Caxton, William

SUBJECT AREA: Paper and printing
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b. c.1422 Kent, England
d. 1491 Westminster, England
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English printer who produced the first book to be printed in English.
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According to his own account, Caxton was born in Kent and received a schooling before entering the Mercers' Company, one of the most influential of the London guilds and engaged in the wholesale export trade in woollen goods and other wares, principally with the Low Countries. Around 1445, Caxton moved to Bruges, where he engaged in trade with such success that in 1462 he was appointed Governor of the English Nation in Bruges. He was entrusted with diplomatic missions, and his dealings with the court of Burgundy brought him into contact with the Duchess, Margaret of York, sister of the English King Edward IV. Caxton embarked on the production of fine manuscripts, making his own translations from the French for the Duchess and other noble patrons with a taste for this kind of literature. This trend became more marked after 1470–1 when Caxton lost his post in Bruges, probably due to the temporary overthrow of King Edward. Perhaps to satisfy an increasing demand for his texts, Caxton travelled to Cologne in 1471 to learn the art of printing. He set up a printing business in Bruges, in partnership with the copyist and bookseller Colard Mansion. There, late in 1474 or early the following year, Caxton produced the first book to be printed in English, and the first by an English printer, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, which he had translated from the French.
In 1476 Caxton returned to England and set up his printing and publishing business "at the sign of the Red Pale" within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. This was more conveniently placed than the City of London for the likely customers among the court and Members of Parliament for the courtly romances and devotional works he aimed to produce. Other printers followed but survived only a few years, whereas Caxton remained successful for fifteen years and then bequeathed a flourishing concern to his assistant Wynkyn de Worde. During that time, 107 printed works, including seventy-four books, issued from Caxton's press. Of these, some twenty were his own translations. As printer and publisher, he did much to promote English literature, above all by producing the first editions of the literary masterpieces of the Middle Ages, such as the works of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate and Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Among the various dialects of spoken English in use at the time, Caxton adopted the language of London and the court and so did much to fix a permanent standard for written English.
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Further Reading
W.Blades, 1877, The Biography and Typography of William Caxton, England's First Printer, London; reprinted 1971 (the classic life of Caxton, superseded in detail by modern scholarship but still indispensable).
G.D.Painter, 1976, William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography of England's First
Printer, London: Chatto \& Windus (the most thorough recent biography, describing every known Caxton document and edition, with corrected and new interpretations based on the latest scholarship).
N.F.Blake, 1969, Caxton and His World, London (a reliable account, set against the background of English late-medieval life).
LRD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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