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AT THE SIGN OF THE RED PALE
 IF the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of
Scottish poetry, it was also the dullest age in English
literature. During the fifteenth century few books were written
in England. One reason for this was that in England it was a
time of foreign and of civil war. The century opened in war with
Wales, it continued in war with France. Then for thirty years
the wars of the Roses laid desolate the land. They ended at
length in 1485 with Bosworth field, by which Henry VII became
But in spite of all the wars and strife, the making of books did
not quite cease. And if only a few books were written, it was
because it was a time of rebirth and new life as well as a time
of war and death. For it was in the fifteenth century that
printing was discovered. Then it was that the listening time was
really done. Men began to use their eyes rather than their ears.
They saw as they had never before seen.
Books began to grow many and cheap. More and more people learned
to read, and this helped to settle our language into a form that
was to last. French still, although it was no longer the
language of the court or of the people, had an influence on our
speech. People traveled little, and in different parts of the
country different dialects, which were almost like different
languages, were spoken. We have seen that the "Inglis" of
Scotland differed from Chaucer's English, and the language of the
 England differed from it just as much. But when printed
books increased in number quickly, when every man could see for
himself what the printed words looked like, these differences
began to die out. Then our English, as a literary language, was
It was Caxton, you remember, who was the first English printer.
We have already heard of him when following the Arthur story as
the printer of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. But Caxton was not only
a printer, he was author, editor, printer, publisher and
bookseller all in one.
William Caxton, as he himself tells us, was born in Kent in the
Weald. But exactly where or when we do not know, although it may
have been about the year 1420. Neither do we know who or what
his father was. Some people think that he may have been a mercer
or cloth merchant, because later Caxton was apprenticed to one of
the richest cloth merchants of London. In those days no man was
allowed to begin business for himself until he had served for a
number of years as an apprentice. When he had served his time,
and then only, was he admitted into the company and allowed to
trade for himself. As the Mercers' Company was one of the
wealthiest and most powerful of the merchant companies, they were
very careful of whom they admitted as apprentices. Therefore it
would seem that really Caxton's family was "of great repute of
old, and genteel-like," as an old manuscript says.
Caxton's master died before he had finished his apprenticeship,
so he had to find a new master, and very soon he left England and
went to Bruges. There he remained for thirty-five years.
In those days there was much trade between England and Flanders
(Belgium we now call the country) in wool and cloth, and there
was a little colony of English merchants in Bruges. There Caxton
steadily rose in
 importance until he became "Governor of the
English Nation beyond the seas." As Governor he had great power,
and ruled over his merchant adventurers as if he had been a king.
But even with all his other work, with his trading and ruling to
attend to, Caxton found time to read and write, and he began to
translate from the French a book of stories called the Recuyell
of the Histories of Troy. This is a book full of the stories of
Greek heroes and of the ancient town of Troy.
Caxton was not very well pleased with his work, however—he "fell
into despair of it," he says—and for two years he put it aside
and wrote no more.
In 1468 Princess Margaret, the sister of King Edward IV, married
the Duke of Burgundy and came to live in Flanders, for in those
days Flanders was under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Princess Margaret soon heard of the Englishman William Caxton who
had made his home in Bruges. She liked him and encouraged him to
go on with his writing, and after a time he gave up his post of
Governor of the English and entered the service of the Princess.
We do not know what post Caxton held in the household of the
Princess, but it was one of honor we may feel sure.
It was at the bidding of the Princess, whose "dreadful command I
durst in no wise disobey," that Caxton finished the translation
of his book of stories. And as at this time there were no
stories written in English prose (poetry only being still used
for stories), the book was a great success. The Duchess was
delighted and rewarded Caxton well, and besides that so many
other people wished to read it that he soon grew tired of making
copies. It was then that he decided to learn the new and
wonderful art of printing, which was already known in Flanders.
 came about that the first book ever printed in English was
not printed in England, but somewhere on the continent. It was
printed some time before 1477, perhaps in 1474.
