility to teach his assistants once he returned to Bruges and set up shop as a printer. Blake explains it thus: Normally he would not have interfered in the actual printing operations, and it is not right to think of Caxton as a printer. He was the publisher and entrepreneur. He provided the capital, chose the books and distributed them, leaving the printing to others (59). Once he returned to Bruges, Caxton used the patronage of Margaret of Burgundy to help him publish his book. The first book he printed, and the first book to appear in English, was his own translation of the History of Troy (Blake 60) in 1475. Before returning to England to set up a printing press there, Caxton printed six or seven other volumes while in Bruges. Two were in English, the one already mentioned and Game of

Chess, and four were in French. A seventh pamphlet is attributed to him but has not been confirmed to be his work. (Blake 60). Caxton finally returned to England to set up his own printing press in 1476. Since Caxton settled in Westminster instead of his hometown of London, it was supposed that the relations between the scribes and the printers were at odds. It was thought that perhaps the scribes felt threatened by this new device that would ultimately outdate them, stealing all of their work. However, this has never been proved and, in fact, there are several accounts of printers working closely with the scribes. As an example, The first known item to be printed in England is an indulgence which must be dated prior to 13 December 1476, since that date has been entered by hand in the surviving copy. It is printed in Caxtons type 2 with six letters in his type 3 (Blake 79). Obviously he was working with the abbots, who were also scribes, in the production of indulgences. So, the question may be asked, why did Caxton set up press in Westminster instead of London? Blake expresses the opinion that, Apart from the benefits of being associated with the Abbey, Caxton chose to set up his press at Westminster in order to be near the court. He printed books which would appeal to its members, from among whom he sought to find his patrons (80). Others have thought that perhaps Caxtons decision was based on the fact that family could have already been there. There are records of Caxtons or Castons living in the area. However, this is pure speculation, which Blake seems to mention and then set aside. One may wonder what the audience of most books would be. How literate was the general population in England during the 15th Century? Henry R. Plomer, author of the book William Caxton (1424-1491) writes about the conditions of the English. Many of the

nobility were educated men and book-collectors, and these again not only welcomed the advent of Caxtons press, but brought him books out of their libraries to print. But the largest class of educated persons in England at that time were the clergy (62). Having watched a wonderful video at the beginning of the semester of Dr. Frank Baxter making papyrus in his studio from the 1950s, I found a similar video from the same series on printing. Dr. Baxter, in this video titled Written Word: New Worlds for the Book, tells of the influence William Caxton played in English Literature. He does a brief history of who William was and makes an important statement. He said that Caxton was a realist and that few of the books he published were religious works. Instead, Caxton stayed away from those and worked on many gentlemans books. Some of these included, Geoffery Chaucers Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malorys Morte dArthur, and John Gowers Confessio Amantis (The Lovers Confession). Plomer says, His ambition was not to put money in his pocket, but to use his press mainly for broadening the foundations of knowledge by printing books of a more general character (111). Caxton couldnt have ever hoped to have the entire publishing market of England in his hands for the rest of his life. And accordingly, rivals began to arrive, setting up their own print shops. The first few were no real threat to the well-known Caxton; however, by 1480, a real competitor entered the stage. John Lettou, a native of Lithuania, moved into London and actually had better books than Caxton. It at once became evident that the new printer had learnt his art under a much better master than Caxton had (Plomer 107). This became a wake up call to Caxton, letting him know that he needed to begin fixing some of the problems with his own printing so as not to lose the business entirely and this he did.

Linguist At the time of Caxtons translations, English was a language that was still new. It had begun to change from the Old English to a more modern English but different ways of spelling and pronunciation abounded. This was bound to make any printer go insane. We are told about this time, The English vernacular was only just beginning to develop a prose form, and Caxton coped with the problem of meager vocabulary and wide variations in the spelling of even the simplest English words (Buhler vii). As an example, the word little can be spelled several ways in Caxtons texts. Two variants are litil and lytel. Buhler continues, At this very period, the English language was still passing from its mediaeval pronunciation into that state with which we are familiar today, and it was precisely then that the press began to crystallize the orthography of a language still in flux. Gradually, the spelling tended to become fixed, while the pronunciation continued to evolve. (4) Caxton knew of these difficulties personally and recognized the need for a remedy. Through his efforts as a printer and publisher, things began to slowly change. This event alone constitutes Caxtons literary heritage to us (Buhler 4). An interesting side note about this event in English history is the current spellings and pronunciations found in the language today. Because the written word began to take a more permanent form while the spoken word had not, many variants developed on how to pronounce the same word. For this reason, we see many differences in the pronunciation of British English and American English. Even within England there are dialects with differences in word pronunciation. This all developed due to the solidifying of the written and spoken language at different times. (Buhler 5)

As stated before, many people like Caxtons writing while others think it lacking in skill and beauty. Buhler agrees that not all of his work is to the level of a master poet. However, if taking into account all of the other responsibilities that he performed, one will see the influence he had over the people of his time. Perhaps there were others who wrote poetry or prose in a more beautiful manner, but who was there to know of it? Their public was necessarily more limited and the influence, consequently, was more circumscribed than would have been the case had their writings been broadcast by the press (Buhler 8). Caxton not only acted as author and editor of his own works, but as printer and publisher as well. The influence he has left behind has touched more people than those with better prose.

Conclusion William Caxton was a very important man in the history of English printing and even in the development of the language. Due to what many of the authors called luck, he was able to get an apprenticeship with an influential mercer that ultimately allowed him to progress in the profession and obtain the needed funds to bring printing to the English language. Such an untested and risky endeavor would never have been possible without his previous successes. Caxtons influence has reached throughout the ages as he juggled the tasks of translator, printer, and linguist. All we have to do is extend our hands, pick up a book, and we ourselves reach back to William Caxtons time, whether we know it or not.


Bibliography Blake, N. F. Caxton and His World. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969. Buhler, Curt Ferdinand. William Caxton and His Critics. Syracuse : Syracuse University Press, 1960. Plomer, Henry. William Caxton (1424-1491). London: Leonard Parsons Ltd., 1925. William Caxton: An Exhibition to Commemorate the Quincentenary of the Introduction of Printing into England. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1976. Written Word: New Worlds for the Book. Perf. Dr. Frank Baxter. [Videorecording] Net Film Services, 1956.