Wynkyn de Worde's Golden Legend

A leaf from Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in London in 1527 (246 x 188 mm)  

Wynkyn de Worde (the surname may relate to his place of origin) was Caxton's right-hand man and successor. Caxton may have taken him on at the start of his printing career in Cologne, and brought him to England to oversee the operation of his Westminster press. But de Worde was more than just a technician. After his master's death he took on the press and ran it successfully for 40 years, producing some 400 titles in this time. 

He greatly expanded the range of books published by the press, and in 1500 moved it from Westminster to new premises at the sign of the Sun in Fleet Street, London, helping to found the tradition of printing and journalism that made that street world-famous for centuries until recent years. This leaf was printed there. Wynkyn de Worde also set up a shop at the sign of Our Lady of Pity in nearby St Paul's cathedral churchyard, the centre of London's book trade until the 19th century.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of Lives of the Saints made by an Italian friar in the 13th century and translated into English by Caxton himself. A recent printed edition describes it as 'one of the most influential books of the later Middle Ages', its colloquial name, 'Legenda Aurea' in Latin meaning 'readings valuable as gold'.

My leaf is largely concerned with the little-known Edward the Martyr, king of England from 975 to 978. It relates how the king separated from his knights after a hunt in Dorset and 'rode forth alone to see his brother ... in the castle named Corfe' where he was offered wine and 'while the king drank the butler took a knife and rove [stabbed] the king through the body to the heart in such wise that the king fell down dead'.

Comparison of this leaf with the one printed 40 years earlier in Caxton's time shows the extent to which de Worde had raised the standard of typography and layout.

Appearing often on this leaf is a lower case 'y' with a tiny 'e' above it. This is an abbreviation for the word 'the'. The printer has used a 'y'  where there should be an Old English letter called 'thorn', pronounced 'th' as in 'thus'. Presumably the thorn symbol was not available in the font used for this book, probably because the type was imported from a country where 'thorn' was not used, so the 'y' was substituted because it looked roughly similar. The 'y-with-an-e-above' would have been pronounced 'the', not 'ye'. Misunderstanding of this point survives in the expression 'Ye Olde ...' beloved of twee teashops and elsewhere. Thorn itself survived just long enough to appear in the 1611 Bible.

 

 

 

 

 

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