If in manuscript the book had been a success, it was now much
more of one. And we may believe that it was this success that
made Caxton leave Bruges and go home to England in order to begin
life anew as a printer there.
Many a time, as Governor of the English Nation over the seas, he
had sent forth richly laden vessels. But had he known it, none
was so richly laden as that which now sailed homeward bearing a
At Westminster, within the precincts of the Abbey, Caxton found a
house and set up his printing-press. And there, not far from the
great west door of the Abbey he, already an elderly man, began
his new busy life. His house came to be known as the house of
the Red Pale from the sign that he set up. It was probably a
shield with a red line down the middle of it, called in heraldry
a pale. And from here Caxton sent out the first printed
advertisement known in England. "If it please any man spiritual
or temporal," he says, to buy a certain book, "let him come to
Westminster in to the Almonry at the Red Pale and he shall have
them good cheap." The advertisement ended with some Latin words
which we might translate, "Please do not pull down the
The first book that Caxton is known to have printed in England
was called The Dictes
and Sayings of the Philosophers. This was
also a translation from French, not, however, of Caxton's own
writing. It was translated by Earl Rivers, who asked Caxton to
revise it, which he did, adding a chapter and writing a prologue.
To the people of Caxton's day printing seemed a marvelous thing.
So marvelous did it seem that some of them thought it could only
be done by the help of evil
 spirits. It is strange to think that
in those days, when anything new and wonderful was discovered,
people at once thought that it must be the work of evil spirits.
That it might be the work of good spirits never seemed to occur
Printing, indeed, was a wonderful thing. For now, instead of
taking weeks and months to make one copy of a book, a man could
make dozens or even hundreds at once. And this made books so
cheap that many more people could buy them, and so people were
encouraged both to read and write. Instead of gathering together
to hear one man read out of a book, each man could buy a copy for
himself. At the end of one of his books Caxton begs folk to
notice "that it is not written with pen and ink as other books
be, to the end that every man may have them at once. For all the
books of this story, called the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy
thus imprinted as ye see here were begun on one day and also
finished in one day." We who live in a world of books can hardly
grasp what that meant to the people of Caxton's time.
For fourteen years Caxton lived a busy life, translating,
editing, and printing. Besides that he must have led a busy
social life, for he was a favorite with Edward IV, and with his
successors Richard III and Henry VII too. Great nobles visited
his workshop, sent him gifts, and eagerly bought and read his
books. The wealthy merchants, his old companions in trade, were
glad still to claim him as a friend. Great ladies courted,
flattered, and encouraged him. He married, too, and had
children, though we known nothing of his home life. Altogether
his days were full and busy, and we may believe that he was
Great nobles visited Caxton's workshop.
But at length Caxton's useful, busy life came to an end. On the
last day of it he was still translating a book from French. He
finished it only a few hours before he died.
 We know this,
although we do not know the exact date of his death. For his
pupil and follower, who carried on his work afterwards, says on
the title-page of this book that it was "finished at the last day
of his life."
Caxton was buried in the church near which he had worked—St.
Margaret's, Westminster. He was laid to rest with some ceremony
as a man of importance, for in the account-books of the parish we
find these entries:—
"At burying of William Caxton for four torches 6s. 8d.
For the bell at same burying 6d."
This was much more than was usually spent at the burial of
ordinary people in those days.
Among the many books which Caxton printed we must not forget Sir
Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which we spoke of out of its
place in following the story of Arthur in Chapter VIII. Perhaps
you would like to turn back and read it over again now.
As we have said, Caxton was not merely a printer. He was an
author too. But although he translated books both from French
and Dutch, it is perhaps to his delightful prefaces more than to
anything else that he owes his title of author. Yet it must be
owned that sometimes they are not all quite his own, but parts
are taken wholesale from other men's works or are translated from
the French. We are apt to look upon a preface as something dull
which may be left unread. But when you come to read Caxton's
books, you may perhaps like his prefaces as much as anything else
about them. In one he tells of his difficulties about the
language, because different people spoke it so differently. He
tells how once he began to translate a book, but "when I saw the
fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it should not
please some gentlemen which late blamed me, saying that in my
translation I had over curious terms, which could not be
understood by common
 people, and desired me to use old and homely
terms in my translations. And fain would I satisfy every man.
