THE FIRST BOOK PRINTED IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, and the first book from the press of William Caxton, the father of printing in England. Printed English literature begins with this remarkably lavish and ambitious publication, a book that proclaims a remarkable confidence in the English vernacular, and a book that is an extraordinary fusion of traditional courtly patronage and forward-thinking commercial opportunism.
The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye is William Caxton’s own translation of an epic romance on the ‘Matter of Troy’, Le Recueil des histoires de Troye (c. 1463-64), by Raoul Lefèvre, who was probably a chaplain to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The Recueil is not primarily a history of the Trojan war: it covers a much longer timespan from the foundation of the city, and focuses in particular on the first and second destructions of Troy by Hercules. Like its companion piece, Histoire de Jason (c. 1460), it turned the heroes of Greek mythology into chivalric figures, and these works were written within the context of the literary and ceremonial traditions of the Burgundian court. Lefèvre dedicated the first work to Duke Philip the Good, who then commissioned him to write the second. His heroes – Hercules and Jason – were the mythical founders of the Burgundian dynasty and featured in court ceremonial ranging from the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece (named for the Argonauts’ prize) to the plays on the life of Hercules staged during the wedding celebrations of Duke Charles the Bold (Philip’s successor) and Margaret of York in 1468.
Caxton began his translation, as he tells us in his preface, in Bruges in 1468, and completed it in Cologne in 1471. He produced it for Duke Charles’s new wife, Margaret, who was – crucially, for Caxton – the sister of the English Yorkist King Edward IV. The translation, deeply imbued as it was by the values and traditions of the Burgundian court, was a fitting diplomatic gift for a woman entering that court. Caxton was a successful merchant and diplomat, a leading figure in the English mercantile community in the Low Countries, who had almost certainly been involved in the marriage negotiations of Margaret and Charles. He does not appear to have had any previous experience as a translator before taking on this very substantial work: it was an ambitious undertaking, and in his epilogue Caxton wryly describes that “in the wrytyng of the same my penne is worn/ myn hande wery & not stedfast myn eyen dimed with overmoche lokyng on the whit paper”.
Producing a book for a royal patron in the hope of securing further commissions or other royal favour was a very well established courtly gesture in Burgundy and elsewhere; the unique engraving in the Chatsworth-Huntington copy of the Historyes of Troye shows Caxton presenting his book to Margaret of York in the tradition of manuscript presentation illustrations. However, committing such a work to print was an extraordinary novelty. It is unlikely that Caxton originally intend his translation for print. He probably first encountered the printing press when he moved to Cologne in 1471 and it was almost certainly at that point that he began to consider undertaking a radically new commercial venture: printing in English. The technology of print was not yet thirty years old, and printing in the vernacular was still in its infancy. The first book printed in German had only appeared in 1461, the first book in Italian in 1470, and the first book printed in French would not appear until 1476. Unlike Latin books that could command a pan-European market, books in the vernacular had to rely on a much smaller domestic readership. Printing in English was a risky enterprise, and it is a testament to a flourishing and self-confident Anglophone reading culture that Caxton was confident that his ambitious book would find a market.
Caxton evidently believed that there would be an appetite for his translation in English wealthy and aristocratic circles: the Burgundian court was the glittering centre of northern European culture in the later fifteenth century, so a work emanating from that court would have considerable cultural cachet, and he must have also hoped that the illustrious patronage of the King’s sister would help to sell the printed book. There is also no doubt that Caxton recognised the huge potential of the printed book, and his excitement at the novelty of the technology is palpable in his description of the book in the epilogue to the Historyes of Troye:
“...I have practysed & lerned at my grete charge and dispense to ordeyne this said book in prynte after the mane & forme as ye may here see/ and is not wreton with penne and ynke as other bokes ben/ to thende that every man may have them attones/ For all the bookes of this storye named the recule of the historyes of troyes thus enpryntid as ye here see were begonne in oon day/ and also fynyshid in oon day...”
Caxton himself provides much of the known context about his translation, but the technical aspects of publication are slightly more uncertain as the book has no date or place of printing. Historically, the book’s printing has usually been assigned to Colard Mansion in Bruges with the date c. 1475. However, more recent research by Lotte Hellinga ("William Caxton, Colard Mansion, and the Printer in Type 1", Bulletin du Bibliophile (2011), 86-114), concludes that the date of printing is likely to be towards the end of 1473 or early in 1474, and that Caxton's technical help with printing was supplied by a workshop connected with the well-known scribe David Aubert in Ghent. The typeface of Caxton's first few publications (Type 1) is very close to David Aubert's handwriting, giving them a distinctive Burgundian appearance, and indeed the presentation engraving in the Chatsworth-Huntington copy is by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, who also illuminated some of Aubert's manuscripts. This places the circumstances of production firmly in the circles of artistic patronage responsible for the luxurious manuscripts associated with the Burgundian court. Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, commissioned numerous manuscripts from the foremost scribes and illuminators of the day, including about eight from David Aubert in 1475-76. Margaret and her husband led itinerant lives round their lands, and for most of 1473 and early 1474, Margaret was resident in Ghent.
The current copy has a provenance that can be traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its rich history is enhanced by its having been marked by generations of readers up to the mid-seventeenth century. Some of these show clear attention being paid to the work itself: there are scattered marginal summary notes in two distinct hands, whilst a third early reader has made clear their dissatisfaction with the translation by writing “Infaelix” in large letters down the margin of a few pages. As is often the case, however, not all of the annotations are directly related to the text: one early owner made use of the wide margins to write unrelated comments and doggerel verses, a nearly-blank page at the end of Book Two has been filled with recipes in a different hand, and the margins of four pages are filled with ink drawings of animals with pricked outlines. Several names also appear in the margins. Two of these are clear marks of ownership: there is an ownership inscription in Latin verse in an early 16th century hand by a John Parker (n1r), and a William Tyrrell (this is the most likely modern version of a name that appears once as Tyrrle and once as Tyrry) twice proclaims this as his book in a somewhat later hand (cc7r and ll1v). Other names that appear (although they may not indicate ownership) include “John Grenvell of ulcombe [?]” (E4r) and Henry Sheppard (E9v).
Only eighteen copies of this book survive, of which only two are complete (British Library, Morgan Library), and only six in private hands. There are also small fragments in four UK libraries and four American libraries. No copy has appeared at auction in more than ten years. This is therefore an exceptional opportunity to acquire a book that marks one of the greatest landmarks in the history of the English language.
It should be noted that the provenance for De Ricci 3.13, now in the Scheide Library (and lacking 49 leaves), should commence with Utterson, as the Lloyd-Hibbert-Wilkes provenance actually applies to this copy; here are the relevant catalogue entries:
Lloyd: “a few leaves are damaged at each end, and part of the prefix is wanting”
Hibbert: “a remarkable large and fine copy, but six entire leaves and portions of four, are supplied by MS in Fac Simile”
Wilks: "FINE COPY, in morocco extra, with joints and gilt leaves... The present is a remarkably large and fine copy, but six entire leaves and portions of four others are supplied by MANUSCRIPT in Fac-Simile. Only two other perfect copies are known; one in the British Museum (the late King George IIIds), and the other in the Marquess of Bath's Library."
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