My articles No.7 – Willam Caxton’s printing press and development of the English language

It could be argued that the English language would not be what it is today if it were not for the influence of a fifteenth century textile business owner, William Caxton.  It is not his textiles, however, that made such a significant impact on the English language, rather the fact that it was William Caxton who introduced “the art of printing”, which he learnt in Cologne, into England. [1]  In this essay I will examine Caxton’s printing press, its impact on the standardisation of the English language, and how his activities have influenced other early printers as well as the development of the English language.

William Caxton spent much of his life as a merchant on the Continent, and by the 1460s was a “prosperous and influential” member of the English trading communities in the Low Countries. [2]  In 1465 he took up the powerful post of Governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers, holding the post until 1470.  Although a merchant, Caxton had a love of literature and in 1469 he began a long task of translating, by hand, Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des histoires de Troye.  Caxton, when speaking of this task, said “my pen is worn, mine hand weary and not steadfast, mine eye even dimmed with overmuch looking on white paper, and my courage not so prone and ready to labour as it hath been, and that age creepeth on me daily and feebleth all the body.” [3]  He realised that printing could ease his burden and so, in the first three years of the 1470s, while still in Cologne, he learnt the art and techniques of printing. [4]

Armed with his new skills, Caxton returned to England late in 1476, and set up his printing press in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.  His first known piece of printed work after arriving in England was the Letter of Indulgence issued by John Sant, Abbot of Abingdon, to Harry Lanley of London.” [4] This work, rediscovered in 1928, is therefore the earliest known printed work in England.

Printing was an ambitious task at the time, even for a man as determined as Caxton.  Many still suspected the printing press to be “a contraption of the Devil.”[5]  His siting of the press in the prximity to the ecclesiastics of Westminster, as well as his considerable experience as a diplomat and merchant, must have helped him to survive where others would fail.  Within the Abbey, under its “powerful shelter” he was free from “vexatious restrictions and trade jealouies.” [6]  The choice of Westminster Abbey may, to a small degree, have also stemmed from Caxton facing some opposition in London itself from “the professional scriveners who feared for their livelihoods.” [7]  N. F. Blake qualifies that this seems unlikely as Caxton had previously enjoyed good relations with scribes on the Continent and siting a press at Westminster would not get him away from the professional scribes located in the Abbey itself.[8]

The name Caxton is inevitably associated with the press, but Caxton was more a businessman than an actual printer.  He probably left the actual, physical task of printing to assistants, many of whom would go on to be printers themselves, while he would take care of selling the books and editing and preparing the text for printing.  He would also spend a lot of time in search of patrons, a necessity if his business was to flourish.  Things were not always straightforward.  Having aristocratic patrons was often dangerous considering the uncertainties of fiteenth century politics.[9]

He often lost patrons and would have to seek new ones, often less aristocratic in their nature.  He often found it safer to emphasise his merchant connections, avoiding the whims of the aristocracy.  Like the true businessmen, however, whenever the political situation stabilised he would once more be seeking aristocratic support. [10]

The unreliability of patrons and the instability of political life aside, Caxton faced another, more technical problem.  At this time the English language was still far from being standardised.  Where you lived often decided which variety of English you would use.  As McCrum, Cran and MacNeil say in their book, The Story of English, “there were several standards [of English] with rival claims.  It was not easy for a writer and printer in the fifteenth century to choose a version of English that would find favour with all readers.” [11]

Caxton, as the only printer of English texts, was therefore faced with the dilemma as to “which variety of English should be followed, given the great differences in regional dialect that existed.”[12] Caxton was also a bookseller and his keen business mind must have frustrated as to how to please everyone.  David Cyrstal illustrates the depth of the problem Caxton faced when he speaks of how “a simple little word like eggs couldn’t be understood by everyone.” [13] Crystal writes of Caxton’s own recollection of the eggs incident – “… a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after egges.  And the good wyf answerd that she coude speke no Frenshe.  And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but would have hadde egges, and she vnderstode hym not.  And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren.  Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel.” [14]

This illustration, although humourous, demonstrates the seriousness of the problem – that a speaker of one English variety could just as well be speaking French to a speaker of a different variety, for the differences between dialects were often considerable. The selection of the East Midland dialect as the standard for his printing press was perhaps a natural choice, for it was the “English he heard in the streets of London.” [15]  It was the dialect spoken by the merchant class to which he belonged and it had already become distinct and important.  It was becoming associated with class, with the lower classes speaking another dialect, “a south-eastern one, the antecedent of Cockney.” [16]  Its familiarity to Caxton was no doubt significant in his choice to use it for his books, but the East Midland dialect had become important for several reasons.