And so to do I took an old book and read therein, and certainly
the English was so rude and broad that I could not well
understand it. . . . And certainly our language now used varieth
far from that which was used and spoken when I was born. . . .
And that common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth from
another. In-so-much that in my days it happened that certain
merchants were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the
sea into Zealand. For lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and
went to land for to refresh them.
"And one of them, named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house
and asked for meat. And especially he asked for eggs. And the
good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the
merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would
have had eggs, and she understood him not.
"And then at last another said that he would have eyren. Then
the good wife said that she understood him well. So what should
a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is
hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of
language. . . .
"And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired
me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus
between plain, rude, and curious I stand abashed. But in my
judgement the common terms that be daily used, be lighter to be
understood than the old and ancient English."
In another book Caxton tells us that he knows his own "simpleness
and unperfectness" in both French and English. "For in France
was I never, and was born and learned my English in Kent, in the
Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as
in any place in England."
 So you see our English was by no means yet settled. But
printing, perhaps, did more than anything else to settle it.
We know that Caxton printed at least one hundred and two editions
of books. And you will be surprised to hear that of all these
only two or three were books of poetry. Here we have a sure sign
that the singing time was nearly over. I do not mean that we are
to have no more singers, for most of our greatest are still to
come. But from this time prose had shaken off its fetters. It
was no longer to be used only for sermons, for prayers, for
teaching. It was to take its place beside poetry as a means of
enjoyment—as literature. Literature, then, was no longer the
affair of the market-place and the banqueting-hall, but of a
man's own fireside and quiet study. It was no longer the affair
of the crowd, but of each man to himself alone.
The chief poems which Caxton printed were Chaucer's. In one
place he calls Chaucer "The worshipful father and first founder
and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English." Here, I
think, he shows that he was trying to follow the advice of "those
honest and great clerks" who told him he should write "the most
curious terms" that he could find. But certainly he admired
Chaucer very greatly. In the preface to his second edition of
the Canterbury Tales he says, "Great thank, laud and honour ought
to be given unto the clerks, poets" and others who have written
"noble books." "Among whom especially before all others, we
ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great
philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer." Then Caxton goes on to tell us
how hard he had found it to get a correct copy of Chaucer's
poems, "For I find many of the said books which writers have
abridged it, and many things left out: and in some places have
set verses that he never made nor set in his book."
This shows us how quickly stories became changed in
 the days when
everything was copied by hand. When Caxton wrote these words
Chaucer had not been dead more than about eighty years, yet
already it was not easy to find a good copy of his works.
And if stories changed, the language changed just as quickly.
Caxton tells us that the language was changing so fast that he
found it hard to read books written at the time he was born. His
own language is very Frenchy, perhaps because he translated so
many of his books from French. He not only uses words which are
almost French, but arranges his sentences in a French manner. He
often, too drops the e in the, just as in French the e or a in le
and la is dropped before a vowel. This you will often find in
old English books. "The abbey" becomes thabbay, "The English"
thenglish. Caxton writes, too, thensygnementys for "the
teaching." Here we have the dropped e and also the French word
enseignement used instead of "teaching." But these were only
last struggles of a foreign tongue. The triumphant English we
now possess was already taking form.
But it was not by printing alone that in the fifteenth century
men's eyes were opened to new wonder. They were also opened to
the wonder of a new world far over the sea. For the fifteenth
century was the age of discovery, and of all the world's first
great sailors. It was the time when America and the western
isles were discovered, when the Cape of Good Hope was first
rounded, and the new way to India found. So with the whole world
urged to action by the knowledge of these new lands, with
imagination wakened by the tales of marvels to be seen there,
with a new desire to see and do stirring in men's minds, it was
not wonderful that there should be little new writing. The
fifteenth century was the age of new action and new worlds. The
new thought was to follow.