William Caxton

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William Caxton (c.1422-1491) introduced the printing press to England.

He was born in Kent and, in 1438, was apprenticed to a London mercer, whom he worked under until his master’s death in 1441. He then went to Bruges where he was successful in business and diplomatic circles and well known to the family of Edward IV of England. It is probable that he learnt printing during a stay in Cologne in 1471-2 – what is known is that in 1474 or 1475 he printed the first books in the English language; two translations: The Recuyell of the History of Troye and The Game and Playe of Chesse.

Sometime before 1477 he set himself up in England. In that year was published the Dictes or Sayengs of the Philosophers, the first book to be published on English soil. He prospered and enjoyed the patronage of some of the most powerful personages of the period; from both sides of the political divide. He has been criticised for not printing anything new; all his publications were modernisations or translations of existing works, all of them popular, but he was above all a businessman, and he printed what he could sell. He did not ignore fine literature, however, his is the first printed edition of the Canterbury Tales and he published Aesop, Cicero and other “classics”. He was a fine translator and industrious – his own translations fill over 4500 pages of the more than 18000 pages that he is known to have printed in England.

One decision of Caxton’s has had an enormous and on-going effect on the English language. At a time when the English language was going through a time of change, and after much consideration, he decided to standardise the word-use and spelling in his books to the dialect of London and the south-east of England. This is the “educated English” (received English) that was known to all and spoken by nearly all public figures until regional accents began to become “acceptable” during the 20th century.

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