Firstly, it was less radical than its northern and southern counterparts, being in the middle, so to speak, it took on characteristics of neighbouring dialects.  Therefore, it was more understandable to more of the population. [17]  As the Latin translator, John of Trevisa, wrote nearly a century before Caxton’s press, “men of myddel Engelond, as hyt were parteners of the endes, understondeth betre the syde longages, Northeron and Southeron, that Northeron and Southeron vnderstondeth eyther other.”[18] As a dialect it was almost becoming a lingua franca.

Secondly, the pouplation of the area was large, accounting for about a quarter of the population of the country.  “Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk were at the time of the Conquest and for three centuries afterwards vastly richer and more populous than any tract of equal area in the west.” [19]  This concentration of population could only strengthen the dialect spoken there – the East Midland dialect.

Thirdly, the so-called Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle exerted a degree of influence.  The presence of the educated classes at the universities of Oxford and, especially, Cambridge would support the proliferation of the East Midland dialect.  The third corner of the triangle, the Court of London, “was a compelling attraction for those who wished for social prestige or career opportunities.” [20]  The influence of the educated and powerful classes was significant in marking the East Midland dialect out as one of prestige, status and worth.

William Caxton’s choice to use this dialect “as the basis for his translations and spellings” was also logical for by the end of the fifteenth century the distinctions between standard and regional speech were already becoming established. [21] The standard, the variety Caxton would choose, was being thought of as “correct, proper, and educated, the regional as incorrect, careless, and inferior – which is still with us today.” [22]

Caxton’s printing career, starting late in his life, lasted for barely fifteen years before he died in the early 1490s.  Towards the end of his career he had concentrated on religious books – being himself a deeply religious man – and he was active until the very end, having just completed a translation of the Lives of the Fathers when he died.  Wynkyn de Worde, who had worked with Caxton since Germany and who took over the press upon Caxton’s death, said of Caxton’s last book that it was finished on the last day of his life. [23] 

Caxton had seemingly prepared for his death in order to ensure that his pringin press continued afterwards.  It was fully intended that de Worde would take over after his death and that “Richard Pynson and Robert Copland should assist him.” [24] Caxton looked to the continent during his lifetime and saw printing presses disappearing at a moment’s notice, and was naturally concerned that, as England’s only printer of English texts, the survival of the press was important if the development of the English language was not to be stunted.  In response to this fear, Wynkyn de Worde, after Caxton had died, encouraged his assistants to set up their own printing presses.  They, and others feard this was unwise, but de Worde argued that the dependence upon the nobility was fading and that “a new market was opening up – that of the merchants, the grocers and small traders of the City of London” saying that “even in the taverns minstrels clamoured for the printed balled.” [25]  He therefore correctly assumed that their was a need for more capacity, and thaty they would be wise to try and meet the demand.

Caxton’s old employers did a lot of consolidate printing in the English language.  Wynkyn lived until 1535, having joined Caxton at an early age, and printed a total of four hundred books.  This is a remarkable achievement and testimony to the skills he learnt under Caxton, although he did lack certain abilities, such as the inability to produce English translations of French works – for de Worde could not speak French.  Richard Pynson continued printing until the early 1530s, even becoming the King’s Printer, and printed around two hundred works.  Robert Copland assisted Wynkyn until the latter’s death and although “he carried on the trade of printing for a longer period than any other in the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth, only eleven books are actually credited to him.” [26]

Caxton and his three assistants had created a market for English language books, although in their lifetime they could do little to meet the growing demand for cheap copies of the ancient classics.  The growing appearance of books in English meant that more and more people had the opportunity to read and to gain access to literature that was previously only available in Latin or French.  “Gradually English dictionaries, grammar books, printers and Catechisms began to appear in profusion,” and the printing press was creating the “most peaceable revolution” ever known. [27]

Caxton and his successors played a significant role in standardising the English language, of reinforcing the strength of the standard, which has often been so powerful that “for many people the standard variety is the language itself.” [28] The need of Caxton to have his books in regularised language, one that almost eliminates variation and change, strengthened the growing aura of the East Midland dialect and has created, or at least reinforced, the standardisation of the language.

