The Myrrour & dyscrypcyon of the worlde
Mirror of the World is the first illustrated book, the first science book, and the first encyclopaedia printed in England. In the introduction, William Caxton tells his readers that he translated it from French between January 2 and March 8, 1481, at the request of a fellow member of the Mercers Company who wished to present it to Lord William Hastings, Lord Chamberlain to Edward IV. The Latin original was translated into French meter in 1245–46 for the Duke of Berry. Caxton worked from a prose manuscript entitled Image du monde that was authored (or scribed) in 1464 by Gossouin of Metz. The text summarizes the knowledge of the times at a level of detail that would interest and inform the reading public without belaboringly excessive details and scholastic argumentation. The book was popular; Caxton published it a second time about 1490.
Image du monde is the work of a well-read scholar who drew from many sources. It offers a brief geographical description of the world and a compendium of scientific knowledge with “the roundness of the Earth,” music, cosmography, geology, hydrology, meteorology, geometry, astronomy, “where hell is set and what it is,” and “why money is made” (i.e., economics) among other topics. Caxton faithfully and accurately translated the manuscript, except for a few patriotic revisions such as the addition of Oxford and Cambridge to Paris as seats of learning and deletion of the assertion that Englishmen have tails. The third edition selectively adds more information: for example, a (garbled) explanation of how to take the square root of a number and the first description in English of the techniques the ancients used to enhance memory.
Caxton’s illustrations were based on those in the manuscript he used. The blocks were likely the work of an English woodcutter—better quality would have been expected if they were imported. The third edition of Myrrour is nearly as rare and more extensively illustrated than the Caxton editions, with nearly 100 woodcuts up to full-page in size that come from many sources (not Caxton’s originals). Illustrations demonstrate gravity on a spherical Earth and the shadows cast by eclipses; they also depict the dragons and unicorns in India and the world’s four major rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.
The present copy includes 80 of 92 leaves with the first and last quires and four additional leaves missing.
Chrzanowski 1527i *