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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

§ 6. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

The compilation of the Morte d’Arthur was finished in 1469, but of the compiler little is known save the name. He is generally believed to be the Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in Warwickshire who died in 1471. No manuscript of the work is known, and, though Caxton certainly revised it, exactly to what extent has never been settled. The prologue to this book is, perhaps, the best and most interesting piece of writing the printer ever composed, and still remains one of the best criticisms of Malory’s romance. Of the popularity of the book we have striking evidence. Of Caxton’s edition two copies are known, of which one is imperfect. The second edition, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498, is known from one copy only, which is imperfect, while the third edition, also printed by de Worde is, again, only known from one imperfect copy. It may well be, considering these facts, that there were other intervening editions which have entirely disappeared.

While Caxton was busily at work making and printing his translations, he did not neglect other classes of books which were in demand. His position near the abbey would turn his attention to service-books, and, of these, he printed a large number. One of the first books he issued was a Sarum Ordinale, and this he advertised by means of a little handbill fixed up in prominent places. Of Books of Hours he issued at least four editions. Besides these, he printed the Psalter, Directorium Sacerdotum and some special services to add to the breviary. The larger service-books he does not seem to have attempted. These were always of a highly ornamental character and his own types and material, intended simply for ordinary work, were not equal to the task. In 1487, when there was a demand for an edition of the Sarum Missal, he gave a commission for the printing to a Paris printer, Guillaume Maynial, but added to it his own device.

The Royal Book and The Book of Good Manners were the next two of Caxton’s translations to be printed. The first is a translation of La Somme des Vices et des Vertus, the latter of Le livre des bonnes meurs by Jacques Legrand. The Book of Good Manners, issued in 1487, was a popular book and was reprinted at least four times before the close of the century.

The Fayttes of Arms, the next of Caxton’s translations to be printed, was issued in 1489. It was undertaken at the express desire of Henry VII, who himself lent the manuscript, now in the British Museum, from which the translation was made. The authorship is generally ascribed to Christine de Pisan.

About this time, two very popular romances were issued, The History of the Four Sons of Aymon and The History of Blanchardyn and Eglantine. The first, of which manuscripts are common, was printed in French as early as 1480, at Lyons, and it was, no doubt, from this edition that Caxton prepared his translation. The second was translated at the request of Margaret, duchess of Somerset, from a manuscript of the French version which she had purchased from Caxton himself many years previously. In this translation, Caxton had adhered to his original far more nearly than is usual in his translations, rendering word for word in the closest manner.