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Print pioneer profiles: William Caxton

Lately on the PMG blog, we’ve been celebrating some of the great figures in the history of print. They’ve shaped the print industry into what it is today. Let’s face it – without the likes of Gutenberg and William Caxton, print management companies such as ourselves simply wouldn’t exist. While today’s print technologies would be completely unrecognisable to the 15th century print pioneers, it is these inventors and businessmen who laid the foundations of print technology and enabled the industry to flourish. Today we’re profiling William Caxton, whose print achievements placed him among the 100 greatest Britons of all time, according to a BBC poll. He is best known for bringing printing to England for the very first time.


As a merchant

Caxton was born in the early 1420s, and became the apprentice of a merchant as a teenager. Caxton achieved great success as a merchant, and by his early 40s had been named as Governor of the English Nation of the Merchant Adventurers in Bruges. Essentially, he’d become a diplomat and key trade official for Edward IV, the Yorkist king of England. Caxton’s profession gave him the chance to travel across Europe to negotiate deals and ensure agreements and embargoes were obeyed. His travels took him to Cologne, where his experience of printing began.


Early adventures in print

After the invention of moveable type mechanical printing presses by Gutenberg in 1450, printing reached Cologne by the 1460s. Caxton first visited the city in the early 1470s, and he immediately recognised the business potential of print. It was here that Caxton finished the English translation of ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye’. Caxton set up a press in Bruges and printed his translation – the first printed book in the English language.


Return to England

In the mid 1470s Caxton brought his printing expertise back to England, becoming the first to introduce the technology to the island. Caxton rented out premises to set up a press and a shop – he certainly saw printing as a moneymaking endeavour rather than the groundbreaking technology and key driver of social change that it was. Caxton’s target market was the nobility and the wealthy – and those who aspired to reach that level. He received financial assistance from many patrons, including Margaret of York, Edward IV’s sister. The church and the royals commissioned many works from Caxton, ensuring his financial success.


Caxton printed over 100 works including, most famously, the first print of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He died in 1492.


Caxton’s legacy

Caxton loved the English language, and the vast majority of his work was printed in that tongue – rather than in German, Latin or French. He is credited with standardising some elements of the English language (namely the regional dialects), during a period where the language was changing rapidly. He aimed for his translations to occupy the middle ground between the language of the nobility and the ‘rude’ language used by commoners. His canny eye for a profit is a lesson that all print companies can learn from – above all, know your target market and what they want.

Today, the print industry is very different. Print management companies have emerged to help you secure the best deals on print and achieve savings on your current print bill. If you’d like to learn more, speak to the PMG team or book a free print inspection.

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