Robert L. Kindrick

title.none: Blake, William Caxton (Kindrick)

identifier.other: baj9928.9706.008 97.06.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert L. Kindrick, University of Montana,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Blake, N. F. (Norman Francis). William Caxton. Aldershot, Hants: Variorum, 1996. Pp. v, 256. $17.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-860-78418-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.06.08

Blake, N. F. (Norman Francis). William Caxton. Aldershot, Hants: Variorum, 1996. Pp. v, 256. $17.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-860-78418-5.

Reviewed by:

Robert L. Kindrick
University of Montana

Authors of the Middle Ages, edited by M.C. Seymour, is a series intended to provide brief biographical and historical overviews of late medieval authors with selected bibliographies of their works and modern critical studies. The series likely will appear in two formats: paperback volumes similar to the Longman's English Authors series and multi-author hardback anthologies for libraries and scholars. The pagination in the two formats is unfortunately not uniform. Since the volumes seem intended more as introductory teaching or learning tools, the pagination of the single-author volume will be used here.

N.F. Blake's study of William Caxton is one of the lengthier volumes in the series, with critical and historical material running to about forty pages, a nine-page appendix on selected historical documents, and an eleven-page bibliography. However, even with this amount of print, Blake cannot provide insights into all the nuances and controversies which have encircled the printer. Nor should he try. Instead, he has attempted to provide an introductory study which could be helpful to undergraduate students, beginning graduate students, and the "general reader." For such audiences he possibly devotes too much time to Caxton's biography and too little to his works, their impact, and some of the controversies that have engaged modern students of Caxton's printing and editing techniques as well as his translations and original work. While Blake's insights are very useful and his speculation is valuable to the scholar, one wonders whether an introductory reader needs to know that "there are problems associated with this putative identification [of Caxton's birthplace]. Little Wratting is in Suffolk with which our William Caxton has no known connection and the William Caxton of Little Wratting is described as a saddler" (p. 3). There is similar detail in Blake's description of Caxton's press and living quarters. He notes, for instance, "the sacrist's Roles indicated that Caxton rented una shopa (a shop) outside the Chapter House by the present Poet's Corner entrance to the Abbey in the south transept from the last quarter of 1476. Its rent was 10 shillings a year and its size was probably insufficient for Caxton's business and living quarters" (p. 25). In this discussion, Blake goes on to record the entire list of premises Caxton rented in Westminster Abbey:1. A shop (near the Chapter House) 1476-14922. One tenement in the Almonry [1476?]-1485 A higher rent indicating that it was replaced by a larger one 1485-14913. A second tenement in the Almonry [1476?]-14914. A loft room over Almonry gate 1482-1489 A tenement replacing the loft room 1489-14915. A shop for a week during Parliament 1488-1489 (p. 26).

On the one hand, Blake is to be commended for his meticulous attention to such details. However, useful as these biographical materials are, the volume would have been more useful to his audience had Blake gone into more detail about Caxton's use of his copytexts or his association with his patrons, notably the royal families. Blake treats all too briefly matters on which he himself is a confirmed authority. For instance, he touches on but does not develop the matter of Caxton's publishing policy, throwing out tantalizing tidbits such as:The suggestions outlined here, to establish a monopoly by publishing books in English, to translate fashionable from approved languages, and to make the translations himself while seeking patronage from members of the aristocracy, all suggest that he had devised a publishing policy for his new venture before he embarked on it (p. 16).

We know from Blake's other works that he has a great deal more to say about this subject, but he has not allowed himself the space for such fuller discussion. It is also unfortunate that his remarks with regard to Caxton's copytexts are so brief. His comment that Lorenzo Traversagni, who wrote Nova Rhetorica, "was responsible for the edition" of his book is not uniformly accepted, and Blake could have helped the novice by entering further into the arguments about the nature of the copytexts in order to provide insights into both Caxton's practices and his relationship with possible patrons or writers. Perhaps because of Blake's emphasis on biographical detail in this introductory text, the volume almost seems to shift the goals of the series. While it is quite useful to those who may wish to argue some of the finer points of biographical criticism, it may give the novice to Caxton studies an unbalanced notion of what is important in the field. All this constitutes a quibble with the organization and emphasis of the volume, but there are some quibbles on matters of substance as well.

