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Caxton, William (1422/1423–1491) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

caxton’s england editorial press

William Caxton described himself as a “simple person,” but his influence on English culture was complex. Not only did he introduce printing with movable type into England, but he established precedents in English translation and editorial practice.

Caxton was born in Kent (as he tells us) likely sometime during 1422 or 1423. In 1438, Caxton was apprenticed to Robert Large of the Mercers Company. At some time during his apprenticeship Caxton left England for Bruges, a bustling commercial hub with a rich cultural tradition. Robert Large died in 1441, and it appears likely that Caxton was released from his apprenticeship at that date.

Caxton’s life in Bruges was only one part of a lengthy sojourn abroad. In the prologue to The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye he tells us that he was “for the most parte in the contres of Brabant, Flandres, Holand, and Zeland” for “the space of xxx 30 yere.” In 1464–65, passports were issued to Caxton and his servants to go to Utrecht. His political prominence is indicated by the fact that he was assigned by Edward IV to negotiate a new treaty with Philip the Good on 20 October 1464. Clearly, his role abroad also included the duties of a diplomat. On 19 September 1471, he went to Cologne. There has been some debate about precisely what he did during that particular sojourn abroad. Edmund Childs suggests that he may have become familiar with the newly established printing press in Cologne and even have learned the art of printing in a religious establishment. William Blades, Caxton’s nineteenth-century biographer, strongly argues that he did not learn printing in Cologne but learned it in Bruges. In any case, Caxton left Cologne at the end of 1472 to return to Bruges. There he collaborated with Colard Mansion, who had just established a press. The collaboration produced at least six different editions prior to Caxton’s return to England.

When he returned to England in 1476, Caxton established his own press at Westminster, adjacent to the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey. His first dated publication was an indulgence of 13 December 1476. A vital flow of major English cultural documents was to follow. In England Caxton’s associations with “persons of quality” continued. He knew Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, and her brother, Earl Rivers. Indeed, one of his earlier publications was a translation by Earl Rivers. Under such royal patronage, Caxton’s efforts thrived. Not only did he maintain a press, but he carried on his own activities in editing and translation, often at a frenetic pace. He also maintained a bookstore. Nonetheless, despite his connection to the household of Edward IV, he also managed to thrive under Richard III and Henry VII, with the output of his press undiminished. Indeed, he presented a copy of Eneydos to Prince Arthur, the elder son of King Henry VII. His later patrons include Margaret Beaufort, King Henry VII’s mother. During his later years, Caxton was assisted by Wynkyn de Worde, who ultimately took over the press. Caxton died in 1491.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Besides providing a major contribution to English technology by introducing printing with movable type into the country, Caxton also made a contribution in belles lettres, English translation, and editorial practices. Most of Caxton’s contribution in the area of belles lettres is to be found in his prologues and epilogues. In these works, he provides details about his editorial practice and the authors he published. For instance, his prologue to his edition of Trevisa’s Polychronicon makes clear that he has updated the English somewhat and added a selection to make the material current. He also provides tantalizing tidbits about a given work. He notes that the Lyf of our Lady was written at the request of “king harry the fifth.” He also inserts information about his personal life. The mixture of anecdotal, personal, and authorial information enlivens his discussions of editorial practice.

Caxton’s editorial procedures, as described in his prologues and epilogues, have raised several questions. N. F. Blake and others have suggested he did not tell his readers the whole truth. Blake and Eugène Vinaver particularly indicate that, in his editing of Thomas Malory’s* Le Morte Darthur , Caxton deceived his reader by omitting crucial details about his editorial procedure. However, as other studies have shown, Caxton tends to be meticulous in describing what has happened. This vignette from the preface to the 1484 edition of The Canterbury Tales illustrates his sensitivity to his readers and feelings of obligation to his authors:

one gentylman cam to me/and said that this book was not accordyng in many places vnto the book that Gefferey Chaucer had made/To whom I answerd that I had made it accordyng to my copye/and by me was nothyng added ne mynusshyd/Thenne he sayd he knewe a book whyche hys fader has and movhe louyd That was very trewe/and accordyng vnto hys owen first book by hym made/and sayd more yf I wold enprynte it agayn he wold gete me the same book for a copye/how be it he wyst wel/that hys fader wold not gladly departe fro it/To whom I said/in caas that he coude gete me suche a book trewe and correcte/yet I wold ones endeuoyre me to enprynte it agayn/for to satysfye thauctour.

