« PreviousContinue »
CAXTON'S PRINTING OFFICE.
SECOND ERA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
FROM THE INTRODUCTION OF PRINTING IN 1474 A.D. TO THE
ACCESSION OF ELIZABETH IN 1558 A.D.
THE OLD PRINTERS OF WESTMINSTER.
Serves the Duchess.
The Game of Chesse.
In one of the most squalid recesses of Westminster there stood, until 1845, a crazy building of wood and plaster, three stories high. Its pointed roof and wooden balcony were seldom free from poor fluttering rags of clothing, hung out to dry by the wretched tenants. The very sunlight grew sickly when it fell into the poverty-stricken street, where slipshod women, unshaven lounging men, and pale stunted children slunk hopelessly about. Foulness, gloom, and wretchedness were the prominent features of the place around the frail timbers of the house in which the first English printer is said to have lived and wrought. It was almost a mercy when a new street was driven through the poor old house and its tottering neighbours. Not far from this, in the Almonry or Eleemosynary of the Abbey, where the monks of Westminster used to distribute alms to the poor, that London merchant, whose name has grown to be a household word, set up, most probably in 1474, the first printing-press whose types were inked on English ground.
EARLY LIFE OF CAXTON.
As we write the name of CAXTON, a grave and beardless face, with an expression somewhat akin to sadness, rises from the past, looking calmly out from the descending lappets of the hood, which was the fashionable head-dress of his day. All honour to the memory of the Father of the English Press!
Born about 1412 in some lonely farm-house, a few of which were thinly scattered over the Weald or wooded part of Kent, William Caxton grew to boyhood among the simple peasants of that wild district. Probably about 1428 he assumed the flat round cap, narrow falling bands, and long coat of coarse cloth, which then formed the dress of the city apprentice; and was soon, no doubt, promoted to the honour of carrying lantern and cudgel at night before the worshipful Master Robert Large, the rich mercer to whom he was bound. A mercer then did not confine his trade to silk : he dealt also in wool and woollen cloth; and, no doubt, in the parcels from the Continent there often came, for sale among the rich English, a few copies of rare and costly manuscripts. From such the apprentice probably obtained his first knowledge of books in their old written shape.
Upon the death of his master, Caxton went abroad, and continued to reside chiefly in Holland and Flanders for fully thirty years. What his exact position was cannot be determined ; but it is supposed that he acted as travelling agent or factor for the Company of London Mercers. While he was thus employed, the great invention of printing began to attract the notice of the world. Laurence Coster, in the woods of Haarlem, had shaped his letters of beech-bark, and had looked with delight upon the impression left by the sap upon the parchment in which he had wrapped them. Gutenberg of Mentz, catching a sight of old Coster's types, had shut himself up in the ruined monastery by Strasbourg, to make the inks, the balls, the cases, and the press. Faust and Schoeffer had joined with Gutenberg, and had betrayed him when they knew his secret. Faust, by offering for sale as many Bibles as were asked for, at one-eighth of the usual price, had excited the wonder of the Paris world, and had evoked a cry that he was in league with the Enemy of man. And those strange
CAXTON AT BRUGES.
pages, written in the blood of the salesman, as the shuddering gazers whispered to one another, pointing with trembling finger to the letters of brilliant red, had spread their fascinations, too, across the English Channel. A sharp business man like Caxton would not waste much time in sending these novelties to the English market. So printed books began to find their way to England among the silks and perfumes, which crossed the sea from Flanders.
A shrewd and clever man this mercer must have been in matters relating to his trade, for we find him in 1464 nominated one of the envoys to the Court of Burgundy, to negotiate a treaty of commerce between the King of England and Duke Philip. It must not be forgotten that the duchy of Burgundy then included nearly all of modern Belgium. And when, four years later, Philip's son, lately made Duke Charles by his father's death, married Margaret Plantagenet, the sister of the English king, William Caxton, who was already a resident in 1468 Bruges, where the rich and luxurious Court of Burgundy had its seat, entered the service of this English princess, who had changed her country and her name. He had probably already laid down the ell-wand, and had ceased to be seen among the mercers' stalls; but in what capacity he served the duchess we cannot say.
