Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England

Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England

Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England

Caxton in Focus: The Beginning of Printing in England

Excerpt

William Caxton is the only English printer to be numbered among the great men of the nation's collective memory. His reputation rests on the hundred books he published between 1473 and 1492, on some twenty works he translated into English, and on the fact that he was the first Englishman to become actively involved in the then new art of printing. After a rather tentative beginning in Cologne and Bruges, he introduced printing into England, an experiment which he turned into a flourishing enterprise. But leaving aside his priority in technical and commercial fields, Caxton still appeals to us because he addressed his readers personally, and with a directness that remains vivid to the present day. Caxton included in many of his publications an explanation of his reasons for giving the text he printed a wider readership, and of the circumstances under which he had prepared it. He would indicate the readers for whom the book was intended, and discuss who had advised him to publish it, to whom it was dedicated, and would ponder his own role in the venture. Thus, dedicating his translation of a romance to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the Queen Mother, he addressed her in this way: '. . . Bysechynge my sayd ladyes bountyuous grace to receyve this lityll boke in gree of me, her humble servaunt, and to pardoune me of the rude and comyn Englyshe, where as shall be found faulte; for I confesse me not lerned ne knowynge the arte of rethoryk ne of suche gaye termes as now be sayd in these dayes and used. Bat I hope that it shall be understonden of the redars and heren -- and that shall suffyse.' Caxton wrote this after about twenty years' experience as author and translator. He had shown an acute sense of language ever since he had begun his first translation from the French, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye , in 1468. Translating the first pages he was 'renning forth', as he put it, 'as blynde Bayard', and became conscious of his 'symplenes and unperfightnes in bothe langages'. Nevertheless, despite experiencing a fit of despair he persisted, encouraged by Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, who ordered him to continue his translation, but only after some demurring on his part, and after she had corrected 'a defaute in myn Englissh'. Towards the end of his career, in his translation of Virgil, he was capable of a sharper formulation of the questions that still plagued him. 'Certaynly it is harde to playse every man bycause of dyversite and chaunge of langage. For in these dayes every man that is in ony reputacyon in his countre wyll utter his commynycacyon and maters in suche maners and termes that fewe men shall understonde theym. And som honest and grete clerkes have ben wyth me and desired me to wryte the moste curyous termes that I coude fynde. And thus bytwene . . .

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