British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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1. Caxton's readers

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 concerning Jason.

Jason was an important mythological figure at the Burgundian Court, whose most distinguished order was the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Charles the Bold with 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 circles.

Philip the Good
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.

Tell me more:


Vocabularius [French and English]. Westminster: [William Caxton, 1480]
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
Raoul Lefèvre, L'histoire de Jason: Fais et prouesses du chevalier Jason
Petrus de Alliaco, Meditationes circa psalmos poenitentiales [French] Les sept degrés de l'échelle
Chronicles of England [English]. Add: Ranulphus Higden: The description of England
Dionysius Cato, Disticha de moribus [English and Latin] Translated from the French by William Caxton
Advertisement for Sarum Pie
Horae: ad usum Sarum
Aelius Donatus, Ars minor (i.e. Rudimenta grammatices)
1. Caxton's readers
2. Pardoners and indulgences
3. Caxton's patrons

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