Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster.

Wars and Roses… we have seen that roses were rare on the battle banners of fifteenth-century England. Let’s now take a closer look at the ‘wars’ themselves. In the thirty-two years that history textbooks conventionally allot to the ‘Wars of the Roses’, there were long periods of peace. In fact, there were only thirteen weeks of actual fighting — and though the battles themselves were bitter and sometimes very bloody, mayhem and ravaging seldom ensued.

’It is a custom in England,’ reported Philippe de Commynes, a shrewd French visitor to England in the 1470s, ‘that the victors in battle kill nobody, especially none of the ordinary soldiers’. In this curiously warless warfare, defeated noblemen could expect prompt and ruthless execution, but ‘neither the country nor the people, nor the houses were wasted, destroyed or demolished’. The rank and file returned home as soon as they could, to continue farming their land.

In towns and cities people also got on with their lives. Trade and business positively flourished, generating contracts, ledgers and letters that called for a literate workforce — and it was the ‘grammar’ schools that taught this emerging class of office workers the practical mechanics of English and Latin. The grammar schools multiplied in the fifteenth century, and the demand for accessible low-price books that they helped generate was met by an invention that was to prove infinitely more important than considerations of who was nudging whom off the throne.

In 1469 William Caxton, an English merchant living in the prosperous Flemish trading town of Bruges, was finishing a book that he had researched. Caxton was a trader in rich cloths — a mercer like Richard Whittington — and books were his passion. He collected rare books, and he wrote for his own pleasure, scratching out the text laboriously with a quill on to parchment. The book he was currently completing was a history of the ancient Greek city of Troy, and the mercer, who was approaching his fiftieth birthday, was feeling weary. ‘My pen is worn, mine hand heavy, my eye even dimmed,’ he wrote. The prospect of copying out more versions of the manuscript for the friends who had expressed an interest was too much to contemplate. So Caxton decided to see what he could discover about the craft of printing, which had been pioneered by Johann Gutenberg in the 1440s in the Rhine Valley.

Travelling south-east from Bruges, he arrived on the Rhine nearly thirty years after Gutenberg had started work there. And having ‘practised and learned’ the technique for himself, the mercer turned printer went back to Bruges to set up his own press. In 1474 his History of Troy became the first book to be printed in English, and two years later he brought his press to England, setting up shop near the Chapter House, in the precinct of Westminster Abbey, where Parliament met.

Caxton had an eye for a good location. Along the route between the Palace of Westminster and the Chapter House shuttled lawyers, churchmen, courtiers, MPs — the book-buying elite of England. The former cloth trader also had an eye for a bestseller. The second book he printed was about chess, The Game and Play of the Chesse. Then came in fairly quick succession a French-English dictionary, a translation of Aesop’s fables, several popular romances, Malory’s tale of Camelot in the Morte D’Arthur, some school textbooks, a history of England, an encyclopaedia entitled The Myrrour of the Worlde, and Chaucer’s bawdy evergreen, The Canterbury Tales.

More than five hundred years later a copy of Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer became the most expensive book ever sold — knocked down at auction for £4.6 million. But in the fifteenth century the obvious appeal of the newly printed books lay in their value for money. Books became so commonplace that snobs sometimes employed scribes to copy Caxton’s printed editions back into manuscript — while both Church and government became alarmed at the access to new ideas that the printing press offered to a widening public.

Over the centuries Caxton’s innovation would marvellously stimulate diversity in thinking, but in one important respect its impact was to standardise. Caxton loved to write personal prefaces to his publications, explaining the background of the new book he was sharing with his readers, and in one of these he describes the difficulties of being England’s first mass publisher. He was in his study, he relates, feeling rather bereft, looking for a new project to get his teeth into, and happened to pick up the recently published French version of Virgil’s Aeneid. The editor in him couldn’t resist trying to translate the great epic poem into English. Taking a pen, he wrote out a page or two. But when he came to read through what he had written, he had to wonder whether his customers in different corners of England would be able to understand it, since ‘common English that is spoken in one shire varies from another’.

To make the point he recounted the tale of a group of English merchants who, when their ship was becalmed at the mouth of the Thames, decided to go ashore in search of a good breakfast. One of them asked for some ’eggys’, to be told by the Kentish wife that she did not understand French. Since the merchant himself only spoke and understood English, he started to get angry, until one of his companions said he would like some ’eyren’ — and the woman promptly reached for the egg basket.

’Loo,’ exclaimed Caxton, ‘what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte — egges or eyren?’

Even in this account you may notice that Caxton himself first spelled the word ’eggys’, then ’egges’ a few lines later. As the printer-publisher produced more and more books — and when he died in 1491 he was on the point of printing his hundredth — he made his own decisions about how words should be spelled. His choices tended to reflect the language of the south-east of England, with which he was familiar — he was proud to come from Kent, ’where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as is in any place of England.’

Many of Caxton’s spelling decisions and those of the printers who came after him were quite arbitrary. As they matched letters to sounds they followed no particular rules, and we live with the consequences to this day. So if you have ever wondered why a bandage is ‘wound’ around a ‘wound’, why ‘cough’ rhymes with ‘off’ while ‘bough’ rhymes with cow’, and why you might shed a ‘tear’ after seeing a ‘tear’ in your best dress or trousers, you have William Caxton to thank for the confusion.

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