Providing fifteenth-century audiences the “best text” available made both good editorial sense and good business sense from Caxton’s point of view. It is therefore logical to believe that the practices described in the prologues and epilogues reflect his concerted effort to meet the expectations of his market. In any case, these interesting essays (sometimes employing poetry) extend beyond the realm of mere “literary curiosity.” As methodological statements of the earliest printer in England, they shed an interesting light both on his editorial practices and on information available to him (and of potential interest to his audience) with regard to the authors he printed. The fact that he occasionally inserts personal information establishes a tone that helps to make Caxton a living presence to modern audiences.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Caxton’s efforts as a translator have drawn mixed reviews. N. F. Blake in Caxton and His World notes that Caxton’s pursuit of a “high style” led him to formulaic writing and at times even bombast. There is no doubt that the style of Caxton’s translations, like that of his prologues and epilogues, tends to the florid end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, it also lacks at times the Ciceronian balance of later florid stylists, perhaps because of constraints imposed by the material he translated. Another concern often raised with regard to Caxton’s role as a translator includes his literary taste. His translations include Caton, Charles the Great, Curial, The Doctrinal of Sapience, Eneydos, The Boke of the Fayte of Armes, The Game of Chess, The Golden Legend, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye , and The Order of Chivalry , among others. In many ways, his inventory of translations is similar to the output of his press. While classical titles are included, Caxton clearly valued books from the later Middle Ages in vernacular tongues, which he demonstrated by including later works such as Reynard the Fox , which he translated from the Dutch. Some of the choices irritated early modern critics, who believed that Caxton did not give enough attention to classical titles in his press list. Yet it is perhaps remarkable that in his translations he gave them much attention at all, for much of the literate population of London in the fifteenth century could read Latin. Such critics also charge that Caxton perpetuated a taste for medieval material. That assertion may be true, but, given Caxton’s attention to the demands of his audience, it appears that those titles constituted what he felt to be “marketable.” The fact that in the fifteenth century England was participating in a revival of chivalric values (whether serious or ironic) presented Caxton with ready buyers for his medieval treatises on arms and chivalry. Given the fact as well that he updated the language in some of these texts (as he did in the Polychronicon ), it is apparent that he had a serious dedication to the culture of the later Middle Ages. That dedication was shared by his reading public. No matter how prolix his style might have been or how much one may quarrel with his choice of items for translation, there is no doubt that Caxton served the needs of the late medieval and early modern culture in England.

Even earlier critics felt an obligation to “take a stand” on Caxton. John Bale made the ambiguous observation that Caxton was “vir non omnino stupidus aut ignavia torpens” (a man not entirely foolish nor stiffening from sloth). Gavin Douglas* attacked his translation of the Aeneid by saying, “I reid his werk with harmes at my hert” and suggested that Caxton had no idea of Virgil’s intent. R. Braman (1555) said that Caxton’s translation of the History of Troy was “a long, tedious, and brayneles bablyng.” Caxton also had a series of important defenders, including John Leland and Thomas Fuller. Fuller’s summary comment was that Caxton “deserved well of Posterity.” The interest in Caxton in the nineteenth century coincided with a revival of interest in the Middle Ages. In general, he was recognized for his contribution to English culture, but that contribution was often linked to the perception of his character. Blades sets the tone when he observes that Caxton “attracted the love and respect of his associates” and possessed a character “on which history has chronicled no stain’’ (92). This tone has persisted into the twentieth century. Curt Bühler, for instance, notes that Caxton’s nature “was a gentle one, utterly devoid of the slightest trace of venom” (15). These observations were not gratuituous flattery—they were based instead on more detailed attention to Caxton’s texts and a broader understanding of his historical setting.

The outpouring of modern criticism on Caxton around 1976, the 500th anniversary of the introduction of printing into England, was, for the most part, laudatory. Childs, Deacon, Blake, Hellinga, and others all made an effort to put Caxton in focus. In general, his editorial practices are now understood in the context of his role as a commercial printer and the parameters of acquiring accurate manuscripts in the fifteenth century. There is considerably more acceptance of his “Burgundian taste,” the materials that he printed, and his prose style. While there are still the occasional cries of denigration, Caxton is generally praised for printing and preserving some of the documents that he selected, most notably Malory’s* Le Morte Darthur . He is still not praised as a master stylist. Much of his English prose sounds awkward to modern readers who do not derive the enjoyment from it that they find in Malory or other fifteenth-century prose. Nonetheless, studies remain to be done on the reasons behind his prose style. Given Caxton’s business orientation and his desire to please his audience, he must have felt that his prose style would have a sympathetic audience. More comparisons with public documents and private letters (which are now becoming available in greater quantity) may demonstrate additional intrinsic interest in his prose style.

Caxton’s reputation waxes and wanes along with current literary taste. He was neither textual scholar in the modern sense nor merely venal businessman. Making money was likely his overriding concern, but, within the limits of the materials available to him and the practices of his day, he did indeed strive for excellence, and he always made an effort to print the “best text” out of respect to his authors and his audience.

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