William Caxton

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

If, in preparing a document for the Caxton Commemoration of 1976, George D. Painter had contributed a series of painstaking corrections to all earlier biographies of England’s first printer, William Caxton, his effort would have been laudable. If Painter had managed to describe every known Caxton document and edition, discussing each in relation to the people, places, and times of William Caxton, his contribution would have been considered a major achievement. That he accomplished all these goals and realized still higher purposes, investing every chapter with new conclusions and fresh ideas on the man and his work, marks his exceptional book as the standard Caxton biography for years to come.

With scrupulous care, Painter does, indeed, undertake to correct numerous errors, actual and inferential, which have found their way into previous Caxton studies. For instance, as he lays out the Bruges of Caxton the merchant and mentions the church of St. Donatian, he corrects both Blades (Donatus) and Crotch (Donatius). Where Blake is content to term the absence of issue records for 411 of 670 apprentices “an overwhelming proportion,” Painter points out that the percentage, though more than half, is “not quite two thirds.” While such corrections may be somewhat amusing in their meticulousness, the strikingly observant Painter is not waspish but charming in bringing “light and truth to all aspects of Caxton’s career.” He can be gracious—perhaps he must be gracious—even while debunking the long-entrenched lore of Caxton’s care as an editor of Chaucer. But when, among his observations, Painter adds the minutiae that Duff, in his allegation about Caxton’s Type 8, made “two of his rare typographical errors,” it is comforting to have noted two wrong fonts in Painter.

The author’s succinct investigation of the roots of the elusive Caxton-Caston-Cawston-Causton family would serve as an excellent case study for would-be genealogists. Painter knows the Domesday Book and the parish registers, medieval English place names and patronymics. Beyond these, though, he also knows English—that spelling and sound are not the same, and that both have changed over the years at different rates. He marshals all the particulars with a certain air of mystery, weaving in a village here and a family connection there to form a fascinating labyrinth of possible pedigrees. What matter that the corridors prove blind alleys? Painter invests the process itself with the compelling power of a detective story. And if his summary still fails to exit the maze, it is only Painter’s own scholarly caution—scarcely the reader’s—that stops him short of saying, finally, this was the place and this the line.

Painter is equally compelling in his sifting of the data on Caxton’s apprenticeship to the mercers, his years at Bruges as a freeman mercer, and his service as governor of the English merchants at Bruges. He dwells at length on the implications of such documents as enrollment and issue fees and the will of Robert Large, Caxton’s well-to-do-master, to establish, in the absence of early life records, delimiting dates for his subject. He shows how Easter-dating in the Flanders calendar affects the reckoning of major events in Caxton’s continental years. And, based on his studied analysis of key political, social, economic, and military affairs of those continental years, Painter suggests various cause-effect relationships to explain Caxton’s activities during the period.

Such grand tapping of a seemingly endless reservoir of dates, places, and events is sweetened greatly by a quiet, goodnatured, scholastic humor that filters through almost the entire book. When he describes the London district where...

(The entire section is 1528 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, September, 1977, p. 839.

College and Research Libraries. XXXVIII, November, 1977, p. 534.

Journalism Quarterly. LIV, Summer, 1977, p. 618.

Times Literary Supplement. July 29, 1977, p. 944.