If the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of Scottish poetry, it was also the dullest age in English literature. During the fifteenth century few books were written in England. One reason for this was that in England it was a time of foreign and of civil war. The century opened in war with Wales, it continued in war with France. Then for thirty years the wars of the Roses laid desolate the land. They ended at length in 1485 with Bosworth field, by which Henry VII became King.
But in spite of all the wars and strife, the making of books did not quite cease. And if only a few books were written, it was because it was a time of rebirth and new life as well as a time of war and death. For it was in the fifteenth century that printing was discovered. Then it was that the listening time was really done. Men began to use their eyes rather than their ears. They saw as they had never before seen.
Books began to grow many and cheap. More and more people learned to read, and this helped to settle our language into a form that was to last. French still, although it was no longer the language of the court or of the people, had an influence on our speech. People traveled little, and in different parts of the country different dialects, which were almost like different languages, were spoken. We have seen that the "Inglis" of Scotland differed from Chaucer's English, and the language of the north of England differed from it just as much. But when printed books increased in number quickly, when every man could see for himself what the printed words looked like, these differences began to die out. Then our English, as a literary language, was born.
It was Caxton, you remember, who was the first English printer. We have already heard of him when following the Arthur story as the printer of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. But Caxton was not only a printer, he was author, editor, printer, publisher and bookseller all in one.
William Caxton, as he himself tells us, was born in Kent in the Weald. But exactly where or when we do not know, although it may have been about the year 1420. Neither do we know who or what his father was. Some people think that he may have been a mercer or cloth merchant, because later Caxton was apprenticed to one of the richest cloth merchants of London. In those days no man was allowed to begin business for himself until he had served for a number of years as an apprentice. When he had served his time, and then only, was he admitted into the company and allowed to trade for himself. As the Mercers' Company was one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the merchant companies, they were very careful of whom they admitted as apprentices. Therefore it would seem that really Caxton's family was "of great repute of old, and genteel-like," as an old manuscript says.
Caxton's master died before he had finished his apprenticeship, so he had to find a new master, and very soon he left England and went to Bruges. There he remained for thirty-five years.
In those days there was much trade between England and Flanders (Belgium we now call the country) in wool and cloth, and there was a little colony of English merchants in Bruges. There Caxton steadily rose in importance until he became "Governor of the English Nation beyond the seas." As Governor he had great power, and ruled over his merchant adventurers as if he had been a king.
But even with all his other work, with his trading and ruling to attend to, Caxton found time to read and write, and he began to translate from the French a book of stories called the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy. This is a book full of the stories of Greek heroes and of the ancient town of Troy.
Caxton was not very well pleased with his work, however—he "fell into despair of it," he says—and for two years he put it aside and wrote no more.
In 1468 Princess Margaret, the sister of King Edward IV, married the Duke of Burgundy and came to live in Flanders, for in those days Flanders was under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy. Princess Margaret soon heard of the Englishman William Caxton who had made his home in Bruges. She liked him and encouraged him to go on with his writing, and after a time he gave up his post of Governor of the English and entered the service of the Princess. We do not know what post Caxton held in the household of the Princess, but it was one of honor we may feel sure.
It was at the bidding of the Princess, whose "dreadful command I durst in no wise disobey," that Caxton finished the translation of his book of stories. And as at this time there were no stories written in English prose (poetry only being still used for stories), the book was a great success. The Duchess was delighted and rewarded Caxton well, and besides that so many other people wished to read it that he soon grew tired of making copies. It was then that he decided to learn the new and wonderful art of printing, which was already known in Flanders. So it came about that the first book ever printed in English was not printed in England, but somewhere on the continent. It was printed some time before 1477, perhaps in 1474.
If in manuscript the book had been a success, it was now much more of one. And we may believe that it was this success that made Caxton leave Bruges and go home to England in order to begin life anew as a printer there.
Many a time, as Governor of the English Nation over the seas, he had sent forth richly laden vessels. But had he known it, none was so richly laden as that which now sailed homeward bearing a printing-press.
At Westminster, within the precincts of the Abbey, Caxton found a house and set up his printing-press. And there, not far from the great west door of the Abbey he, already an elderly man, began his new busy life. His house came to be known as the house of the Red Pale from the sign that he set up. It was probably a shield with a red line down the middle of it, called in heraldry a pale. And from here Caxton sent out the first printed advertisement known in England. "If it please any man spiritual or temporal," he says, to buy a certain book, "let him come to Westminster in to the Almonry at the Red Pale and he shall have them good cheap." The advertisement ended with some Latin words which we might translate, "Please do not pull down the advertisement."
The first book that Caxton is known to have printed in England was called The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. This was also a translation from French, not, however, of Caxton's own writing. It was translated by Earl Rivers, who asked Caxton to revise it, which he did, adding a chapter and writing a prologue.
To the people of Caxton's day printing seemed a marvelous thing. So marvelous did it seem that some of them thought it could only be done by the help of evil spirits. It is strange to think that in those days, when anything new and wonderful was discovered, people at once thought that it must be the work of evil spirits. That it might be the work of good spirits never seemed to occur to them.
Printing, indeed, was a wonderful thing. For now, instead of taking weeks and months to make one copy of a book, a man could make dozens or even hundreds at once. And this made books so cheap that many more people could buy them, and so people were encouraged both to read and write. Instead of gathering together to hear one man read out of a book, each man could buy a copy for himself. At the end of one of his books Caxton begs folk to notice "that it is not written with pen and ink as other books be, to the end that every man may have them at once. For all the books of this story, called the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy thus imprinted as ye see here were begun on one day and also finished in one day." We who live in a world of books can hardly grasp what that meant to the people of Caxton's time.
