William Caxton and the Printing Press

Brand Patterson

Brand Patterson
HIST 220
Dr. Andrea Winkler
11 October 2010

William Caxton and the Printing Press
William Caxton was an English businessman. After having a successful career as a merchant in the city of Bruges, he aligned himself with the duchess of Burgundy. She encouraged him to translate The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye. He translated this work from French into English and later this particular translation was the first ever book printed in the English language. He moved back to London in 1476. He then established the first ever printing press in England at Westminster. Caxton died in 1492. William Caxton’s business model and the printing press in general, helped to educate people about the Reformation throughout Europe.
William Caxton did more to affect the way literature was written and distributed than he ever could have predicted. During the time that Caxton was starting his printing business the way that books were written and distributed was very different from the printing business that we are familiar with. It is no mystery that authors have to be able to live while they are writing and they have to be able to have their works bound into books and eventually printed on a press. Early books were one of a kind works. The author would be commissioned by a wealthy individual or family to write a book or poem. These wealthy individuals were known as patrons. “Before printing, when mass production of books began, patronage depended on word of mouth” (Rutter 445). This illustrates the way that authors were discovered and how their writing was supported. “[Y]ou heard of an author because he had the recommendation of one of your neighbors—or even because you wanted for yourself a poem or manuscript like the one your neighbor had. As we shall see, this intimacy begins to disappear as floods of books stream from the presses of entrepreneurs like Caxton” (Rutter 449). Caxton and other printers around Europe began to market to the masses. “Caxton, it must be understood, began to address a public composed of persons who did not belong to a single familia, neighborhood, or ruling clique” (Rutter 453). Caxton was changing the face of the world and the way people received their literature.
Caxton had an idea that everyone should be reading literature, or at least should be read to. Caxton wrote, in his prologues and epilogues, about how he felt that literature should be reaching a larger audience. He felt that literature should not be available only to the wealthy. He thought that everyone should be reading, or being read to. “[Caxton] addressed books to both readers and non-readers…increas[ing] two-fold the size of the audience” (Rutter 462. Caxton left a lasting impression on the printing business and changed the way that people read and obtained literature.
The printing press aided the reformation. Before the invention of the printing press and the implementation of it on a relatively large scale, news and literature was spread by word of mouth or through small collections of books. These books were generally reserved for the use of wealthy people and sometimes only circulated among family members. It is easy to understand why this was occurring. Hand writing a book was very time consuming. People had to be tending to the fields or making a living somehow and this left little time for writing. Also, very few people actually knew how to read and write. Education was reserved for the wealthy. With the invention of the printing press came the ability to create books and literature at a rate that was almost unbelievable. The printing press allowed people, with the funds, to print and distribute their ideas to a very large group of people. This was not lost on either the Catholic Church or on Protestants such as Luther and Calvin.
Luther used the printing press to his advantage during his battle to change Christianity. His first exposure to the power of the printing press was only by chance. In 1517, on All Saints Day, Luther placed his ninety-five theses on the door of the local cathedral in Wittenberg. What happened next changed the face of the religious battle in Europe forever. “[S]omeone took the theses, translated them into German, and began to distribute them using the new technology of the printing press” (Howard 94). In a matter of only a few weeks the person who printed Luther’s theses had given him the power that he needed to facilitate religious change in Germany and eventually across Europe. It did take some regions a lot longer to be exposed to Luther’s materials. “It was not until the 1540’s that the works of the Protestant reformers began to be disseminated in Poland. The writings of Luther, Calvin, and others were eagerly read by many” (Payton 13).
In only a year’s time a whole lot had occurred concerning Luther. A printer had published a selection of Luther’s works. This included his theses. To his amazement they were selling to the nobles throughout Germany very well. Luther had quite a following. The theses that he had posted on the door of the cathedral had in them an idea that “Roman authorities were taking advantage of their access to God through indulgences and other fees” (Howard 94). Indulgences were sold to the people of the church for blessings from the priest. Cathedrals would also sell prayers for the sick or even for already deceased. These prayers could be for good health, good fortune, or for the tall order of a trip to heaven.
Luther’s distaste for the Catholic Church did not end with indulgences. One of his main problems with the Catholic Church was that they promoted the idea that their priests and members of their hierarchy were that only people that should read and interpret the Bible. “Luther relocated truth from the authority of a specialized priest class to the individual minds of every human. For Luther, the church had no authority. Instead, only God did. And that authority was accessible to anyone who could read or hear the text of the Bible” (Howard 91). This illustrates that ideas from two instrumental figures of the reformation are one in the same. Caxton and Luther both believed that not just literate individuals should enjoy and learn from the wealth of stories and knowledge that their printing presses and writings could provide. They believed that everyone should enjoy these things.
Printed books and literary works were not the only means of spreading the Protestant ideas using the printing press. Another means that Luther, in particular, used was the Flugschrift. A Flugschrift is a pamphlet, often with writings or illustrations that reformers used for propaganda. “They were, moreover, not a universal feature of evangelical mission, but specifically Lutheran” (Hopfl 1583). Luther used these pamphlets to spread his ideas in a very effective way. They were passed out all over the place; in church, on the street, they were posted around town, they would place the pamphlets anywhere that someone might pick them up and read them. A very interesting, and effective, way that pamphlets spread the reformer’s ideas was on the roads, literally on the roads. Sometimes reformers would simply let pamphlets flutter down the roads in the wind to be picked up and carried from town to town.
The simplest way to understand how the reformation was aided by the printing press is to understand the ease of production that the press brought to the printing world. Papers, books, and pamphlets were produced in massive amounts for the first time in history. Today we hear of new ideas in a matter of minutes via the television or the internet. Back in the time of Caxton and Luther the printing press was the fastest way to circulate ideas. Luther and many other reformists used the printing press very well to further their crusade against the Catholic Church.

