Caxton published in English and in Latin,
as well as a few books in French. His French books were all published
in the Low Countries (except for a French-English vocabulary) and
were probably meant for a courtly group of readers. Perhaps after
he had left for England, he had printed Le Recueil des histoires
de Troye, the original French version of his first English
book, and another work on heroic deeds by Raoul Lefèvre,
Fais et prouesses du chevalier Jason, based on the myths
Jason was an important mythological figure
at the Burgundian Court, whose most distinguished order was the
Order of the Golden Fleece.
Charles the Bold, wearing the collar of the Golden
Fleece, receives Les commentaries de Cesar from the translator.
The British Library MS Royal 16 G. VIII f.14
Caxton also later published an English
translation of this text. But courtly readers were not only interested
in stories of heroic deeds. They also wanted religious, devotional
works, and Caxton printed two devotional works in French which were
also popular in courtly circles. Both reflect the late medieval
devout preoccupation with penitence, death and divine retribution.
This type of text also had potential readers and buyers beyond court
From the Statutes of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
A portrait of Philip the Good, the founder of the Order of the Golden
Fleece. The British Library MS Harley 6199, f.57 v.
Several of his books in English were of a similar type to his French
courtly works and many were dedicated to nobles close to the English
court. Caxton’s prefaces can be used as source material for
his political connections.
However, it is important to bear in mind that they were written
not for us to learn about the background to his book production,
but for contemporary readers.
Many of the books which contain dedications
to nobles were texts unknown to English readers. They were translated
by Caxton from French. It would have been important for sales to
place them in a recognisable social context. One of the purposes
of these prefaces may have been to promote the sale of his books.
By mentioning important persons he would give his readers an indication
that his books were suitable reading for members of the court, for
the gentry, or for merchants in the city. By implication they would
also be suitable for people of lower ranks who wanted to follow
the fashion of their social superiors.
In periods when his political connections
were less well developed it must have been important to maintain
a non-courtly readership. The preface to the second edition of the
Canterbury Tales indicates that it was aimed at the gentry,
or aspirant gentry. In his preface to the Chronicles of England
from 1480 he states that it had been printed at the request of ‘divers
gentlemen’. His edition of Cato’s Distichs,
a traditional school text translated into English by Caxton himself,
was ostensibly aimed at the children of London merchants and dedicated
‘vnto the noble auncyent and renommed cyte the cyte of London
in Englond’ [to the noble, ancient and renowned city, the
city of London in England].
Just under a third of his recorded editions are in Latin. Many
of these are liturgical, containing the texts which were used in
the rituals of the Church. These were commissioned by the organisations
belonging to the Church, and Caxton would have had a guaranteed
income from them. Even so, Caxton produced at least part of an edition
of his liturgical books speculatively, with commercial sale in mind.
Proof of this is found in one of Caxton’s advertisements
which still survives – a little poster, probably from 1476
or 1477, advertising a book for the religious liturgy as used in
Salisbury, the Ordinale ‘according to the use of
Sarum’. The poster is in English whereas the Ordinale
is in Latin.
Perhaps if an ecclesiastical sponsor paid for a certain number
of copies of a liturgical book, Caxton might do a larger print-run
and also sell them to passing customers. Curiously, two copies of
the advertisement survive, but the book advertised survives only
in a fragment of one copy. It may be that Caxton’s production
of books for the Church has traditionally been underestimated, because
of their poor rate of survival. Some editions may be entirely lost.
Another group of Latin books is made up of Books of Hours, books
of prayers for private people, but structured according to the regulated
daily and annual rhythms of religious life. On the continent they
were often largely in the vernacular, but in England only very short
passages were in English. It was illegal to have the Bible in English,
so not even English extracts appeared in Books of Hours.
Caxton also published two elementary school manuals, on Latin grammar,
and one slightly more advanced one. Both school books and Books
of Hours have a low survival rate, having been read to pieces, so
there may have been more editions, now lost.
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