Caxton, William


Caxton, William
(ca. 1421–1491)
   Businessman, critic, writer, translator, and printer, William Caxton is most celebrated for establishing the first printing press in England. Caxton was born in Kent sometime between 1415 and 1422, most likely in 1422. Besides the information he documents in the prologues and epilogues to his manuscripts, little is known of Caxton’s life or ancestry; however, his parents are thought to have been influential because they gained an apprenticeship for their son to Robert Large, a wealthy silk mercer who became sheriff in 1430 and lord mayor of London in 1439. After Large’s death in 1441, Caxton moved to Bruges, capital of Flanders, seat of the Burgundian government and thriving center for manufacturing and trade. In Bruges the prosperous merchant traded in textiles, particularly silk and wool, as well as luxury goods such as manuscripts, and he was appointed governor of the English Nation ofMerchant Adventurers.Here he met Margaret of York, the sister of England’s King Edward IV and the wife of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. The duchess hired Caxton to become her financial adviser and to acquire and translate books for her. The first book she asked Caxton to translate was the Le Recueil des Histoires de Troyes, a popular French ROMANCE. Sometime between the years 1470 and 1474,Caxton traveled to Cologne where he met Ulrich Zell, a priest from Marinz, the town where Johann Gutenberg had established the very first printing press. Zell had established the first printing press in Cologne and is probably responsible for teaching Caxton the skill. Caxton, who by this time had translated The History of Troy and made several copies of the book, returned to Bruges and, under the duchess of Burgundy’s sponsorship, set up his own printing press and hired calligrapher, bookseller, and translator Colard Mansion. Together, in 1474, they printed copies of The History of Troy, the first book to be printed in the English language, and dedicated the book to the duchess. The next year the duo printed The Game and Play of Chess Moralized. The printer returned to England in 1476, and set up a printing press at Westminster, where, in 1477, he printed Earl Rivers’s translation of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the first book to be printed in England.
   During his career Caxton translated many works from French, Latin, and Dutch into English; printed many small, usually religious, documents such as indulgences; and printed approximately 100 texts, most notably CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES and TROILUS AND CRISEYDE, MALORY’s MORTE D’ARTHUR, Godfrey of Bouillon’s The Order of Chivalry, Ranulph HIGDEN’s Polychronicon, GOWER’s CONFESSIO AMANTIS, Virgil’s Aeneid, many poems by LYDGATE and, perhaps his most ambi-tious task, Jacobus de Voragine’s GOLDEN LEGEND. Caxton’s texts included prologues and epilogues that he wrote, which included his opinion of the work; therefore, he is not only remembered as the first printer of English literature, but also as the first critic of the same.
   Caxton’s body of work gave his peers access to contemporary literature in their own language and gives modern scholars an idea of the tastes, politics, and culture of the later medieval society he lived in. The materials Caxton printed were both a response to and an influence on the reading public, and, although Chaucer is ultimately responsible for the success of his writing, Caxton is to be credited with making Chaucer’s work more rapidly and readily available to the general reading public of the time than it would have been otherwise, thus accelerating Chaucer’s influence and eminence. Until recently, people assumed that Caxton lived a life of celibacy as a bachelor because there is no mention of any wife in his writing. However, the discovery of medical records proving that he unquestionably had a legitimate daughter, Elizabeth, has led scholars to believe that he had a wife and that his wife was most likely Maude Caxton, who was buried at St. Margaret’s in Westminster around the time William Caxton was buried there after his 1491 death, which allegedly occurred on the very day he completed the lengthy translation of the Vitas Patrum, or Lives of the Fathers. Trainees Robert Copeland and Wynkyn de Worde succeeded Caxton; the latter is responsible for printing the Lives of the Fathers after Caxton’s death. Many of Caxton’s original manuscripts are currently housed in London’s British Museum.
   Bibliography
   ■ Blake, Norman Francis. Selections from William Caxton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
   ■ ———.William Caxton and English Literary Culture. London: Hambledon Press, 1991.
   ■ Painter,George D.William Caxton: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1977.
   ■ Penninger, Frieda Elaine. William Caxton. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
   Leslie Johnston

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Caxton, William — born с 1422, Kent, Eng. died 1491, London First British printer. He was a prosperous mercer when he began to translate French literature and learn printing. He set up a press in Belgium and published his translation The Recuyell of the Historyes… …   Universalium

  • Caxton, William — (ca. 1422 1491)    The first Englishman to practice the new art of printing. A native of Kent and a member of the Mercers Company of London, he spent many years living abroad, chiefly at Bruges in the Netherlands. In 1470 he moved to Cologne and… …   Historical Dictionary of Renaissance

  • Caxton,William — Cax·ton (kăkʹstən), William. 1422? 1491. English printer who published the first book in English, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (c. 1475). * * * …   Universalium

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  • CAXTON, WILLIAM —    the first English printer, born in Kent, bred a mercer, settled for a time in Bruges, learned the art of printing there, where he printed a translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troyes, and The Game and Playe of Chesse ; returning to …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Caxton, William — (1422 1491)    Printer and translator, b. in the Weald of Kent, was apprenticed to a London mercer. On his master s death in 1441 he went to Bruges, and lived there and in various other places in the Low Countries for over 30 years, engaged… …   Short biographical dictionary of English literature

  • Caxton — William Caxton (* um 1422 in der Grafschaft Kent; † 1491 in Westminster) war der erste englische Buchdrucker und gleichzeitig auch als Verleger und Übersetzer tätig. Er gilt als bedeutender Bildner und Reformator der englischen Sprache, da er in… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • William Caxton — (* um 1422 in der Grafschaft Kent; † 1491 in Westminster) war der erste englische Buchdrucker und gleichzeitig auch als Verleger und Übersetzer tätig. Er gilt als bedeutender Bildner und Reformer der englischen Sprache, da er in seinen Drucken… …   Deutsch Wikipedia


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