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3. Caxton's English

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 competition.

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:


N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London, 1969)
Norman Francis Blake, The textual tradition of the Canterbury Tales (London: Arnold, 1985)
Norman Blake, 'Caxton's Second Edition of the Canterbury Tales'
Lotte Hellinga, 'Manuscripts in the Hands of Printers'
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
Eneydos (Translated by William Caxton from the French, based on Vergil's Aeneid and on Boccaccio)
Ranulphus Higden, Polycronicon. Translated by John Trevisa. Continued for the years 1387 to 1460 by William Caxton
The historye of Reynart the foxe [English] (Translated by William Caxton from an edition in Dutch, now lost, presumably preceding that of Gerard Leeu, 1479).
1. The first book printed in English
2. The Canterbury Tales
3. Caxton's English

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