William Caxton: his role in the history of English
The discovery of previously unknown pages from a very early book printed by William Caxton is an exciting event for historians of printing. The pages—from a liturgical manual for priests known as the ‘Sarum Ordinal’ or ‘Sarum Pie’—are in Latin, so they won’t provide any new data for the history of English words; but it’s worth remembering that many of Caxton’s other books played an important part in the history of English.
‘Caxton’s books’ includes both the books which he printed—which, thanks to the new technology of print, could be disseminated much more widely than manuscripts—and also the books which he wrote: for although he is now remembered for his pioneering work as a printer of books in England, he was also a writer. His output was mostly in the form of translations of popular works in other languages: mainly French, but also Latin, and one work in Dutch. In fact it was the popularity of one of his early translations from French—a collection of tales from Greek myth—which led to him setting up his first printing press in Bruges: the translation had become popular at the Burgundian court in manuscript form, and it was demand for additional copies which seems to have given him the idea of exploiting the new technology.
And this book, ‘The Recuyell [i.e. compilation or collection] of the Historyes of Troye’—printed several years before Caxton set up his printing press at Westminster in 1476—contains numerous words for which no earlier evidence is known, and at least some of which Caxton may be presumed to have coined. Some of them, like terribility, don’t really seem to have caught on; but there are quite a few that did—or, indeed, may already have been in use—like happiness and industry. And hundreds of other familiar English words can be traced back to their appearance in the books that issued from his Westminster press over the next decade or so: words like achievement, acknowledge, nocturnal, nuptial, paradigm, and poetic—even homely, ordinary words like gardening, plague (used as a verb), pottery, and rogue.
Another ‘Caxtonism’ which might seem to be particularly fitting is the adjective printed; but this is not what it might appear. The verb that Caxton himself used in his earliest books to describe how he made them was ‘enprynte’ (or, as we would now spell it, imprint); it was apparently only a few years later that print acquired its specifically typographical meaning. And Caxton’s use of printed in the little book he issued in 1480 was in a culinary context: ‘Of mylke sodden with the flour men make printed cakes’—in other words, moulded cakes made from flour and milk.
There is one other notable link between the newly discovered pages of the ‘Sarum Pie’ and the recorded history of the English language. Shortly before Caxton issued this book, he printed an advertisement for it on a single sheet of paper—what we might now call a handbill—which encouraged ‘ony man spiritual or temporel’ wishing to buy ‘pyes’ to visit his shop at Westminster, where he would be able to ‘haue them good chepe [i.e. cheaply]’. And this is the first known evidence for this use of the word pie: not in the familiar ‘baked goods’ sense, but in the etymologically distinct sense of a book of directions for the conduct of a church service. Even in his advertising copy, it seems, Caxton was a linguistic pioneer.
Header image: Spread from the facsimile of the “Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” printed by William Caxton in 1477.