Blake has a distinguished record in Caxton's studies and was an eminent choice to do this introductory volume. He is never afraid to own up to our lack of information. When referring to the end of Caxton's apprenticeship to Robert Large, he candidly states "we do not know when this happened" (p.6). Blake also generally weighs the evidence on Caxton's literary taste with a thoughtful balance, but he occasionally founders on matters of general historical and cultural aspects of the fifteenth century, as well as specific issues involving "the besieged printer." With regard to the former kind of problem a few examples should suffice. In discussing Caxton's comment in the History of Troy that he had "contynued by the space of xxx year for the most parte in the contres of Braband, Flandres, Holand and Zeland," Blake correctly attacks those who dogmatically assert that Caxton is avowing he left "England in the 1440's and spent the next thirty years in the low countries" (p. 6). As Blake notes, Caxton himself qualifies this period of his life by noting that he was abroad "for the most parte," not exclusively. However, Blake goes further to contend that the period was not necessarily thirty years: "'Thirty' is a round number meaning 'a great many' and should not be understood literally" (p. 6). It is certainly true that such hyperbole existed in the Middle Ages (Henryson, for instance, uses "five shillings" commonly as a hyperbolic number standing for any large amount of money). Yet in Caxton's case there is no evidence that he was using or was prone to such hyperbole, and there is evidence that for thirty years he spent his life "for the most parte" in the low countries. It seems, indeed, as if the printer is saying exactly what he meant. Concerns about Blake's more specific comments about Caxton are not so easily dealt with. As he has in some previous works, Blake seems curiously to impugn Caxton's honesty with regard to matters beyond the "xxx years" he spent abroad. For instance in discussing the two-year gap in finishing the History of Troy, Caxton refers to the "troublous world," long considered a reference to the exile of Edward IV. Blake contends that Caxton's explanation of the gap is "little more than a publisher's blurb to win over his customers" (p. 15). Given Blake's own assertion in this work and elsewhere about Caxton's reliance on patrons (at the very least to help him reach the audience for sales), the dismissal of Caxton's reason seems too cavalier. His relationship with the Woodvilles was so close that it is easy to understand why Edward's exile might disrupt Caxton's work.

In similar fashion, his description of the historical context for another portion of the History of Troy seems somewhat questionable. Blake notes Caxton's assertion that the book was produced "at the comaundement" of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. Some scholars will be displeased that he dismisses an area of significant controversy with the comment that "some have seen a closer relationship between Caxton and Margaret" (p. 14) and suggests that she was merely the patron or dedicatee for the volume. In a study of this length, Blake likely had no choice. Blake then deals with a key passage about the relationship:'Whos dredefull comandement Y dursle in no wyse disobey because Y am a servant unto her sayde grace and resseive of her yerly fee and other many goode and grete benefetes and also hope many moo to resseyve of her Hyenes' (COP 98) (p. 14).In discussing this passage to establish a more distinct relationship, Blake notes "Caxton describes himself in his preface as a mercer, not as a person in Margaret's service and the word 'servant' need be nothing more than a polite form of deference, in the same way as people signed letters 'Your obedient servant'" (p. 14). This seems to overstate the case somewhat, for being "in the service" of a royal patron was taken more seriously in the fifteenth century than this offhand form of closing letters was in the eighteenth. Moreover, considering that the printer was entering a new venture, it would seem likely that he would have sought patronage and a close connection with the person who would have her name attached to his first volume. In addition, perhaps a matter of consternation is Blake's reference to "the taste of aristocratic people like the Woodvilles" (p. 37). The Woodvilles were hardly considered aristocratic by most nobility. In fact, it was generally rumored during the time that Edward IV had taken a low-born wife without proper consultation with his nobles. While it is true that the Woodville family moved into such circles during the time of Edward's reign, they could hardly be taken as a standard of upper-class taste. These types of problems hardly constitute a major flaw in Blake's work, but they are of sufficient concern to take note.

