William Caxton printed Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur
On this day in 1485, Caxton was England’s first printer, and more than a printer: many of the 100 books and pamphlets he produced were his own translations, and many contained his own prefaces and epilogues, providing anything from personal details to literary criticism. Caxton also took responsibility for not only publishing what he thought was the best and most edifying British writing of the day (first editions of The Canterbury Tales and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis), but for helping to clean up and stabilize the language. He sometimes seems to throw up his hands at the ever-shifting spelling and usage in the manuscripts: “And thus bytwene playn, rude, and curious [language] I stande abasshed….” At other times, such as his preface to the history book, Polychronicon, given here in the Morte Darthur typeface he made famous.
Caxton’s concerns went beyond language and grammar. At about the same time that he printed Morte Darthur he printed The Order of Chivalry, a practical book on knight-errantry to go with Malory’s Romance. In the preface to the latter book, Caxton complains that the knights of his day are spending too much of it “sleeping and taking ease,” finding time only to “go to the bagnios [bath houses, brothels] and play dice.” Time better spent, Caxton argued, on learning how to manage a horse, in the manner of Sir Lancelot du Lac. Or if making love rather than war, in reading what Mallory had to say about the good old Round Table ways:
But nowadays men can not love seven night but they must have all their desires: that love may not endure by reason; for where they be soon accorded and hasty heat, soon it cooleth. Right so fareth love nowadays, soon hot soon cold: this is no stability. But the old love was not so; men and women could love together seven years, and no licours lusts were between them, and then was love, truth, and faithfulness: and lo, in like wise was used love in King Arthur’s days. Wherefore I liken love nowadays unto summer and winter; for like as the one is hot and the other cold, so fareth love nowadays; therefore all ye that be lovers call unto your remembrance the month of May, like as did Queen Guenever, for whom I make here a little mention, that while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end. (Morte Darthur, II, 18, chp. xxv)
That Malory himself seems to have turned from a combative but respectable life on the family estates in Warwickshire to being a “knight prisoner,” jailed repeatedly for robbery, rape, extortion and assorted violence, would not have made Caxton happy — though the prison years did give Malory time to get his Morte Darthur completed for printing. (Written by Steve King)