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Book of the Month

August 2005

The Mirror of the World

William Caxton

Westminster: 1489
Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.2.30

This popular encyclopaedia was the first illustrated book to be printed in England. Originally published by William Caxton in 1481, our August 'book of the month' is a copy of the second edition which was produced in about 1489. Caxton is extremely important not only for introducing the art of printing to England, but also for his influence on the development of English language and literature. This is one of ten books printed by Caxton now in Glasgow University Library.

folio c3v

The first edition was printed by Caxton in 1481 at the request and expense of Hugh Bryce, a mercer and alderman of the city of London. He intended to present the book to Lord Hastings, Edward IV's Lord Chamberlain.

The work was translated from a prose version of the French L'image du monde; probably written by Walter/Gossuin of Metz, this was derived chiefly from the twelfth century Imago mundi, compiled by Honorius Augustodunensis. Encyclopaedic texts were very popular throughout the Middle Ages. During this period it was commonly believed that it was possible to create one volume digests of all knowledge. Aimed at a general audience, such works were incredibly useful at a time when access to libraries was limited and book ownership itself was relatively rare. Unlike vast modern encyclopaedias, these medieval works were not arranged alphabetically for quick reference. Rather they were organised systematically, and designed to be read all the way through.

Honorius drew on a wide range of authorities in the original version of the Imago mundi, including St Augustine, Bede, and Isidore of Seville, as well as classical authors such as Ovid, Homer and Plato. The work was immediately popular; it was quickly translated and parts of it were incorporated into other works. Honorius himself revised it five times, and later writers and copyists continued to add to it for the next two hundred years. Caxton's version is just one example of the way the original text was adapted.

The book's purpose is explained in the general preface. It is a permanent record of the deeds and knowledge of ancient men - among all others, it ought to be visited, read and known as 'it treateth of the world & of the wonderful dyuision thereof'.

folio a4v
beginning of chapter one: the power and puyssance of god

folios c2v-c3r
arithmetic and geometry

This version is divided into three parts. The first section deals with the power of God and the creation of the world before moving on to the seven liberal arts; this was the standard curriculum for medieval students, consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric (the 'trivium') and geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music (the 'quadrivium'). There is considerable discussion of the place of the earth in the world, its roundness and its relation with the planets. The second part is on geography, with descriptions of India, Europe and Africa and their beasts and birds; the elements, the weather, 'the turning of the firmament' and the stars are also examined. Topics covered in the last section include how day and night happen, the eclipses of the sun, why money was made, philosophy, the sizes of the sun, moon and earth, and the number of the stars. The book ends on a suitably devout note, with a description of heaven and celestial paradise. The acquisition of any knowledge was, of course, designed to lead to a better understanding of God and, therefore, to spiritual salvation.

folio a3r

William Caxton (1422?-1491) is famous for introducing the art of printing to England. Born in Kent, in 1438, he was apprenticed to Robert Large, a leading textile merchant. After Large's death in 1441, Caxton moved to Bruges, the foremost centre for trade between the English and the Flemish, and built up a thriving textile business. Prominent as a merchant, by 1463 he was acting governor of the Merchant Adventurers in the Low Countries and was also engaged in various diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Edward IV. Caxton seems to have lost his post after Edward's exile in 1470-71. He left Flanders and moved to Cologne where he is said to have spent a year learning how to print. Johann Gutenberg had perfected the art of printing by moveable types in Mainz in Germany in around 1450 and this new technique for the mass manufacture of texts spread slowly around Europe. Printing was established in Cologne by 1465.
Caxton set up his own printing press in Bruges. Here he produced his first work in around 1474, his own translation of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. After publishing seven books in English and French, he returned to England in 1476 and opened a printing shop at Westminster at the sign of the Red Pale. Caxton died in 1491 when his assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, took over his business. In all, he was responsible for producing over 100 works over a twenty year period. 

folio l7v
colophon attributing the work to Caxton

folio l7v


folio a3r

Caxton's experience as a businessman undoubtedly helped him to make his printing enterprise a success. Many others jumped at the opportunity to make money from this new technology, but few lasted long. Skilful printing was not only difficult, but also required a substantial investment in equipment and materials; fifteenth century paper was notoriously expensive. Many popular works appeared in several different editions put out by rival printers, leading to gluts in the market and ruinously slow sales. Caxton's choice of books was based on a shrewd commercial sense - he invested in what he knew would sell.

folio a6v
Wherfore god med man lyke vnto his ymage and to his semblaunce

Thus, while books in Latin and French could be easily imported from the Continent, Caxton concentrated on works that could not be obtained elsewhere, namely those in English. Seventy four of his books were in English, and of these, he translated twenty himself. As well as feeding his press with translations, he also supplied prologues and epilogues. These offer fascinating insights into his reasoning and working methods.

