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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

§ 7. Caxton’s Views on the English Language

The Eneydos, translated in 1490 and printed about the same time, is not in any way a translation of the Aeneid, but, rather, a romance founded on it. Caxton’s version was translated from a French version, probably the work called Le livre des Eneydes, printed at Lyons, in 1483, by Guillaume le Roy. The printer’s preface is a most interesting piece of writing, for Caxton sets out at length his views and opinions on the English language, its changes and dialects. He points out how rapidly it was altering. “And certaynly our langage now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken when I was borne.” The difference in dialect is illustrated by a story of a London merchant who asked a woman in “Forland” for some eggs, and was met with the answer that she could not speak French, but she understood when asked for “eyren.” The different styles of speech are contrasted, and Caxton ends up as might have been expected, “And thus bytwene playn, rude, and curious I stande abasshed, but in my judgemente the comyn termes that be dayli used ben lyghter to be understonde than the olde and auncyent englysshe.” In order to make the style as correct as possible, Caxton obtained the assistance of John Skelton to revise the book for the press.

One other translation by Caxton remains to be noticed, the Metamorphoses of Ovid. He speaks of this work, along with some others, in the introduction to The Golden Legend, and, since all the others were printed, we may presume that this was also. No trace of a printed copy remains, but there is in the Pepysian library a manuscript of the last six books with the colophon “Translated and finished by me William Caxton at Westminster the twenty-second day of April, the year of our Lord 1480, and the twentieth year of the reign of king Edward the fourth.” This, like the rest of Caxton’s books, was rendered from the French.

In 1491 he died, having just completed a translation of St. Jerome’s Lives of the Fathers, which was printed by his successor in 1495.

It is impossible for many reasons to consider the books issued by Caxton as quite representative of the popular demand. His position was entirely different from that of the ordinary printer or publisher. The best part of his life had been spent abroad in business connected with the woollen trade, he had risen to a high position and was, doubtless, a man of very considerable wealth. When he settled in England as a printer, he was able to consult his own tastes in the matter of what he should print, and this clearly lay in the direction of English poetry and prose romances. The reading public was not then very large, and Caxton directed rather than followed the popular taste. A third of the books he printed were translations made by himself, and he carefully edited all that he printed. At the same time, it cannot be supposed that he neglected the popular demand. He printed service-books for the clergy, School-books and statutes, but his own interest lay elsewhere. In especial, he was an admirer of Chaucer. He took pains, as we have seen, in the printing of his works, and expressed his admiration and appreciation in several prologues and epilogues. He did even more, for, as we learn from the epilogue to Boethius, he placed a memorial tablet to the poet in Westminster Abbey.