Friday, August 28, 2009

William Caxton

William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, and writer. He is most well known for introducing the printing press to England. He was also the first English retailer of books.
Caxton's year of birth is unknown but it is guessed to be sometime between 1415 and 1424. He was born and educated in the weald of Kent. Between 1437 and 1438 he went to London to serve as an apprentice to one Robert Lange, a wealthy dealer in cloth (called mercer), who served as the Master of the Mercer's Company and was Lord Mayor of London in 1439.
In 1446 Caxton went to Bruges where he become successful as a businessman and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Eventually he wound up in the household of Margaret of Burgundy, King Edward IV's sister. Each step up led to greater travel and greater exposure to what was going on in the rest of Europe. While in Cologne he observed the new printing industry.
Caxton immediately saw the value of it. Collaborating with Colard Mansion, a Fleming, he produced the first book to be printed in English in 1473 - Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated by Caxton himself. He then made plans to bring the printing press to England.
In 1476 he set up a press at Westminster and the first book printed there was Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Caxton printed books that were popular with the upper classes - chivalric romances, classical authored works, and English and Roman histories. The most important books that he produced were The Canterbury Tales, Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
Of course, like all new inventions there was controversy. It was feared by the merchant classes that the printed page might wind up among the poor who might "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" which might lead to civil unrest. In answering his critics, Caxton said, "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong"
Another important development that Caxton is given credit for is standardization of the English language. Four-fifths of the books he printed were in English. At that time there were no particular rules for spelling and no dictionaries. There were many different dialects and pronunciations. A famous quote from Caxton's prologue to Eneydos (1490), describing an English merchant being mistaken for a speaker of French, illustrates the level of variation between the dialects of England during the Early Modern period. "and specyally he axyd after eggys; and the goode wyf answerde, that she coude not speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges, and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren: then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel.*
After centuries of French being the language of government, English was now the language of Parliament. So Caxton chose the English of the East Midlands' triangle, which included London. Though he did not purposely intend to begin a standardization of the language (it was for convenience in his work), he nevertheless set the ball rolling.
William Caxton died in 1492. He is buried at St. Margaret's in Westminster

Interesting tidbit - It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits.

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