An unusually high proportion of Caxton’s
production was in the vernacular — in English. Over all, about
70% of the surviving editions from the 15th century were in Latin.
In the case of Caxton about 68% of his editions were in English,
28% were in Latin, while 4% were in French.
This is a very crude measure, as it does not
take into account that some of the books were very large and some
very small. In Caxton’s case about a third of the surviving
Latin editions were of a single sheet only. Nor do we know if some
of these sheets were produced in such large numbers that, in terms
of financial importance, numbers compensate for the small size of
each item. In any case, it is clear that the English language production
was very significant for Caxton.
This was probably not because Caxton was more
than usually devoted to his native language. There were good economic
reasons for his choice. There was an international market for books
in Latin, so if Caxton had printed Latin books, he would have been
competing with some of the biggest publishers of his time. This
would have been difficult to do successfully from England, on the
margins of Europe. European printers also produced books in Latin
specifically for English use. This demonstrates the strength of
European book exports to England. Caxton left to others the production
of texts to be used in universities or monasteries throughout Europe.
Instead he concentrated on books in English, where there was little
In his prefaces Caxton often wrote about his
use of English, especially in his own translations. In his first
translation, the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, he
mentioned the simplicity of his English, based on his ‘broad
and rude’ Kentish dialect. He told how his patron, Margaret
of York, corrected his English. This expression of a conventional
modesty was based on a perception that it was more refined to use
words derived from French or Latin than native English words. The
same theme recurred in his translation of the Eneydos one
of his last works, where he summed up more than 30 years’
experience with translating into English.
Caxton referred to some ‘gentlemen’ who had complained
that his translations contained words which ‘coude not be
vnderstande of comyn peple, and desired me to vse olde and homely
termes in my translacyons’ [could not be understood by the
common people, and they wished me to use old and homely terms in
my translations]. But this could go too far; the English language
changed and the old and homely terms of past times were now incomprehensible.
Caxton had seen old texts written in an English which he could not
himself understand. He had even noticed a change in the English
language from his youth to his old age: ‘And certaynly our
langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was vsed and spoken
whan I was borne’ [and certainly the language now used is
very different from that which was used and spoken when I was born].
When he printed Ranulph Higden’s Polycronicon,
in John Trevisa’s translation of 1387, he updated the ‘rude
and old englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes, which in these
dayes be neither vsyd ne understanden’ [rude and old English,
that is, to wit, certain words which nowadays are neither used nor
understood]. Caxton associated old usage with a lower social standing,
calling it ‘plain and rude’ and implying that it was
suitable for ‘rude’ men. The opposite is called ‘polished’,
‘ornate’, or ‘curious’. He was also acutely
aware of regional variations. We saw him referring to his own Kentish
background in the preface to his first translation, another theme
which recurred at the end of his life.
In the preface to the Eneydos he told
a story of some merchants going down the Thames. There was no wind
so they landed on the Kent side of the river to buy food. ‘And
specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she
coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also
coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode
hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren.
Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’ [And he
asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke
no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French
either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And
then at last another person said that he wanted ‘eyren’.
Then the good woman said that she understood him well].
As a translator of books which were to be printed Caxton had to
ensure that the language which he used was acceptable to quite a
wide group of potential readers and buyers. ‘Loo what sholde
a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde
to playse euery man by cause of dyuersite and chaunge of langage’
[Now, what should one write nowadays, eggs or eyren? It is certain
that it is difficult to please everybody because of the diversity
and the change of our language]. As far as the social position of
his language was concerned Caxton’s solution was to strike
what he perceived as a balance but he aimed his language not at
rude men but at ‘a clerke and a noble gentylman’: ‘Therfor
in a meane bytwene bothe I haue reduced and translated this sayd
booke in to our englysshe not ouer rude ne curyous but in such termes
as shall be vnderstanden by goddys grace’ [therefore, as a
compromise, I have translated this book into an English which is
neither too coarse nor too refined, but using phrases which are
understandable, God willing].
While his English was clearly based on the emerging
standard language of London, Caxton’s approach to spelling
does not constitute a concerted attempt to create a standard. His
spelling varies widely within each book, and even more from book
to book. To some extent this may be because each compositor followed
his own system of spelling when he put the type together, but it
also depended on the copy which they followed. For instance, his
translation from Dutch, Reynard the Fox, contains many
spellings which are influenced by Dutch.
A standard language would have been much more
important to Caxton, a publisher of printed books, than to a scribe
who produced one copy at a time. If even people in nearby Kent found
the language of London as alien as if it were French, this was a
serious issue. There was a Europe-wide norm for books in Latin,
which made it possible for the printed book to become a successful
international merchandise. Achieving a linguistic norm for the vernacular
was of economic importance for the distribution of Caxton’s
books, and he was evidently aware of this, but he did not have the
background to create a new norm. At most, his English printed books
helped consolidate a growing perception that the language used in
the London region was a nationwide standard.
Tell Me More:
F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London,
Francis Blake, The textual tradition of the Canterbury
Tales (London: Arnold, 1985)
Blake, 'Caxton's Second Edition of the Canterbury
Hellinga, 'Manuscripts in the Hands of Printers'
Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell
of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
(Translated by William Caxton from the French, based on Vergil's
Aeneid and on Boccaccio)
Higden, Polycronicon. Translated by John Trevisa. Continued
for the years 1387 to 1460 by William Caxton
historye of Reynart the foxe [English] (Translated by William
Caxton from an edition in Dutch, now lost, presumably preceding
that of Gerard Leeu, 1479).