Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

NOVEMBER 18th   

On this day in history in 1477, William Caxton published his first book.

Caxton was the first printer in England, and his Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres was the first book published under this innovative technique.

Caxton was born about 1422 in Kent. In 1438, he was apprenticed to a prosperous wool merchant, Robert Large who in the following year was made Lord Mayor of London. In 1441, Large died and Caxton moves to Bruges, the centre of the wool trade in Europe. Over the years, he prospered in the wool trade and in 1463, was appointed Governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers in Flanders and Holland.

Caxton’s leisure time was spent in the pursuit of literature. He translated Raoul Le Fèvre's Recueil des histoires de Troye, and in the epilogue writes that his ‘pen became worn, his hand weary, his eye dimmed’ with writing so that he ‘practised and learnt’ the art of printing. He set up a press in Bruges in about 1474, and there produced the first book printed in English. In 1476, he printed The Game and Playe of the Chesse, a text in which chess is an allegory of life.

In 1476, Caxton returned to London and set up a press at Westminster. The first dated book published in England, Dictes and Sayenges of the Phylosophers, appeared on 18th November 1477. His patrons were rich merchants and noblemen, who would commission particular books of their own choice. Caxton’s output included works of chivalric romance, history, philosophy, and an encyclopaedia, The Myrrour of the worlde. He eventually published most of the English literature available in his day, and is especially noted for printing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer had a particular problem in printing in English. At that time there was a letter unique to the English alphabet known as ‘thorn’ ð representing the ‘th’ sound. Chaucer imported his printing blocks and letters from Germany, a nation whose language has no ‘th’ sound, and therefore no ‘thorn’ in its alphabet. He ingeniously solved the problem by using the letter ‘y’ in place of ‘thorn’. So in Chaucer’s, and later publishers’ works, the word ‘The’ appears as ‘Ye’. This practice continued for about two hundred years until publishers decided to use the letter ‘th’ to represent the sound.

Caxton died in 1492 and is buried in Westminster. [St Margaret’s Church, St Margaret Street, London SW1P 3JX]

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