His own words tell us that he received from her a yearly fee, for which he rendered honest service. It was when his active mercer's life was over that he took up the
and began to work with types and ink-balls.
Our printer's entrance on literary work happened thus : Some months before the gorgeous ceremonies with which Duke Charles brought his English bride to her home in Bruges, Caxton, feeling himself to have no great occupation, sat down in some quiet turret chamber to translate a French book into English. This work was Recueil des Histoires de 'roye, written by Duke Philip's chaplain, Raoul le Fevre. When five or six quires were written, he grew dissatisfied with his English and doubtful of his French; and so the unfinished translation lay aside for two years, tossed among his old invoices and scattered papers. One day “my Lady
THE ALMONRY OF WESTMINSTER.
Margaret," talking to her trusty servant about many things, chanced to hear of this literary pastime, and asked to see the sheets of manuscript. When she had read them, pointing out some faults in the English, she encouraged Caxton to proceed with the translation, which he did with renewed hope and vigour.
From Bruges he removed to Cologne, where it probably was that he first appeared as a printer, having learned the art, as he tells us, at considerable expense. His instructor, from whom he, no doubt, bought his first set of types, may have been one of Faust's workmen, who had been driven from Mentz in 1462, when the sack of the city by Adolphus of Nassau scattered the printers over the land. At Cologne in 1471 Caxton finished the “History of Troy;" and it was printed most probably in the same year—the first English book that came from any press. For this, the first great work of his own pen, and the first English production of his press, he was bountifully rewarded by the “ dreadful duchess,” who had encouraged him to resume his task, When or how the happy idea occurred to Caxton of carrying
press and types to England we do not know; but, soon 1474 after his sojourn in Cologne, we find him in the Almonry of A.D. Westminster, surrounded by the materials of his adopted
craft, and directing the operations of his workmen. He united in himself nearly all the occupations connected with the production and sale of books; for in the infancy of printing there was no division of labour. Author, inkmaker, compositor, pressman, corrector, binder, publisher, bookseller, Caxton was all these.
Let us pass into his workshop, and see the early printers at their toil. Two huge frames of wood support the thick screws which work the pressing slabs. There sits the grave compositor before the cases full of type, the copy set up before him, and the grooved stick in his hand, which gradually fills with type to form a line. There is about his work nothing of that quick, unerring nip which marks the fingers of a modern compositor, as they fly among the type, and seize the very letter wanted in a trice. With quiet and steady pace, and many a thoughtful pause, his fingers
THE OLD PRINTERS AT WORK.
travel through their task. The master printer in his furred gown moves through the room, directs the wedging of a page or sheet, and then resumes his high stool, to complete the reading of a proof pulled freshly from the press. The worker of the press has found the balls or dabbers, with which the form of types is inked, unfit for use. He must make fresh ones; so down he sits with raw sheep-skin and carded wool, to stuff the ball and tie it round the handle of the dab. Till this is done, the press-work is at a stand. But there is no hurry in the Almonry; and all the better this, for the imperfection of the machinery makes great care necessary on the part of the workmen. Then, suppose the proofs corrected, and the sheets, or pages rather, printed off, the binder's work begins. Strong and solid work was this old binding. When the leaves were sewed together in a framema rude original of that still used—they were hammered well to make them flat, and the back was thickly overlaid with paste and glue. Then came the enclosing of the paper in boards—veritable boards—thick pieces of wood like the panel of a door, covered outside with embossed and gilded leather, and thickly studded with brass nails, whose ornamental heads shone in manifold rows. Thick brass corners and solid clasps completed the fortification of the book, which was made to last for centuries. Half a dozen such volumes used then to form an extensive and valuable library.
The book which is considered to have been the earliest work from the Westminster press, is that entitled The Game and Playe of the Chesse, translated out of the French, 1474 fynysshid the last day of Marche, 1474. A second edition of this work was the first English book illustrated with wood-cuts. A fable about the origin of chess; an account of the offices, or powers, of the various pieces; and a prayer for the prosperity of Edward and England, make up the four treatises into which the “ Game of Chesse” is divided.
Sixty-five works, translated and original, are assigned to the pen and the
press of Caxton, who seems to have supplied nearly all the copy that was set up in the side-chapel, or disused Scriptorium, where his printing was done. His old business tạct stood