British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Caxton's technologies  1  2  3

1. The printing type

A manuscript written by David Aubert, possibly for Margaret of York
A manuscript written by David Aubert, possibly for Margaret of York, Vita Christi. The British Library MS Royal 16 G iii f.8
. Larger image for comparison with image below

Printing types of early printed books had to follow the style of contemporary hand-written books, for there was no other model to follow. Then, as now, books were aimed to meet the expectations and tastes of their buyers. Caxton’s earliest book, produced in Cologne, was for a well-educated group and was printed using a type similar to the gothic handwriting used in universities.

This type was probably designed by Johann Veldener. Once back in the Low Countries, Caxton used a different type for his Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, the first book to be printed in English. Caxton had new type created for this. It was based on the style of writing used for sumptuous manuscripts produced for the Burgundian Court, perhaps on the handwriting of David Aubert, who at much the same time was writing manuscripts for Caxton’s patron Margaret of York. The type also incorporated some special features of English, compared to Latin and French, such as the letters “w” and “k” and the characteristic flourishes at the end of letters.

When Caxton left the Low Countries for Westminster he took with him two other sets of type, both probably designed by Johann Veldener. One of these was again based on the sumptuous Burgundian scripts, and is the type used for the first edition of the Canterbury Tales. This style of type is called littera bastarda. In 1480 he acquired a smaller version of the same design, which was used for the second edition of Canterbury Tales. Because it is smaller it is more economical; much more text fitted onto each page and less paper was needed.

Caxton's postscript to Recuyell of the Histories of Troy
Caxton’s postscript to Recuyell of the Histories of Troy
on his work as a translator. The British Library, C.11.c.1, f.351 r.
Larger image for comparison with image above

Towards the end of his life, Caxton turned to Paris for a new type face in a different style. This style of type is called textura – Latin for woven, because the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the type give the page an appearance similar to woven cloth. This type face was used in the second edition of Mirk’s Liber festivalis. This became the basis for ‘black letter’, the letterform which was to become dominant in England for centuries. A detailed study of Caxton’s typefaces and their development will be part of Lotte Hellinga’s forthcoming volume XI of the Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Library [formerly Museum].

Tell me more:


Lotte Hellinga, Caxton in Focus (London, 1982)
Philipp Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972)
Joseph Moxon, Mechanick exercises on the whole art of printing (1683-4)
by Paul Needham and Blaise Agüera y Arcas, 'Temporary Matrices and Elemental Punches in Gutenberg's DK Type'
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
John Mirk, Liber festivalis
1. The printing type
2. The woodcuts
3. The workshop

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