Apprenticed to a London silk merchant, Caxton went to Bruges in the 1440’s, where he engaged in wool trading. After he saw an early printing press in Cologne decades later, he established his own press in Bruges. His book translation The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy (1475) was the first book printed in the English language. After returning to England, Caxton founded a press in Westminster in 1476. Over the next fifteen years, he printed nearly one hundred works, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1478), his own translation of the German classic Reineke Fuchs as Reynart the Fox (1481), and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485). Literacy increased as English books replaced the Latin of the medieval manuscripts. Caxton published the first English illustrated book, and his publication of Malory popularized the romances of King Arthur and Camelot.
Early in Caxton’s career as a printer there was an appreciation of the potential power of the press. In 1476, the English government prohibited printing anything without royal permission. Prelicensing continued into the seventeenth century, eliciting John Milton’s essay Areopagitica (1644). Caxton himself was aware of the press’s power. He divided Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into chapters, tightened its language, and set a model for English vocabulary and pronunciation. Standard English became that of Caxton’s London and southeast England, flavored with French that he acquired on the Continent.