Works Cited
BBC History: Historic Figures: William Caxton. BBC. 10 October 2010
Höpfl, Harro M. "Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion." American Historical Review 111.5 (2006): 1583-1584. Religion and Philosophy Collection. EBSCO. Web. 10 Oct. 2010.
Payton, James R. "CALVIN AND EASTERN EUROPE: WHAT HAPPENED?." Religion in Eastern Europe 30.2 (2010): 10-19. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 10 Oct.

Robert Glenn Howard. "The Double Bind of the Protestant Reformation: The Birth of
Fundamentalism and the Necessity of Pluralism. " Journal of Church and State
47.1 (2005): 91-108. ProQuest Religion, ProQuest. Web. 10 Oct. 2010.

Rutter, Russell. "William Caxton and Literary Patronage." Studies in Philology 84.4 (1987): 440.
Religion and Philosophy Collection. EBSCO. Web. 10 Oct. 2010.

Links to Sources:1.http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml2.http://web.ebscohost.com.wf2dnvr8.webfeat.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&hid=12&sid=dc2043b0-072d-4ae6-bc6f-116f5a7bfae2%40sessionmgr113.http://proxygsu-mer1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=52842188&site=ehost-live4.http://proxygsu-mer1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb/?did=822991211&Fmt=3&clientId=30360&RQT=309&VName=PQD5.http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=7&sid=2d72a302-c3b9-4c3a-b76e-93941112ba3a%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=rlh&AN=5243489
Article Analysis #1:
“William Caxton and Literary Patronage” By: Russell Rutter
Focus: William Caxton’s impact on the literary world and in particular a study of what he chose to print and why.

Perception of William Caxton.
Painter seems to view Caxton as quite a gutsy individual. He views his prologues and epilogues to sometimes be direct attacks at his patrons.
Gibbon viewed Caxton as an unfortunate victim of his patrons. Patrons were basically the financial backers of the printing press and Gibbon believed they hindered Caxton’s ability to print worthwhile text.
William Blades challenged Gibbon’s thoughts of Caxton in his 1861 volume of The Life and Typography of William Caxton. He managed to give Caxton’s work some degree of respect that it had lacked prior. (Rutter 440)
What Caxton Printed
“Caxton, Painter surmises, harbored a ‘grudge against Edward and the established government’” (Rutter 443) Painter believes that he speaks against Edward in his prologue to the Game of Chess in a cryptic manner.
In Gibbon’s opinion, Caxton was printing on “to comply with the vicious taste of his readers” (Rutter 440). He thought that Caxton’s printing about topics like Hawking and Chess were just for the amusement of nobles.
Here is an excerpt from Blades volume, “Caxton did not enter upon his new adventure of printing books without good and able patronage” (Rutter 441). He gives a level of respect to Caxton’s work while still allowing that the patrons ultimately chose the topics.

Implication: There are many in this article but the relevant implication would most likely be that because Caxton did not love to work for patrons, he ran his business in a manner that would sell more books on a larger scale and to a wider audience. Ultimately printing what he wanted to print.
Article Analysis #2:
“The Double Bind of the Protestant Reformation: The Birth of Fundamentalism and the Necessity of Pluralism” By: Howard
Focus: How Luther’s insistence on spreading copies of the Bible to everyone affected different aspects of religion.

Availability of Bible affected positively.
Before the bible was made available to the masses, fundamentals of religion lied solely with and at the discretion of the Catholic church. They controlled what the masses learned of the Bible and controlled the masses religious ideals.
The availability of the Bible effectively created pluralism. Since the masses were now able to read the Bible and draw their own conclusions about God, many different ideas were being elicited.
Availability of Bible affected negatively.
I would say that Fundamentalism was affected negatively simply because religion can be brainwashing to some people. When people’s fundamental views of religion clash with one another wars tend to occur.
Once again, the sheer number of interpretations made religion pluralistic. There was the church’s way and teaching, and then there was the masses many different interpretations. This leads to the requirement of sympathetic cooperation between people with differing points of view. Which as we all know can cause issues.

Implication: The implication relevant to the current topic would be that the availability of the Bible to the masses created new facets of the religious world. Some of these facets are good and some are bad if not maintained and approached accordingly.