July 31

In the Prologue to the edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, completed upon this last day of July in 1485, its printer, William Caxton wrote:

“After I had accomplysshed & Fynsshed dyvershystoryes as wel of contemplacyon as of other hystorycal and worldly actes of grete conquerors & prynces, And also certeyn bookes of ensaumples and doctryne, Many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of England camen and demaunded me many and aftymes, wherfore that I have not do made & enprynte the noble hystorye of the saynt greal, and of the mosst renomed crysten Kyng . . . Kyng Arthur . . . .”

William Caxton, the fast English printer, was a well-to-do merchant who had spent almost thirty years abroad, most of this time in the Low Countries. He was also a man of letters who found recreation in the translation of classics into English. He became interested in the young art of printing during a visit to Cologne, where he actually became involved in the production of a book. Upon his return to his home in Bruges, he completed a translation of a French work, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy, in order that the English-born Duchess of Burgundy could read it. The translation, in manuscript, was so popular at the Burgundian court that Caxton set up a press with which to supply copies.

This book, produced with the aid of the Bruges printer Colard Mansion, became the first book to be printed in English. It is set in a blackletter type, probably of Flemish origin. It has been stated that the style is based upon the handwriting of Mansion who had been a calligrapher prior to taking up printing. William Blades, the authority on Caxton, has mentioned that there were so many ligatures that only five letters in the font had but one matrix. When Caxton returned to England in 1476, the type was not brought with him.

The first press in England was set up at Westminster. For many years it was believed that the first book to be printed was The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres, which was completed in 1477, but an indulgence was discovered in 1928 which has been authoritatively ascribed to Caxton. The date on this indulgence, of which but a single copy is known, is December 13, 1476, making it the fast English imprint.

The type of many of the Caxton books is a lettre batarde, derived from a Burgundian copy of the French national hand of the period. Used by Caxton, it is not at all distinguished, as the Westminster printer was much more concerned with the contents of his books than in their printing. His press used eight different types, all of them being of the form which in Europe is called gothic, but which in the United States is termed blackletter or textletter. Three of these are pointed blackletter, familiar in Northern Europe as the lettre de forme, or Textura. The books printed in these types are much superior to those in which the earlier letters were used.

Probably the best known book produced by Caxton is The Canterbury Tales of Goeffrey Chaucer, the first printing of which took place in 1478. It is fitting indeed that one of the great English classics also became a renowned addition to English incunabula in its first printing.

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