Skip to main content

William Caxton started printing in Westminster (England) in 1476. His publication of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was the first print bestseller in English. While the printing press helped drive the transition from Middle English to Early Modern English, there are a number of misconceptions about the advent of printing which need to be addressed.

 photo Caxton_Showing_the_First_Specimen_of_His_Printing_to_King_Edward_IV_at_the_Almonry_Westminster_zpsa8634bbb.jpg

Shown above is a painting by Daniel Maclise in which Caxton is showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster.

First, the printing press did not bring about universal literacy. While it did bring an increase in the number of books which were available and it did lower the costs of these books, literacy remained an elite characteristic for another century or two.

Second, printing was initially oriented toward the upper classes. Caxton, for example, advertised himself as a printer for “clerks and gentlemen.” Located in Westminster, Caxton established himself as a printer with royal and aristocratic patrons.

Third, in the beginning printed books did not look much different from the hand copied manuscripts: the early type fonts were based on handwriting.

 photo 682ac1db-9162-47ce-8cec-f919d237cf57_zps31bd64c9.jpg

Shown above is page 1 of Godefrey of Boloyne which Caxton printed in 1481.

Printing helped to standardize English. When Caxton started his printing business, the English language was in flux. There were many different dialects in the spoken language. Caxton recounts the story of a group of London sailors who found themselves becalmed in Kent. Seeking food, one of them approached a farmer’s wife and:

“axed fo mete and specially he axyd after eggys”
The woman replied that she “coude speke no frenshe.” In other words the London dialect could  not be understood in Kent which was only 50 miles away.

In translating from the spoken language to the written language Caxton had to begin the process of standardization with regard to spelling, word usage, grammar, and so on. This was the beginning of a literary standard for English: a standard which widened the gap between spoken English and written English.

With regard to spelling, some historians credit Caxton with inserting the silent h in “ghost.”

During his printing career, Caxton printed an estimated 108 books, most of which were in English. Caxton translated 26 of these books into English himself.

During the two centuries after Caxton established his press it is estimated that some 20,000 titles in English were published in England.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Aug 03, 2013 at 08:17 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Cranky Grammarians, and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site