Printed by Caxton

A leaf from Polychronicon by Ranulf Higden, translated by John Trevisa, printed by William Caxton at Westminster in 1482 (269 x 194 mm)  

For William Caxton, running a printing-house was a second career. He was born some time around the year 1420 and brought up in the Weald of Kent, just a few miles from where this website is compiled, but no-one knows exactly where. Schooling and apprenticeship turned him into a mercer (a dealer in cloth and luxury goods), involved in trade with the Low Countries. For many years he lived in Bruges, rising to become governor of the 'English Nation' there, involved in diplomatic dealings between England, France, and Flanders.

At around the age of 50 Caxton decided  to extend his business by dealing in printed books and spent some time in Cologne acquiring the necessary equipment and expertise. Back in Bruges (or possibly Ghent) he published the first ever printed book in English, his own translation of stories from the Trojan Wars, and a few other titles. Having tested the market for English-language books he moved his press across the Channel, not to London, but to nearby Westminster, with its Royal Palace, seat of parliament, and Benedictine monastery whose church is now Westminster Abbey. In 1476 he published what is thought to be the first book printed in England, an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some 100 others followed, mainly in English, and 18 of them translated by himself. (He was only just the first printer in England: a book was printed in Oxford in 1478, by whom is not known, and the press did not thrive.)

Caxton died in 1491 and is buried in St Margaret's church which stands alongside Westminster Abbey. Like Gutenberg, no authentic likeness of him exists.

My leaf is from Caxton's Polychronicon, printed at Westminster in 1482. This was a 'chronicle of many ages', from the Creation to 1352, written in Latin by the English monk Ranulph Higden, and later translated into English by a Gloucestershire parson, John of Trevisa. For this first printed version Caxton revised the English text and extended its coverage up to his own time. In the words of a recent Sale Catalogue, 'Higden's work was not merely the most popular of the English medieval chronicles: it was also the first English world history, instantly outdating all the previous chronicles and setting a trend among English historians'.

On this leaf, Higden has reached the eighth century A.D.. In the last few lines of the verso page he tells us how Archbishop Egbert (died 766 A.D.) 'ordeyned at York a noble lyberarye'. There is also mention of Egbert's illustrious pupil, Alcuin of York, 'noble doctour of englyssh men', though his name is misprinted as Alcuinns instead of Alcuinus – an easy mistake to make since an 'n' is so like an inverted 'u'. (Perhaps an 'n' was misplaced in the box of 'u's when the type from a previously printed page was redistributed. Typesetters did not look at the individual letters as they picked them out and the proofreader failed to spot this error.)

The leaf has been rubricated with paragraph marks and a two-line initials. To further guide the reader there is a column in the outside margin headed 'Anno' in which the years referred to in the text are written in red, using an unfamiliar form of the figure 7: 740, 741 and 744. These and the other red marginal marks were probably added by the printer. A later reader has added further notes in brown. Both sets are in Latin, suggesting perhaps the notes were intended to help non English speakers. There is minimal punctuation. 

Caxton's font for this book, known as 'Caxton Type 4', probably originated in the Low Countries and reflects the written style of some of the manuscript books he would have come across in Bruges. The historian of type, Daniel Updike, calls this type 'disagreeable', 'rough', and 'ugly'. The lower-case 'w' is a distinguishing feature. But Caxton was not much concerned with fine printing; the thing that mattered most was what the text said, not how it looked. He is remembered today more for the way his books helped shape and fix the still evolving English language than for his printing expertise.