Caxton’s First Printed Book In English


On the 18th of November 1477, William Caxton (1415/1422 – 1492) finished printing Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the first incunabulum (from the Latin “incunabula” which meant “swaddling clothes” or “cradle”) : the earliest printed book in English, which bore a clear publication date, but also, for the first time, a printer’s colophon/logotype which revealed his name and place of publication.

A year earlier, Caxton had travelled to Westminster from Bruges, where he had developed the mechanics of printing, though he initially is thought to have been trained in Cologne. In Bruges, he had established a thriving business, yet he wanted to bring his discoveries back to his homeland. Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers is basically a compilation of quotations and philosopher’s words of wisdom which was translated from a French manuscript containing based on various biblical, classical, and legendary sources. Each of the contributors were introduced by biographic extracts of varying length. The translator was Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, who is recorded to have written his version on a voyage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostella.

Caxton proofread his translation and edited it, but it seems his revisions contained an added epilogue from which a more personal style emerges. In this subchapter entitled “Touching Women”, he pointed out that Woodville had omitted the remarks of Socrates concerning women, which were now filled in by Caxton. The latter speculated at length as to why this may have happened. (N.F. Blake, William Caxton and English Literature, 1991).


Part of Caxton’s Epilogue to the ‘Dictes and Sayinges of the Philosophers.’, The Project Gutenberg EBook of A Short History of English Printing,
1476-1898, by Henry R. Plomer

“I have put me in devoir to oversee this his said book, and behold as nigh as I could how it accordeth with the original, being in French. and I find nothing discordant therein, save only in the dictes and sayings of Socrates, wherein I find that my said Lord hath left out certain and divers conclusions touching women.(…) Socrates said that women be the apparels to catch men, but they take none but them that will be poor or else them that know them not. And he said that there is none so great empechement unto a man as ignorance and women.(…) “Whosoever will acquire and get science, let him never put him in the governance of a woman.”(Caxton’s Epilogue in ‘Dictes and Sayinges of the Philosopher.’)

Caxton thus seemed to have much more of an input than that of a simple printer. Traces of his humour and critical editing seep through in this epilogue. For instance, in the advice he gave to readers, that if they do not agree with Socrates on women, let them “wyth a penne race it out or ellys rente the leef out of the booke.” Caxton proceeded mocking  his patron Woodville about the possible reasons for this omission, claiming Woodville may have thought that Socrates was so removed in time and place from his contemporaries that his theories would not be relevant anymore. Caxton wrote: “Socrates was a Greek, born in a far country from hence, which country is all of other conditions than this is, and men and women of other nature than they be here in this country. For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of this country be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” 

W. Wright Roberts  wrote about this passage that, The irony of this delightful passage is twofold. The phrase “or at least should be so ” makes it clear that Caxton is laughing both at the alleged reason and  at its application. The very redundancy of his style enhances the teasing effect ; the ironical piling-up of epithets affords, long before Rabelais, a taste of the humour of the mock-categorical. In an age when humour was harsh or non-existent, Caxton seems to have used quite a playful, suggestive tone, especially when he guessed that possibly “the wind blew over the leaf” when Woodville came to the Socrates passage! Here, Roberts likens him to his most remarkable creative example, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose The Canterbury Tales Caxton printed a year later in 1478. The epilogue of Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers seems to signal the coming of an aesthetic literary style in which satire and irony would bring new pleasures to the so-far documentary-style recordings of the Middle Ages.