THE FIRST BOOK ever printed, in 1455, is still perhaps the finest. The Gutenberg Bible's noble pages are almost indistinguishable from a fine manuscript, yet what would have cost a calligrapher months could be produced in a day. Within 30 years, over a hundred master printers were at work in Europe. Among them was an Englishman named William Caxton, one of the most successful examples of a well-solved mid-life crisis on record. Until he was about 50, he had been a powerful merchant-diplomat in Flanders; deprived of his lucrative offices by political skirmishing, he turned to a hobby that had hitherto beguiled his free moments -- translation. Caxton had a lively taste for the mythological romances that were best sellers in Burgundy; one of these he now put into English as The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy (his use of nonce words from French reminds his biographer of the Red Queen's advice to Alice: "to speak in French when you can't think of the English for a thing.")
The Recuyell was so successful that manuscript copies could not satisfy the demand. "And for as much as in the writing of the same," Caxton explained, "my pen is worn, mine hand weary and not steadfast, mine eyes dimmed with overmuch looking on the white paper . . . therefore I have practised and learned at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print."
He had taken the happy decision to become a printer as well as translator of books. His typeface had a Burgundian model, with letters linked, looped, and tailed, and many versions of each --ward greater economy: "formal splendor has replaced the caprice and liberty of handwriting; the letters are narrower and taller, angular and spiky; the curvilinear element is retained and exaggerated . . . the total effect of self consciously frivolous solemnity." It was the first book printed in English by an English printer, though at cologne, where he had gone to learn the art. The year was 1475.
Moving shop to Bruges and then across the Channel to Westminster Abbey, he turned out a series of translations, mostly his own, in which he was always lavish with prologues, epilogues, personal comments and anecdotes, veiled political allusions, as well as a zeal for collating and improving the text.
His magnificent edition of the Canterbury Tales was the fruit of a whole year's work in 1478, probably the finest work he ever did. By 1480 he had finished and published a colossal translation of Ovid, running to a quarter million words. But he did not disdain small jobs. A handbill to be fixed on covenient walls offered perpetual calendars "good cheap," concluding, in Latin, "please don't remove this."
In all, he turned out well over 100 publications, mostly what the disapproving Edward Gibbon centuries later dismissed as pandering to "the vicious taste" of the upper classes: instead of sober classics, "romances of fabulous knights and legends of more fabulous saints." But not all was vicious. Doctrine to Learn French and English is a word and phrase book useful in an age of much cross-channel traffic, and for us a source of colloquial late-medievel English. From the robust pages of Chronicles of England, beginning with a mythical Brutus the Trojan, Englishmen learned their national history, and in it Shakespeare later found source material.Mirror of the World, a handbook of popular science, is the first printed book in English to be furnished with pictures, one making it clear the earth was round. Reynard the Fox, pandering to the vicious taste of children, is still known: it first named the bear Bruin and led the French to change their name for fox to renard.
Marte d'Arthur was a version of Malory extensively abridged and elaborated on by Caxton's industrious editorial hand; until 1934, when an original Malory text showed up, it was the only version known. Governal of Health is replete with commonsense advice about hygiene, diet, exercise, and sleep: church dignitaries, who can't undbend in public to the extent of running, wrestling, or leaping, are advised to have a rope suspended from a beam to hang on with both hands, "then run much as thou mayst hither and thither with that cord." And for the first Tudor king, Henry VII, he printed not risque romances but the statutes of the king's first three parliaments -- for the first time not in law French but in plain English.
Yet plain English had never been Caxton's strong suit. In spite of repeated apologies for "rude and simple" translation, for offering "no curious nor gay terms of rhetoric," he had always been a devotee both in language and typeface of the florid embellishments of the Burgundian court. In the introduction to one of his last chivalric romances he explains his problems in finding an English his readers can understand. "Certainly our language now used varyeth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born . . . and that common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth from another." He tells about English merchants taking shelter from a storm on the English coast. Being hungry, they asked for eggs. "And the good wife answered that she could speak no French, and the merchant was angry for he also could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not. And then at last another said that he would have eyren; then the good wife said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren?"
In 1491, still in harness, Caxton died, "a man of much ornate and much renommed wisdom and cunning." He happened to be the first to bring the printed word to England, and being communicative, revealed more about himself than is known of most men of his time. Still, this is no recherche du temps predu. George Painter, Proust's masterly biographer, has spent 26 years in the British Library in charge of 15th-century printed books; he knows all, and tells almost all, that is known about Caxton -- perhaps a little more than today's viewer will sit still for.