For fourteen years Caxton lived a busy life, translating, editing, and printing. Besides that he must have led a busy social life, for he was a favorite with Edward IV, and with his successors Richard III and Henry VII too. Great nobles visited his workshop, sent him gifts, and eagerly bought and read his books. The wealthy merchants, his old companions in trade, were glad still to claim him as a friend. Great ladies courted, flattered, and encouraged him. He married, too, and had children, though we known nothing of his home life. Altogether his days were full and busy, and we may believe that he was happy.
But at length Caxton's useful, busy life came to an end. On the last day of it he was still translating a book from French. He finished it only a few hours before he died. We know this, although we do not know the exact date of his death. For his pupil and follower, who carried on his work afterwards, says on the title-page of this book that it was "finished at the last day of his life."
Caxton was buried in the church near which he had worked—St. Margaret's, Westminster. He was laid to rest with some ceremony as a man of importance, for in the account-books of the parish we find these entries:—
"At burying of William Caxton for four torches 6s. 8d.
For the bell at same burying 6d."
This was much more than was usually spent at the burial of ordinary people in those days.
Among the many books which Caxton printed we must not forget Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which we spoke of out of its place in following the story of Arthur in Chapter VIII. Perhaps you would like to turn back and read it over again now.
As we have said, Caxton was not merely a printer. He was an author too. But although he translated books both from French and Dutch, it is perhaps to his delightful prefaces more than to anything else that he owes his title of author. Yet it must be owned that sometimes they are not all quite his own, but parts are taken wholesale from other men's works or are translated from the French. We are apt to look upon a preface as something dull which may be left unread. But when you come to read Caxton's books, you may perhaps like his prefaces as much as anything else about them. In one he tells of his difficulties about the language, because different people spoke it so differently. He tells how once he began to translate a book, but "when I saw the fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it should not please some gentlemen which late blamed me, saying that in my translation I had over curious terms, which could not be understood by common people, and desired me to use old and homely terms in my translations. And fain would I satisfy every man. And so to do I took an old book and read therein, and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. . . . And certainly our language now used varieth 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. In-so-much that in my days it happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the sea into Zealand. For lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them.
"And one of them, named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house and asked for meat. And especially he 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. So what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of language. . . .
"And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus between plain, rude, and curious I stand abashed. But in my judgement the common terms that be daily used, be lighter to be understood than the old and ancient English."
In another book Caxton tells us that he knows his own "simpleness and unperfectness" in both French and English. "For in France was I never, and was born and learned my English in Kent, in the Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as in any place in England."
So you see our English was by no means yet settled. But printing, perhaps, did more than anything else to settle it.
We know that Caxton printed at least one hundred and two editions of books. And you will be surprised to hear that of all these only two or three were books of poetry. Here we have a sure sign that the singing time was nearly over. I do not mean that we are to have no more singers, for most of our greatest are still to come. But from this time prose had shaken off its fetters. It was no longer to be used only for sermons, for prayers, for teaching. It was to take its place beside poetry as a means of enjoyment—as literature. Literature, then, was no longer the affair of the market-place and the banqueting-hall, but of a man's own fireside and quiet study. It was no longer the affair of the crowd, but of each man to himself alone.
The chief poems which Caxton printed were Chaucer's. In one place he calls Chaucer "The worshipful father and first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English." Here, I think, he shows that he was trying to follow the advice of "those honest and great clerks" who told him he should write "the most curious terms" that he could find. But certainly he admired Chaucer very greatly. In the preface to his second edition of the Canterbury Tales he says, "Great thank, laud and honour ought to be given unto the clerks, poets" and others who have written "noble books." "Among whom especially before all others, we ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer." Then Caxton goes on to tell us how hard he had found it to get a correct copy of Chaucer's poems, "For I find many of the said books which writers have abridged it, and many things left out: and in some places have set verses that he never made nor set in his book."
This shows us how quickly stories became changed in the days when everything was copied by hand. When Caxton wrote these words Chaucer had not been dead more than about eighty years, yet already it was not easy to find a good copy of his works.
And if stories changed, the language changed just as quickly. Caxton tells us that the language was changing so fast that he found it hard to read books written at the time he was born. His own language is very Frenchy, perhaps because he translated so many of his books from French. He not only uses words which are almost French, but arranges his sentences in a French manner. He often, too drops the e in the, just as in French the e or a in le and la is dropped before a vowel. This you will often find in old English books. "The abbey" becomes thabbay, "The English" thenglish. Caxton writes, too, thensygnementys for "the teaching." Here we have the dropped e and also the French word enseignement used instead of "teaching." But these were only last struggles of a foreign tongue. The triumphant English we now possess was already taking form.
But it was not by printing alone that in the fifteenth century men's eyes were opened to new wonder. They were also opened to the wonder of new worlds far over the sea. For the fifteenth century was the age of discovery, and of all the world's first great sailors. It was the time when America and the western isles were discovered, when the Cape of Good Hope was first rounded, and the new way to India found. So with the whole world urged to action by the knowledge of these new lands, with imagination wakened by the tales of marvels to be seen there, with a new desire to see and do stirring in men's minds, it was not wonderful that there should be little new writing. The fifteenth century was the age of new action and new worlds. The new thought was to follow.