One of the most difficult aspects of Blake's approach to Caxton involves the precise nature of Caxton's role at his press. At one point Blake contends ". . . it would not be correct to think of him as a printer, though he presumably learned the basics of the trade. He was rather a publisher, editor and translator who acquired his own press because that was the best way to get uninterrupted access to printing" (p. 17). However, he subsequently softens this to: "nor should we think of him simply [emphasis mine] as a printer, though as the owner of a printing press he deserves that title" (p. 20). Yet later, Blake notes:When Caxton set up his establishment at Westminster, a flood of printing material issued from his press and so he is thought of as a printer or more specifically the first English printer. But he was far more than that . . . (p. 27).

Most Caxton scholars would have no trouble with the last of these statements. Caxton was indeed far more than just a printer, and his contribution as a publisher, editor, and translator is a significant landmark in the fifteenth century. However, the nature of each statement is slightly different from the others, and the division between the first and last statements is remarkable. Blake has encountered this definitional problem with regard to Caxton in previous studies. William Matthews, in fact, asserted in response to some of Blake's previous work that Blake was hardly justified in thinking of Caxton "as though he were the managing director of Simon and Schuster" (William Matthews on Caxton and Malory. Arthuriana, 7. [1997], 39). Yet the major problem here is the equivocation within Blake's criticism itself. Whether Caxton did all or any of the actual typesetting or other physical labor at his press (and we suspect he did), he clearly regarded himself as a printer and was regarded so by others. In shifting his viewpoint, Blake calls our attention to a major semantic problem as well as a problem in the description of Caxton's role. However, because of his inconsistent assertions about Caxton's profession, he obfuscates the issue instead of pointing us in a direction.

However, some of the most pointed differences between Blake and other Caxton scholars relate directly to the printer's artistry as a scholar, historian, and editor. One rather lengthy example may suffice, and that example relates to Caxton's role in modifying Book V in Malory's Le Morte D'arthur. In Caxton and His World (1969), Blake asserted without hesitation that Caxton was the reviser and manipulator of Malory's book. He held to this view, espoused earlier by Eugene Vinaver, despite the evidence that Caxton always attempts to tell us in a prologue or epilogue what he had done to a text. In the case of Book V in Le Morte D'arthur, there is no such editorial statement of omission or revision. Later, in the preface to essays reprinted in William Caxton and English Literary Culture (London, 1991), Blake seemed to have softened some of his views and seemed willing to grant the printer more integrity than he had previously. However, in this volume, Blake returns to some of his earlier points of view.

