British LibraryTreasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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4. Printer in the Low Countries

Caxton probably left Cologne around December 1472, but we do not know exactly why. There may have been an English political aspect to Caxton’s return to Burgundian territory. Edward IV had returned to England and regained power in 1471. Caxton was once again to become active in Edward’s service abroad, securing the support of Charles the Bold for a joint war against France.

Margaret of York
Presentation miniature of Margaret of York in Le dyalogue de la ducesse de bourgogne a Ihesu Crist, written circa 1470. The British Library, MS Add. 7970, f.1v.

His departure may have been connected with a conflict brewing between the city and the Archbishop of Cologne. Or perhaps it had to do with the growing competition between printers in Cologne with the arrival in 1472 of the very solidly financed Johann Koelhoff. He had worked in Venice, which was rapidly emerging as the most important centre of commercial book production in the 15th century.

Several persons connected with the book trade left Cologne. Johann Schilling, for instance, who had printed for Caxton, moved to Basel. Johann Veldener, who had designed and probably cast the types used for Caxton’s first book, settled in Louvain. Caxton may also have stopped over in Louvain before again settling in Bruges, by 1473 or 1474.

Bruges was a trading centre where manuscript and printed books were sold, among other luxury items, and it was also a centre for the production of manuscripts. Charles the Bold himself commissioned luxury manuscripts, but Margaret of York was a much more important patron of manuscript book production. In March 1469 Caxton had begun a translation of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy apparently on his own initiative. He showed the first part of his translation to Margaret of York who encouraged him to continue it.

This may be an indication that, already in the 1460s, Caxton had been engaged with the book trade, before becoming involved with printing. In the years when Anglo-Flemish trade was difficult because of trade restrictions on both sides, diversification into the book trade could have been an astute commercial choice: books were not covered by the English embargo on Flemish luxury items.

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