An original leaf from the Polychronicon printed by William Caxton
William Caxton’s business acumen and literary interests led him to make a career change when he was in his 50s. Born in Kent about 1422, he moved to London in 1437–38 and served as an apprentice to Robert Large, a wealthy London cloth dealer (mercer). Around 1445, Caxton went to Bruges to work in the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London and rose to become Governor of the English Nation at Bruges. The successful businessman also engaged in various diplomatic missions for King Edward IV, but with Edward’s exile in 1470-1, Caxton lost his post and moved to Cologne. There he finished a translation of Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, which he undertook for Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. While in Cologne, Caxton learned to print.
In 1473 he began printing in Bruges with Colard Mansion, a local bookseller. His first printed book in English was his translation of Recuyell, followed by other titles. Returning to England in 1476, Caxton set up shop within the precinct of Westminster Abbey. The first surviving work from his English press is an indulgence dated December 13, 1476, and one of his earliest works at Westminster was an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1478). Until his death in 1492, Caxton printed at least 107 works, 74 of which were books in English. They included the first editions of virtually every important piece of medieval English literature. He appealed to and met the tastes of English readers with chivalric romances, the works of English poets (Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate), classical works, and English and Roman histories.
Caxton was instrumental in standardizing English, shaping a dialect of London into a literary language. More than simply printing vernacular works that would become widely read, he was a tireless editor, a translator, and a writer. His editing and publication of Morte d’Arthur saved the work for posterity. In addition to Recuyell, Caxton’s translations include the lengthy works The Golden Legend and Vitas Patrum (both in the present collection). His prologues and epilogues are often self-revealing short essays. The most extensive piece of prose Caxton wrote is a “Liber ultimus” for the Polychronicon, a universal history written and translated into English in the 14th century.
The present book contains a leaf from the Polychronicon. Manuscripts of the text were widely copied so Caxton expected that a printed edition would appeal to many readers. In addition to extending the chronicle, he “somewhat changed the rude and old English” because the language had changed considerably over a century.
Call no.: Chrzanowski 1482h *