British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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1. The first book printed in English

The first book which Caxton produced in the Low Countries was The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, translated by himself from the French original of Raoul Lefèvre. He had begun the translation in 1469, taken it further at the behest of Margaret of York, the Duchess of Burgundy, continued the work in Ghent, and completed it in Cologne on 9 September 1471. This was the first book ever to be printed in English.

The book is a collection of stories very loosely based on the tales of the Trojan Wars. Caxton aimed for a court readership. Stories of war, knightly exploits and love were popular courtly reading. To ensure that his book also looked appealing to his readers, he had a new typeface created, closely based on the handwriting used in manuscripts made for the Burgundian court. In all probability the type was created by Johann Veldener, who had also made Caxton's Cologne type.

While in the Low Countries he printed another book in English, The Play of Chess. It was also translated by Caxton himself, from Jean de Vignay’s French translation of Jacobus de Cessolis’s Latin original. This is Caxton’s first dated work, finished 31 March 1474.

The Play of Chess was another text popular at the Burgundian court, an allegory of fixed social structures where each rank has its allotted role. This book was dedicated to George, Duke of Clarence, the brother of Edward IV and, perhaps more importantly, of Margaret of York, who promoted the cause of her favourite brother, the ‘false, fleeting, perjured Clarence’, as he is described in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Not surprisingly, given Clarence’s fall from grace, the dedication does not appear in the second edition of the book dated c.1483.

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References

Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
Jacobus de Cessolis, De ludo scachorum [English] The play of chess. Translated by William Caxton, from the French of Jean de Vignay
1. The first book printed in English
2. The Canterbury Tales
3. Caxton's English

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