According to the colophon (absent in the present copy), William Caxton completed his translation of Vitas Patrum on the day he died, “Thus endyth the moost verutouse hystorye of the deuoute right renommed lyues of holy faders … translated out of Frensshe in to Englysshe by Wyllyam Caxton of Westmynstre late deed, and fynysshed it at the laste daye of his lyff.” Wynkyn de Worde was Caxton’s successor and first printed it. He used his fonts and woodcuts and adapted the Caxton printer’s device to become his own. Over his long career, de Worde published more than 400 books in over 800 editions.
Vitas Patrum was not the earliest book printed by de Worde, but it is one of his largest and finest examples of his typography. There are a total of 159 woodcuts in the book, printed from 40 different blocks. Crudely cut by an English artist, the blocks were copied after those in the 1487 Lyon edition by Nicholas Philippe and Jean du Pré; it was this French edition on which Caxton based his translation. The one full-page cut used several times in the book shows St. Jerome (with a lion) surrounded by the men and women whose stories are told. The present incomplete copy has at least one example of each of the woodcuts except one.
St. Jerome was erroneously attributed as author of Vitas Patrum. The actual compiler of the stories is not known. The book is a 6th-century collection of the accounts of the Desert Fathers—early Egyptian Christian hermits. Thousands of men chose to live apart from the world. St. Anthony was the founder of this escapist movement, and St. Pachomius built with his own hands the first known Christian monastery in Upper Egypt. The stories in Vitas Patrum were of enduring interest to readers, especially to the Benedictines, well into the 16th century. As described at the beginning of the second of three books, Vitas Patrum provides, “many laudable exhortacyons for to enduce all persones/pryncypally men of Relygyon to lyue solytaryly and well with some fayre hystoryes excytyng to flee vyces and ensyewe virtues.” The English translation of Vitas Patrum seems not to have been a commercial success, for the book was not reprinted in the 16th century.
The present copy includes 277 of 356 leaves and 138 of 159 woodcuts. The text begins on numbered leaf xvii and ends with leaf CCC (of these, leaves 232-238 and 299 are missing).
Chrzanowski 1495v *