Famous Prefaces.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Caxton

AFTER divers work made, translated, and achieved, having no work in hand, I, sitting in my study whereas lay many divers pamphlets and books, happened that to my hand came a little book in French, which lately was translated out of Latin by some noble clerk of France, which book is named Aeneidos, made in Latin by that noble poet and great clerk, Virgil. Which book I saw over, and read therein how, after the general destruction of the great Troy, Aeneas departed, bearing his old father Anchises upon his shoulders, his little son Iulus on his hand, his wife with much other people following, and how he shipped and departed, with all the history of his adventures that he had ere he came to the achievement of his conquest of Italy, as all along shall be shewed in his present book. In which book I had great pleasure because of the fair and honest terms and words in French; which I never saw before like, ne none so pleasant ne so well ordered; which book as seemed to me should be much requisite to noble men to see, as well for the eloquence as the histories. How well that many hundred years past was the said book of Aeneidos, with other works, made and learned daily in schools, especially in Italy and other places; which history the said Virgil made in metre. and when I had advised me in this said book, I delibered and concluded to translate it into English; and forthwith took a pen and ink and wrote a leaf or twain, which I oversaw again to correct it. and 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 translations I had over curious terms, which could not be understood of 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 took an old book and read therein, and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understood it. and also my Lord Abbot of Westminster did do show to me lately certain evidences written in old English, for to reduce it into our English now used. and certainly it was written in such wise that it was more like to Dutch than English, I could not reduce ne bring it to be understood. and certainly our language now used varieth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born. For we Englishmen be born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast but ever wavering, waxing one season and waneth and decreaseth another season. and that common English that is spoken in one shire varieth from another, insomuch that in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea into Zealand, and 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 after 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 goodwife said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of diversity and change of language. For in these days every man that is in any reputation in his country will utter his communication and matters in such manners and terms that few men shall understand them. 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 judgment the common terms that be daily used be lighter to be understood than the old and ancient English. and forasmuch as this present book is not for a rude uplandish man to labour therein ne read it, but only for a clerk and a noble gentleman that feeleth and understandeth in feats of arms, in love and in noble chivalry. Therefore in a mean between both I have reduced and translated this said book into our English, not over-rude ne curious; but in such terms as shall be understood, by God’s grace, according to my copy. and if any man will intermit in reading of it, and findeth such terms that he cannot understand, let him go read and learn Virgil of the pistles of Ovid, and there he shall see and understand lightly all, if he have a good reader and informer. For this book is not for every rude and uncunning man to see, but to clerks and very gentlemen that understand gentleness and science. Then I pray all them that shall read in this little treatise to hold me for excused for the translating of it, for I acknowledge myself ignorant of cunning to emprise on me so high and noble a work. But I pray Master John Skelton, late created poet laureate in the University of Oxenford, to oversee and correct this said book, and to address and expound, wherever shall be found fault, to them that shall require it.

For him I know for sufficient to expound and English every difficulty that is therein; for he hath lately translated the Epistles of Tully, and the book of Diodorus Siculus, and divers other works out of Latin into English, not in rude and old language, but in polished and ornate terms craftily, as he that hath read Virgil, Ovid, Tully, and all the other noble poets and orators to me unknown. and also he hath read the nine Muses, and understands their musical sciences, and to whom of them each science is appropred. I suppose he hath drunken of Helicon’s well. Then I pray him and such others to correct, add, or minish whereas he or they shall find fault; for I have but followed my copy in French as nigh as to me is possible. and if any word be said therein well, I am glad; and if otherwise, I submit my said book to their correction. Which book I present unto the high born, my to-coming natural and sovereign lord Arthur, by the grace of God Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester, first-begotten son and heir unto our most dread natural and sovereign lord and most Christian King, Henry the VII., by the grace of God King of England and of France, and lord of Ireland; beseeching his noble Grace to receive it in thank of me his most humble subject and servant. and I shall pray unto Almighty God for his prosperous increasing in virtue, wisedom, and humanity, that he may be equal with the most renowned of all his noble progenitors; and so to live in this present life that after this transitory life he and we all may come to everlasting life in Heaven. Amen.