On the first of March 1468, an English merchant from Kent who held the position of the Governor of the English in Bruges was ordered by Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, who was the third wife of Duke Charles the Bold, and the sister of two English Kings (Edward IV and Richard III), to begin a translation of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye from French into English.
|The English House, Bruges|
When the translation was completed and had been officially presented to Margaret on September 19th 1471, it became an immediate and popular success in the Burgundian court and, as was the common practise at the time, scribes were employed to produce expensive hand-written copies of the book.
|A Scribe copying a book|
The translator was unhappy with the expense and the time taken in making the copies and looked to a newly developing technology to speed up the production of his work. There was a great fashion for card-playing in Europe at the time and some enterprising Germans sought to speed up the making of cards by ‘emprinting’ them onto pasteboard from wooden blocks. They also made devotional pictures for the decoration of missals and devotional books using the same wooden blocks and it was only a short step to start including text into the images.
|Early Printing Press|
These block books were difficult to produce, as the text had to be cut into the wood in mirror-writing in order to be readable when printed onto paper and the great breakthough came when individual letters started to be cut instead and the words were built up step by step, one letter at a time, and most importantly, the same letters could be reused over and over again when the pages were disassembled. There were naysayers, inevitably, who felt that the uniformly sized letters lacked the grace and individuality of a scribe’s work but the invention took hold and the printing press became, arguably, the greatest invention since that of the wheel.
Back in Bruges, our English merchant was drawn to the new printing revolution as a solution to his dilemma, and entered into partnership with a Flemish printer called Colard Mansion, and together they produced the first printed book in the English language, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1473, and when this merchant returned home to England, he brought the expertise and the knowledge of printing with him, setting up the first printing house in London in 1474. If you haven’t guessed by now, his name was, of course, William Caxton.
|William Caxton - Chapter One - The Game of Chesse - 1474|
The first book to be printed in England was Caxton’s translation of a moral work of about 1200 by Dacciesole called The Game of Chesse, although some believe he printed this book in Bruges and brought it back with him. Other early works printed by him were Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dictes and Sayengis of the Philosophres by Earl Rivers and Mallory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur.
|Earl Rivers presents Caxton to King Edward IV|
The early books, as may be expected in a foundling art, had not yet gained a standard form and they are (and were) difficult to read with ease. The letter forms used were imitations of the hand written, black letter forms of the Gothic or German script, with which we are unfamiliar these days and the reading of early books is not helped by their lack of recognizable punctuation. Capital letters are not used for proper names or at the start of sentences. A solidus ( / ) was used instead of the comma. Spelling had not yet been standardised and the printer’s own idiosyncratic variations can make reading a text difficult, even when one is familiar with the work in question. Caxton himself was well aware of this,
“I was born and lerned myn englissh in Kente in the weeld where I doubte not is spoken as brode and rude englissh as is in ony place of englond.”
Abbreviated words were used so commonly that it was common for a key to them to be printed within the book. Spaces were frequently left in the text for the later addition of illuminated or decorated letters and illustration, which did not always happen.
In addition, the printers were frequently the binders of their books, which they placed between heavy boards, making them unwieldy and difficult to open. However, some printers’ practices were quick to make an appearance – consider this, an advertisement for his own premises produced by Caxton in 1480,
“If it plese ony man spirituel or temporel to bye ony pyes [pieces] of two and thre comemoracios of salisburi vse enpryntid after the forme of this preset lettre whiche ben wel and truly correct, late hym come to westmonester in to the almonesrye at the reed pale and he shal haue them good chepe.”