Before printing, scribes wrote in their own dialects, they were often guided by their own speech-habits, and changes in pronunciation were often mirrored in spelling. [29]  This is inconvenient for printers who cannot keep changing to suit social pressure or whims.  Their use of a standard variety of English, while the language as a whole was developing orally, means that “since the fifteenth century certain spellings own their continued existence to the convenience of the printers.” [30]  Would the spelling of the word egg, for instance, have remained as such over five hundred years without the continued insistence through the late fifteenth and into the sixteenth century of the printers that egg was spelt that way, and not as eyren or some other way.

Therefore “the period of printing corresponds with the period of standardisation,” [31] so much so that by Shakespeare’s time this “regional variation in the language of printed literature had all but disappeared.” [32] It took a century or so after Caxton before spelling conventions become more stable and accepted, but his consistency perhaps led the way.  The scribal tradition of changing spelling to suit personal tradition and preferences made way for printed dictionaries and grammars, such as those of Johnson, which set out just how the English language should be spelt, and spoken.  As the standard written form acquired prestige, it increasingly exerted pressure on speech and grammatical practice.  As Dick Leith says, the “written standard acts as a norm, a yardstick, and a guide.” [33]

The standardisation of the language and the growth of printing increased access to English texts vastly, with some twenty thousand books printed in the century and a half after Caxton.  The proliferation of printing allowed more people to have access to books, encouraged literacy, and promted the renewed interest in the classical languages and literature in the following two centuries. [34]  We have to look no further than the classroom of today to see the significance of what Caxton and his successors achieved in standardising the English language.  Today “when we are taught to write it is standard English that we are taught.” [35]  And as McCrum, MacNeil and Cran say, “new generations of school children are still grappling with a spelling system that dates back to William Caxton.” [36]



1 – Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia, Microsoft Home, 1996 English Edition.

2 – Encyclopedia Britanica CD-ROM, version 2, Encyclopedia Britanica Inc., 1995.

3 – From the epilogue to Book III, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, Bruges, 1475, quoted Richard Deacon, William Caxton: the First English Editor, Frederick Miller Ltd, 1976, p. 87.

4 – Deacon, ibid., p. 104.

5 – ibid., p. 110.

6 – Susan Cunnington, The Story of William Caxton cited in Deacon, ibid., pp. 110-111.

7 – N. F. Blake, William Caxton: England’s First Publisher, Osprey, 1976, p. 40.

8 – ibid., p. 40.

9 – ibid., p. 49.

10 – ibid., p. 50.

11 – Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, William Cran, The Story of English, New Revised Edition, Faber and Faber, 1992.  First published 1986., p. 86.

12 – David Crystal, The English Language, Penguin, 1988, p. 190.

13 – ibid., p. 190.

14 – William Caxton, Preface to translation of Eneydos,1490, quoted in Crystal, ibid., p. 191.

15 – McCrum, MacNeil, Cran, op. cit., p. 87.

16 – Dick Leith, A Social History of English, p. 38.

17 – Albert C. Baugh, Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language Routledge, First published 1951, edition 1993, p. 187.

18 – quoted in Crystal, op. cit., p. 188.

19 – Domesday Book and Beyond, quoted in Baugh, Cable, ibid., p. 188.

20 – Cyrstal, op. cit., p. 187.

21 – Cyrstal, op. cit., p. 188.

22 – Cyrstal, op. cit., p. 188.

23 – Deacon, op. cit., p. 167.

24 – Deacon, op. cit., p. 169.

25 – Deacon, op. cit., p. 170.

26 – Deacon, op. cit., p. 171.

27 – Deacon, op. cit., p. 171.

28 – Leith, op. cit., p. 33.

29 – Leith, op. cit., p. 37.

30 – Leith, op. cit., p. 34.

31 – Leith, op. cit., p. 34.

32 – Leith, op. cit., p. 41.

33 – Leith, op. cit., p. 34.

34 – Cyrstal, op. cit., p. 191.

35 – Leith, op. cit., p. 34.

36 – McCrum, MacNeil, Cran, op. cit., p. 43.