Tag Archives: Chaucer

The first one gets to choose


It was the combination of the Humanist movement/turning away from Latin for literature and the invention of moveable type & the mechanized screw-pressure printing press that made these books available to regular shmoes. Faster production = more books = books are less expensive. Gutenberg’s Bible was less expensive but it didn’t make him rich because so few people could read and also understand Latin—but people sure would learn to read when books were printed in their own language.

Those first vernacular writers set the tone for their languages’ usage. Chaucer, Mallory, Dante and Luther had huge influence in shaping modern English, Italian and German simply because they were the first to write in those languages. They made choices about spelling and grammar and syntax (how words are used in a sentence) that became standard. Written language is more or less permanent and it gets scrutinized way more than spoken language. In spoken language we let small mistakes pass without bothering too much about it. Make a grammatical mistake on a printed page? That’s a problem. Even on social media—which sets a low bar for spelling & grammar—you notice when a writer doesn’t understand how his language works.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/syntax

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The printing press comes to England


Poor old Tom Malory died in prison in March 1471, but his book was on its way to fame and fortune. William Caxton was a textile merchant who became interested in printing presses and decided to get one of his own. In 1471 Caxton was the first to print a book in the English language: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (A Collection of the Histories of Troy—kind of a spinoff of Homer’s Iliad where one of the supporting characters gets his own series). Caxton had a good sense of what would sell as well as what is great literature. He’d set up his first printing operation in Brussels, but—

“In 1476 Caxton returned to London and established a press at Westminster, the first printing press in England. Amongst the books he printed were Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, Gower’s ‘Confession Amantis’ and Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing. He was also the translator of many of the books he published, using his knowledge of French, Latin and Dutch. He died in 1492.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml

Le Morte d’Arthur was printed in 1485. I link below to a site that shows all the pages of the first edition. You can see the typeface was trying to mimic hand-written calligraphy. It wouldn’t take long for printers to realize they could design typefaces that were meant to be printed.

https://www.bl.uk/people/william-caxton
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml
This is just fantastic. You can see the original pages here: http://www.maloryproject.com/caxton_viewer.php

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.