[blocks in formation]


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 Caxtou 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 pen, 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 Troye, 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 bis old invoices and scattered papers. One day “my Lady



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 Englisho 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



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 frame—a 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 A.D. 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 tact stood




well to hiin in his publishing and bookselling transactions. We have still a hand-bill in his largest type, calling on all who wanted cheap books to come and buy at the Almonry. We find him, when undertaking the publication of the Golden Legend - a large, double-columned work of nearly five hundred pages, profusely illustrated with wood-cuts-securing the promise of Lord Arundel to take a reasonable number of copies, and, moreover, to reward the printer with a yearly gift of venison—a buck in summer, and a doe in winter,

So, for some seventeen years, Caxton laboured on at his English printing. The man who, at fifty-nine, had gone to Cologne to learn a new trade when his life's work seemed nearly done, still inked the types and worked the lever of the press, when the weight of nearly fourscore years hung upon his frame. But there came a day when the door of the printing-office was

shut, and the clank of the press was unheard within. 1491 William Caxton was dead. The rude school-boy of the

Kentish Weald—the blithe apprentice of Cheapside—the

keen mercer, well known in every Flemish stall—the trusted retainer of the house of Burgundy-the grey-haired learner at Cologne—the old printer of Westminster-had played out his many parts, and had entered into his rest. Another sorrowful time came for his faithful little band of printers, when, with the glare of torches and the deep tolling of a bell, they laid their hoary chief in the grave at St. Margaret's Church, not far from the scene of his daily toils and triumphs.

WYNKYN DE WORDE, a foreigner who had long assisted Caxton at his press, kept up the good work, and probably at first in the old place. There is something touching in the devotion to his dead master which he displays, in uniting the monogram of Caxton with the blazing suns and clustering grapes that adorn his own trade-device. Four hundred and eight works are assigned to Wynkyn's press.

Another of Caxton's assistants—one RICHARD PYNSON, a native of Normandy-set up after a time in business for himself, and throve so well, that he received the scmewhat valuable appoint



ment of King's Printer, being first on the long list of those who have borne the title Two hundred and twelve works are said to have been printed by Pynson.

These were the men who printed our earliest English books. Their types have been multiplied by millions, and their presses by hundreds. A little silver coin can now buy the book for which Caxton charged a piece of gold. The British cottage is indeed a poor one which cannot show some volumes as well printed and as finely bound as his finest works. Rejoicing, as we do, in the countless blessings which the Press has given to Britain, let us not forget that arched room in old Westminster, where our earliest printer bent his silvered head over the first proof-sheets of the “Game of Chesse."


« ElőzőTovább »