The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

The Spread of the Printing Arts Part 2

In Holland the earliest book bearing a date is the IIistoria scholastica of Petrus Comestor, printed at Utrecht in 1473; but the Dutch Donatuses, mentioned in the preceding chapter, to which no certain date can be attached, together with a few other books belonging to the same group, are quite possibly earlier than this. Haarlem, claimed as the scene of the shadowy Coster's operations, produced no recorded printer until ten years after the Utrecht press had been started, and in the meantime printing had been introduced into some fifteen other towns in the Low Countries. The most important centres of early printing in Holland and Belgium were Deventer and Louvain ; but Bruges possesses a special interest from the circumstance that it was there that William Caxton, England's first printer, worked in partnership with Colard Mansion for two or three years before he returned to England to introduce printing into his native country.

Caxtonwas, as he himself states, born and brought up in the Weald of Kent. After serving an apprenticeship to a mercer in London he migrated to the south Netherlands, where, by 1463, he was established in the important office of governor of the English nation in the Low Countries. In 1471 he was living in Cologne, and probably there gained a technical knowledge of printing. Returning to Bruges he, in conjunction with Colard Mansion, a professional calligrapher, acquired printing materials, and together they printed at least three books in 1475-6, one of which, the Roouyell of the Historyes of Troye, was the first book printed in the English language. Some time in 1476 Caxton returned to England, and, establishing himself at Westminster, set up the first English press at the sign of the Red Pale, under the shadow of the Abbey. His earliest dated book, again in English, the Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres, translated from the French by Earl Rivers, was finished on the 18th of November 1477. By the end of the following year he had printed upwards of twenty books, and at least five times that number before his death, which occurred some time in 1491.

Caxton was no mere mechanical producer of books. He took upon himself the labours of translator and editor as well; and it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that it was a love of books and a leaning towards literature that induced him to take up the art of printing. The Bruges Troy book was his own translation; to the Dictes, which he edited, he added a chapter concerning women; and he early turned his attention to producing an edition of the Oanterbury Tales. He printed essentially for the English market, with probably a strong bias towards what most pleased his personal taste" and the majority of his books have a distinctly literary character. Commercial instinct, no doubt, supported him in pursuing this course, since the limited demand for the more serious works required by the scholar and the student would scarcely have justified the printing of them in England, especially as good editions could be readily imported from the continent.