3 June 2014

The First Book

William Caxton (Elliot Stock Facsimile edition 1877)

This is quite a mysterious thing when first pulled from the bookshelf. It is large format, quite heavy and with a sombre brown binding that has no wording on it, not even a title on the spine. But the elegant, slightly ecclesiastical pattern that is embossed into the front and back boards seems to be a clear signal that something special lies within.

First thing on a random opening is a dense block of blackletter type that looks like the meticulous work of a calligrapher. The smooth variations in the thickness of the lines that make up each individual letter seem to come from the skilful manipulation of an inky nib - capitals S, B and A are particularly fancy in this respect. The outsize capital P that starts the page is the height of three lines of body text and is what typographers would call a drop cap. It has the colour of that red oxide stuff that is used to treat rust on cars, as do a number of marks shaped like a backward D or P that crop up within the text and are presumably paragraph markers.

For a few seconds, the text is more or less illegible, but I can gradually get the hang of it - that drop cap P, for example, is for 'Pythagoras'. The legibility is further hampered by the eccentric 15th century spellings and sentence structure. Still, with a bit of squinting, I find out that Pythagoras said that 'the saule is perpetuel' and that he 'moderated so his mate and his drinke that he was at noo tyme fatter nor leener than other'.

Front bits. This book is withdrawn library stock and pasted inside the front board is a very neat official label from Lancaster Public Library's Reference Department. On this is the coat of arms of the old borough of Lancaster with its motto 'Luck to Loyne' and a note in ink of the book's Dewey classification. Perhaps the staff of Lancaster's reference library were tidy by nature or perhaps they had a particular respect for this item, but, in contrast to the administrative graffiti that disfigures so many ex-library books, the only other marks from them are two very discreet ink stamps.

Leafthrough. The overriding impressions on leafing through this book are of neatness and care. The publishers have taken a lot of trouble to get this just right. The pages are of a high-quality, but quite fibrous, laid paper showing the characteristic grid pattern that comes from the way it is manufactured. This in turn is perfect for Caxton's typeface which seeps comfortably into the surface of the page, stopping just short of blotching, and reinforcing the feel of the text as handwriting. On each page the text block sits in a perfectly judged amount of space so that the whole thing is as clean as a Kindle screen.

Looking into it. This book is a technological feat, layered across four centuries. It came about through a collaboration between the bibliophile and book collector William Blades and the printer and publisher Elliot Stock. In a preface, Blades tells how, in 1477, citizens were astonished at the magical output of Caxton's small wooden press which he had brought from Bruges to set up in a Westminster tenement known as the 'Red Pale'. But that surprise was as nothing, supposed Blades, to the disbelief that Caxton would have shown if he had been told that, 400 years later, 'an art which would employ sunbeams instead of types - one almost as useful and precious as his own - would one day be used to reproduce with the minutest accuracy this early work of the English press'.

The inspiration for producing a facsimile of the Dictes and Sayings by means of photolithography was the quadricentennial of its original printing. This book was widely believed to be the first book printed in England, and was certainly the first to include a colophon specifying the date and place of its production. Because of this, its 400-year anniversary was marked by a massive exhibition on the history of printing held in South Kensington. Over 4,500 items were exhibited, including rare books and ancient printing presses, and the proceedings were opened by William Gladstone who also went pottering about to shake hands and observe presses in action. 

The exhibition told a tale of how Caxton's technology, borrowed from Gutenburg, had been improved and modernised but never essentially replaced. This facsimile of the first book was not the only spin-off project from the show, which included among its exhibits the first bible ever printed with moveable metal type (by Gutenberg in 1450-55) and the latest - a pocket-sized bible printed in 12 hours in an edition of 100 on 30 June 1877, the opening day of the exhibition. This presentation edition (No.1 was given to Queen Victoria, No.2 to William Gladstone, No.10 to the Emperor of Brazil) was put together with the latest techniques and at speed. The paper had been specially made by Oxford University Press only days before, and the printed sheets dried artificially before being whisked to London on an express train and then bound by a team of 101 bookbinders. 

It was an echo of a challenge that Caxton had set himself when producing his first printed book for his patrons in Bruges. In his edition of The Recuyell and Histories of Troye of 1471, he tells how he had promised 'dyuerse gentilmen' that he would provide them with copies of the book as quickly as he could. This being brand new technology, he felt it necessary to explain that his book was 'not wreton with penne and ynk as other bokes ben', and that it was, miraculously, 'begonne in oon day & also fynyshid in oon day'.

As much as being a tribute to the history of printing, the South Kensington exhibition was also a celebration of the book as a physical object. The many Caxtons and other early blackletter books were priceless things, coveted by collectors. William Blades was himself probably the best-known collector of his day and the owner of several examples of Caxton's works. Some of these he had acquired from dealers or the dismantled libraries of country seats, but others he rescued from imminent destruction. Ten years after the exhibition, he published a chatty guide to everything he could think of that posed a threat to the book-object called The Enemies of Books. With its frontispiece engraving of a housemaid lighting a fire with leaves from a Caxton, it ran through an array of dangers that included damp, house flies, gas light and ignorance. In one anecdote, Blades tells of his visit to a church in St Martin's-le-Grand, where he discovered a copy of Caxton's edtion of The Canterbury Tales (with woodcuts) stuffed into a dirty pigeon hole and used for firing up the vestry grate.

For Caxton himself, though, the printed book as a thing seems to have been far less precious. As well as the speed of production of which he had boasted to his clients in Bruges, the new technology also had the merit of disposability. When Anthony Woodville, the 2nd Earl Rivers, who had painstakingly translated the Dictes and Sayings from a French original, gave Caxton the manuscript for printing, he had omitted a section in which Plato's Socrates gives his thoughts on women. Caxton included the piece at the end of his edition along with an apology to Earl Rivers for doing so. Caxton speculates how the section can come to have been missed by the translator - 'peradventure, the wind had blown over the leaf during the translation' - or maybe, the Earl was in love and 'some fair lady hath desired him to leave it out of his book'.

Either way, it was not a problem for Caxton with his new way of making books. If anyone were offended by the sayings of Socrates that he had included against his patron's wishes, he advised that 'they with a pen race it out, or else rend the leaf out of the book'. It's probably not something he would have wished on a book produced by a bench full of hunched monks scratching away by candlelight, but for something that could be knocked out in 'oon day' it wasn't so bad. For William Blades, on the other hand, the idea must have been sacrilege.

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