William Caxton Introduction. William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He is thought to be the first English person to work as a printer and the first to introduce a printing press into England. He was also the first English retailer of printed books (his London contemporaries in the same trade were all Flemish, German or French). His date of birth is unknown, but records place it in the region of 1415–1424, based on the fact his apprenticeship fees were paid in 1438. Caxton would have been 14 at the date of apprenticeship, but masters often paid the fees late. Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers' Company record his apprenticeship to Robert Large, a wealthy London mercer, or dealer in luxury goods, who served as Master of the Mercer's Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439. After Large died in 1441, Caxton was left a small sum of money (£20). As other apprentices were left larger sums, it would seem he was not a senior apprentice at this time. Printing. There he was successful in business and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry, and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, and the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to England, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book known to have been produced there was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Caxton and the English Language Caxton printed four-fifths of his works in English. He translated a large number of works into English, performing much of the translation and editing work himself. Caxton is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles. Caxton also translated 26 of the titles himself. His major guiding principle in translating was an honest desire to provide the most linguistically exact replication of foreign language texts into English, but the hurried publishing schedule and his inadequate skill as a translator often led to wholesale transference of French words into English and numerous misunderstandings. The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardization in the books he printed. His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems. Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularization of inflection and syntax, and the everwidening gap between the spoken and the written word. However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492, and who favored Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardization. It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Flemish spelling habits. Caxton's English An unusually high proportion of Caxton’s production was in the vernacular — in English. Over all, about 70% of the surviving editions from the 15th century were in Latin. In the case of Caxton about 68% of his editions were in English, 28% were in Latin, while 4% were in French. This is a very crude measure, as it does not take into account that some of the books were very large and some very small. In Caxton’s case about a third of the surviving Latin editions were of a single sheet only. Nor do we know if some of these sheets were produced in such large numbers that, in terms of financial importance, numbers compensate for the small size of each item. In any case, it is clear that the English language production was very significant for Caxton. This was probably not because Caxton was more than usually devoted to his native language. There were good economic reasons for his choice. There was an international market for books in Latin, so if Caxton had printed Latin books, he would have been competing with some of the biggest publishers of his time. This would have been difficult to do successfully from England, on the margins of Europe. European printers also produced books in Latin specifically for English use. This demonstrates the strength of European book exports to England. Caxton left to others the production of texts to be used in universities or monasteries throughout Europe. Instead he concentrated on books in English, where there was little competition. In his prefaces Caxton often wrote about his use of English, especially in his own translations. In his first translation, theRecuyell of the Histories of Troy, he mentioned the simplicity of his English, based on his ‘broad and rude’ Kentish dialect. This expression of a conventional modesty was based on a perception that it was more refined to use words derived from French or Latin than native English words. The same theme recurred in his translation of the Eneydos one of his last works, where he summed up more than 30 years’ experience with translating into English. Caxton referred to some ‘gentlemen’ who had complained that his translations contained words which ‘coude not be vnderstande of comyn peple, and desired me to vse olde and homely termes in my translacyons’ [could not be understood by the common people, and they wished me to use old and homely terms in my translations]. But this could go too far; the English language changed and the old and homely terms of past times were now incomprehensible. When he printed Ranulph Higden’s Polycronicon, in John Trevisa’s translation of 1387, he updated the ‘rude and old englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes, which in these dayes be neither vsyd ne understanden’ [rude and old English, that is, to wit, certain words which nowadays are neither used nor understood]. Caxton associated old usage with a lower social standing, calling it ‘plain and rude’ and implying that it was suitable for ‘rude’ men. The opposite is called ‘polished’, ‘ornate’, or ‘curious’. He was also acutely aware of regional variations. We saw him referring to his own Kentish background in the preface to his first translation, another theme which recurred at the end of his life. As a translator of books which were to be printed Caxton had to ensure that the language which he used was acceptable to quite a wide group of potential readers and buyers. As far as the social position of his language was concerned Caxton’s solution was to strike what he perceived as a balance but he aimed his language not at rude men but at ‘a clerke and a noble gentylman’. While his English was clearly based on the emerging standard language of London, Caxton’s approach to spelling does not constitute a concerted attempt to create a standard. His spelling varies widely within each book, and even more from book to book. To some extent this may be because each compositor followed his own system of spelling when he put the type together, but it also depended on the copy which they followed. A standard language would have been much more important to Caxton, a publisher of printed books, than to a scribe who produced one copy at a time. There was a Europe-wide norm for books in Latin, which made it possible for the printed book to become a successful international merchandise. Achieving a linguistic norm for the vernacular was of economic importance for the distribution of Caxton’s books, and he was evidently aware of this, but he did not have the background to create a new norm. At most, his English printed books helped consolidate a growing perception that the language used in the London region was a nationwide standard.