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Outlines of English and American Literature
Story of the Printing Press
by Long, William J.


The story of how printing came to England, not as a literary but as a business venture, is a very interesting one. Caxton was an English merchant who had established himself at Bruges, then one of the trading centers of Europe. There his business prospered, and he became governor of the Domus Angliae, or House of the English Guild of Merchant Adventurers. There is romance in the very name. With moderate wealth came leisure to Caxton, and he indulged his literary taste by writing his own version of some popular romances concerning the siege of Troy, being encouraged by the English princess Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, into whose service he had entered.

Copies of his work being in demand, Caxton consulted the professional copyists, whose beautiful work we read about in a remarkable novel called The Cloister and the Hearth. Then suddenly came to Bruges the rumor of Gutenberg's discovery of printing from movable types, and Caxton hastened to Germany to investigate the matter, led by the desire to get copies of his own work as cheaply as possible. The discovery fascinated him; instead of a few copies of his manuscript he brought back to Bruges a press, from which he issued his Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy (1474), which was probably the first book to appear in English print. Quick to see the commercial advantages of the new invention, Caxton moved his printing press to London, near Westminster Abbey, where he brought out in 1477 his Dictes and Sayinges of the Philosophers, the first book ever printed on English soil. [Footnote: Another book of Caxton's, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (1475) was long accorded this honor, but it is fairly certain that the book on chess-playing was printed in Bruges.]

The First Printed Books

From the very outset Caxton's venture was successful, and he was soon busy in supplying books that were most in demand. He has been criticized for not printing the classics and other books of the New Learning; but he evidently knew his business and his audience, and aimed to give people what they wanted, not what he thought they ought to have. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Mandeville's Travels, Æsop's Fables, parts of the Æneid, translations of French romances, lives of the saints (The Golden Legend), cookbooks, prayer books, books of etiquette,--the list of Caxton's eighty-odd publications becomes significant when we remember that he printed only popular books, and that the titles indicate the taste of the age which first looked upon the marvel of printing.

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