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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIII. The Introduction of Printing into England and the Early Work of the Press

§ 3. The First Book printed in English—The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy

The first book printed in the English language was the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, issued, about 1475, at Bruges. The French original was compiled in the year 1464 by Raoul le Fevre, chaplain to Philip, duke of Burgundy, and, four years later, Caxton began to translate it into English; but, disheartened, as he tells us in his prologue, by his imperfect knowledge of French, never having been in France, and by the rudeness and broadness of his English, he soon laid the work aside. Encouraged by Margaret, duchess of Burgundy, he, later, resumed his task and finished the work in 1471. His knowledge of French was not perfect, as may be seen from occasional curious mistranslations, but his position must have required an adequate knowledge of the language. So, too, with his English. His education had been good, and he had served as apprentice with one of the most prominent of London citizens; so that he had every opportunity to acquire good English and lose his provincialisms. Nearly all his literary work consisted of translations, but, to most of his publications, he added prologues or epilogues which have a pleasant personal touch, and show us that he had one valuable possession, a sense of humour.

His Recuyell of the Histories of Troy was a popular book at the Burgundian court, and Caxton was importuned by many famous persons to make copies for them. The copying of so large a book was a wearisome undertaking; so Caxton, remembering the art of printing which he had seen in practical use at Cologne, determined to undertake it on his own account and thus be able to supply his patrons with copies easily and rapidly. Accordingly, about 1475, a printed edition was issued, followed, shortly, by Caxton’s translation from two French versions of the Liber de ludo scacchorum of Jacobus de Cessolis, made by Jean Faron and Jean de Vignay. Caxton, in his Game and playe of the Chesse, made use of both these versions, translating partly from one and partly from the other. The last book he printed at Bruges was the Quatre dernieres choses.

In 1476, Caxton returned to England and set up his press at Westminster in a house with the sign of the Red Pale, situated in the precincts of the abbey. In the two years following his arrival, he issued a large number of books, though very little from his own pen. We have it on the authority of the printer Robert Copland, who worked for Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s assistant and successor, and who might himself have been with Caxton, that the first products of the Westminster press were small pamphlets. Now this description exactly applies to a number of tracts of small size issued about this time. These are Lydgate’s Temple of Flass, two editions of The Horse, the Sheep and the Goose and The Churl and the Bird; two editions of Burgh’s Cato, Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite and The Temple of Brass, the Book of Courtesy and the Stans puer ad mensam. From what we know of Caxton’s tastes, these are just such books as he would be anxious to issue. The first two large books which he printed were The History of Jason was translated by Caxton from the French version of Raoul le Fevre, and undertaken immediately he had finished the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy and The Game of Chess.