Therefore, not only is Caxton incredibly important to the history of printing in the United Kingdom, but he is also a significant figure in the development of the English language. As well as bringing the cream of English medieval literature to a wide reading public - including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Malory's Morte d'Arthur - he helped to standardise the language in choosing to print and therefore widely disseminate his texts in his own London dialect, at a time when several dialects were jostling for supremacy, making intelligibility nationwide often difficult and certainly confusing.

Although Caxton often apologised for his 'rude and common English', his writing  is, in fact, rather elaborate. In the preface to the Mirror, he typically declares that this work is 'rudely translated out of frensshe in to Englissh by me symple persone William Caxton'. He tells us that he brought it into 'our maternal tonge ye second day of the moneth of Janyuer the yere of our sayde lord 1480'. Caxton is quick to point out that he is not to blame for any faults that readers may find in his translation - any mistakes instead should be attributed to his 'copie'. It is thought that the copy of the French manuscript from which he made his translation is now in the British Library (Royal MS 19 A ix). This version of L'image du monde names Jean le Clerc of Bruges as its patron, and its date of completion is given as 1464.

folio d2r
the roundness of the earth explained

folios c1v-c2r
grammar, logic and rhetoric

The 1481 edition of Caxton's Mirror is usually cited as being the first English book to be illustrated. Another contender is Caxton's Cato. This appeared at about the same time and uses two of the same cuts. It is not clear which book was printed first.

The woodcuts are somewhat primitive, and were probably made by an English craftsman. Hodnett rather scathingly disparages their quality, describing them as being 'miserably executed'  and commenting that 'England stumbles on to the book illustration stage with some of the poorest cuts ever inserted between covers'.  From 1486 Caxton had his woodblocks imported from the Continent, 'let us hope' because he was 'disgusted by such hacking' (Hodnett again).

folio h6r
day and night explained

Whatever their quality, the illustrations provide a practical function in what is, predominantly, a factual text. As Caxton says in his preface, without the figures, 'it may not lightly be understande'.

Some intervention by the reader has still been necessary, however. The lower diagram to the right shows the division of the earth in to the three parts of Asia, Europa and Africa, here completed in manuscript. It was beyond the skill of the woodcutter to provide text with the illustrations.

folio d7v
the geography of the world

folios d2v-d3r
the roundness of the earth explained

The illustrations above demonstrate the spherical world, the days of believing that the was earth was flat being long gone. Here it is explained that it would be possible for a man to go around the world 'lyke as a flye goth round aboute a round apple' and 'yf he wente alway forth ... he shold goo so ferre that he shold come agayn to the place fro whens he first departed'. Other theories that the book expounds have less credibility now, however. For example, it is said that the earth is at the centre of the Universe, while some of the geographical descriptions are frankly outlandish. In Asia, a region called 'paradis terrestre' is described: this is a pleasant place which is full of solace, and delights with no evil - no living man can get there, unfortunately, unless conducted there by God or his angels as it is 'enclosed by burning fire'. And in India there is apparently an island named Probane which has mountains of gold, precious stones and other riches - but no man can approach it for the 'dragons and for the gryffons'. 

This copy is unusual in that early ownership inscriptions reveal to whom it has belonged almost from the time it was printed. The earliest inscription is on leaf A2v; it states that the book was bought at Shrewsbury in 1510 from John Trustanes, 'scolar', by Thomas Botelar, 'vicar of moch wenlok' in Shropshire. Two seventeenth century signatures - of Anne Greasbrooke and William Barnesley- are on the title-page. It later belonged to John Ratcliffe (1707-1776), a London chandler and book collector. It was bought by William Hunter in 1776 at the sale of Ratcliffe's books for 4 17s, and bequeathed to Glasgow University along with his other collections, arriving in 1807.

folio aiiv
early ownership inscription

Other books printed by Caxton: Cordyale, or Four last thinges 24 March 1479: Hunterian Bv. 2. 21; The Chronicles of England 10 June 1480: Hunterian Bv. 2. 31; Godefroy of Boloyne, or the siege and conqueste of Jherusaslem, or Eracles 20 November 1481: Hunterian Bv. 2. 29; Polycronycon after 2 July 1482: Hunterian Bv. 2. 9; The book callid Cathon after 23 December 1483: Hunterian Bv. 2. 16; The lyf of our Lady  1484: Hunterian Bv. 2. 20; The legends named in latyn legenda aurea 1487?: Hunterian Bg. 1. 1; The bok yf Eneydos after 22 June 1490: Hunterian Bv. 2. 10 

See also the online Printing in England exhibition


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Julie Gardham August 2005