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“CURIOUSLY,” LYDIA ZELDENRUST WRITES in BBC History, March 2023, the first book printed in English “was not the Bible, nor was it a text by a famous English author like Geoffrey Chaucer. It was, in fact, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation of a French medieval romance.”

What’s more, it wasn’t printed in England, but across the channel in Burgundy. The following tidbits are gleaned from Zeldenrust’s fascinating article, together with consulting Christopher Hamel’s Meeting With Remarkable Manuscripts.

William Caxton, publisher of the first book printed in the English language. This and the following images from BBC History, March 2023.

William Caxton, Merchant Adventurer. Born in the Weald of Kent, likely in the early 1420s, Caxton spent much of his life in the Low Countries across the channel. Zeldenrust notes, “Caxton was a successful businessman, even becoming governor of the Merchant Adventurers and taking on diplomatic roles for Edward IV…. In 1471–72, Caxton went on a fateful trip to Cologne. After years in a busy job, he suddenly had ‘good leyzer’ (good leisure time) and ‘none other thynge to doo,’ so he kept himself busy translating a French book.” 

Cologne, Printing Center.  Cologne, Zeldenrust observes, “was one of the earliest adopters of the printing press—and Caxton was perfectly placed to begin learning about the mechanics and commercial aspects of printing.” It was only around 20 years before that German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg had introduced to Europe the concept of printing with moveable type (originally a Chinese invention). 

The Burgundians, Nutso About Hercules. The Recueil des Histores de Troye, Zeldenrust notes, “was less about the Trojan War than the supposed earlier destructions of Troy by Hercules.

“This was a story,” Zeldenrust continues, “that allowed the dukes of Burgundy to trace their familial line back to the heroes of ancient Greece. Hercules, they claimed, had married a Burgundian woman, and they had a son—the duke’s ancestor.” 

Well, really now….

Caxton’s Translation. Zeldenrust says, “Caxton was shrewd in choosing this book to translate and later set to print. Not only was the story all the rage at the Burgundian court…. Caxton probably judged correctly that this book would be popular with an English audience. We know, for instance, that Edward IV later commissioned a lavish manuscript version of the same romance.”

Caxton presents a book to Edward IV of England.

“Although the Recuyell does not list the location of printing,” Zeldenrust writes, “Caxton traveled between Bruges and Ghent in this period…. Sometime in 1473-74, printing of the Recuyell  was completed.” This was the first book printed in the English language, (albeit Middle English of the Chaucer variety). 

Soon, Printed in England. Zeldenrust admits, “We don’t know how many copies of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye Caxton produced (18 copies of the book survive today, which is a relatively high number). However, we can assume that it was a success because Caxton would spend much of the rest of his life translating and printing books in English.”

In 1476–1477, Caxton’s new press in Westminster produced the first book printed in English in England: a version of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Caxton shows off his new press in Westminster to Edward IV; a 19th-century painting.

Caxton’s Choice of Dialect. “Medieval English,” Zeldenrust recounts, “was by no means fixed. Instead, it consisted of a collection of often wildly varying regional dialects…. Eventually, the London printer settled on—surprise!—a London dialect, aimed at ‘a clerk and a noble gentleman.’ This dialect had influences from Latin and French, which were seen as more prestigious.”

This East Midlands dialect proved to be the most influential in the transition of Middle to Modern English. And, along with Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton played an important role in this. Thanks, Lydia Zeldenrust, for reminding us. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023


  1. John Mcnulty
    April 3, 2023

    Well, what a surprise. I taught letterpress until 1985. Everything I told them about the bible was wrong?

    • simanaitissays
      April 3, 2023

      Apparently, “It ain’t necessarily so…. The things you read (about) in the Bible….”.

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