Blake well recognizes the importance of Caxton's role as an editor or manipulator of his texts for the printer's role in English literature. He takes note of certain philosophical roots behind Caxton's work:He shared the common view that English was only just emerging as a proper literary language and needed to be improved and strengthened by borrowing words from other languages, particularly French and Latin (p. 30).It will be hard for some critics to accept that Caxton was this self-aware about the process in which he was engaging. Nonetheless, there certainly appears to be an intuitive grasp of this issue in Caxton's thought. Blake goes on to contradict further his earlier statement about Caxton's role when he notes:As an editor he did not simply get a copy of a text and pass it on to the compositor to set it up into print. With many books he would edit them to prepare them for the printed form (p. 30).Most Caxton scholars would agree with this assertion, and it is, of course, precisely why Caxton merits the title "printer," in the fifteenth-century sense. Blake then turns directly to the manuscript of Malory's Le Morte D'arthur, which he compares with the manuscript now in the British Museum (MS additional 59678). On the one hand, with regard to the Malory manuscript, he asserts "it was not the copytext for his [Caxton's] edition" (p. 30). Yet he also goes on to assert Caxton "also revised what was to be his Book V" (p. 31). The initial argument that Caxton revised Book V was generated by Vinaver when making a comparison between Caxton and the Malory manuscript. Vinaver made the assumption that Caxton worked from the manuscript or something very similar and revised it accordingly. William Matthews and others countered this argument, most notably in the recent publication of Matthews' posthumous work, (William Matthews on Caxton and Malory, edited by Robert L. Kindrick with the assistance of Michele R. Crepeau (Arthuriana, 7. [1997]: 31-133). Once it is granted that the Malory manuscript is not the work from which Caxton set his edition, there is no reason to assume that he was the reviser of Book V. Blake compounds the problem by asserting that:This part of the narrative was not based on the French original like the rest, but was a prose version of the Middle English alliterative poem Morte Arthure. As a result Malory's text contains many words and phrases which were part of the alliterative vocabulary. Caxton did not think these were suitable so he changed many of them and reordered some parts of the narrative at the same time (p. 31).

In point of fact the revisions are not that simple. Matthews demonstrates that the reviser of Book V knew not only the Morte Arthure which Malory clearly used but also the French Prose Merlin and Hardyng's Chronicle. He further demonstrates that the reviser not only deleted certain portions of the text found in the Malory manuscript but added others from the same sources. He argues logically that Caxton, as a busy man of affairs editing a number of volumes a year for his press would hardly have had time to go back and reconstruct Malory's sources to make the modifications that were made between the version of the Malory manuscript and the version that Caxton published. For those who accept Matthews' arguments, the possibility that Caxton was the reviser becomes more and more remote. However, if one does not believe that the Malory manuscript was the base text, which Matthews also asserts, there is hardly a reason to believe that Malory himself could not have revised the material in yet another manuscript now lost to us. The only other alternative is a tertium quid, and that notion too seems unlikely. Moreover, the whole situation is made more puzzling by its reflection on Caxton's integrity as an editor. Blake notes on page 35 how careful Caxton is in his comments on Trevisa's Polychronicon. Indeed, that work is a touchstone for evaluating Caxton's integrity in revealing editorial revisions. The fact that he would make no mention of revising Book V in the Morte D'arthur might itself be considered argument enough against the case that he did so. Added to Blake's admission that the Malory manuscript was not Caxton's copytext, Blake's argument here becomes more puzzling.

If this review has seemed sharp in pointing out some of the shortcomings of the volume, it is perhaps only because Blake himself usually meets such a high standard. It is important in this review for some summary comments of the type that marked the beginning. Despite the problem with the proportion of detail dedicated to Caxton's biography and the substantive concerns with regard to Blake's evaluation of Caxton, the volume is still quite useful. Blake at least touches on all of the important issues with regard to Caxton studies, whether one agrees with his opinion or not. As noted above, it is only unfortunate that he is unable to give some of the major issues additional space. The appendix on sources for Caxton's life is particularly useful for the novice and scholar alike. The annotated bibliography of Caxton's works may cause some minor controversy among Caxton scholars, but it is still a useful introduction. The bibliography of secondary sources is necessarily brief but shows some surprising omissions--for instance, Robert H. Wilson's bibliography published in the revised Manual of Writings in Middle English. Given the nature of Blake's bibliography, as a finding list, it would seem prudent to cite other and more complete bibliographical sources. Perhaps the major difficulty that a reader will find with this volume is the question of its audience. In part it is too detailed in certain sections and lacks sufficient information in others (such as the bibliography) to meet the needs completely of the novice or general reader. On the other hand, some of Blake's detailed discussion and controversial points of view are useful to the advanced student of Caxton. Yet for the latter reader, the work must be annotated by Blake's previous body of work on the printer. Even with these problems, it is an important piece of work. Blake on Caxton always demands our attention.