caxtons

Written English had a rocky start (1490)

After a mention of translating old English on another site, I had to go track down William Caxton’s preface from one of his books explaining how difficult it was to pick WHICH English to print.

From the British Library

In the preface to the Eneydos he told a story of some merchants going down the Thames. There was no wind so they landed on the Kent side of the river to buy food. ‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’ [And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted ‘eyren’. Then the good woman said that she understood him well].

As a translator of books which were to be printed Caxton had to ensure that the language which he used was acceptable to quite a wide group of potential readers and buyers. ‘Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause of dyuersite and chaunge of langage’ [Now, what should one write nowadays, eggs or eyren? It is certain that it is difficult to please everybody because of the diversity and the change of our language]. As far as the social position of his language was concerned Caxton’s solution was to strike what he perceived as a balance but he aimed his language not at rude men but at ‘a clerke and a noble gentylman’: ‘Therfor in a meane bytwene bothe I haue reduced and translated this sayd booke in to our englysshe not ouer rude ne curyous but in such termes as shall be vnderstanden by goddys grace’ [therefore, as a compromise, I have translated this book into an English which is neither too coarse nor too refined, but using phrases which are understandable, God willing].

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medievalists.net
Did Medieval People Believe in King Arthur? - Medievalists.net
By Danièle Cybulskie If you’ve ever had your doubts that King Arthur was a real, living, breathing human being at some point, you’re not alone. Despite the many, many histories that “prove” that Arthur was definitely this or that – tenacious Briton, Roman military man, leader of hunky Sarmatians – the evidence is pretty thin. …

Medieval doubts that King Arthur was a historical person and the texts used to support either position were notably similar to those in more recent times  Excerpt:

Caxton replies to Edward IV “that dyvers men holde oppynyon that there was no suche Arthur, and that alle suche books as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables” (p.815). But why would these diverse people doubt that there was a King Arthur? For one of the many reasons that people doubt him today: “bycause that somme cronycles make of hym no mencyon ne remember hym noothynge, ne of his knyghtes” (pp.815-816). That is, many people were aware enough of their own chronicle history to know that Arthur is conspicuously missing at times from these texts. In fact, according to Caxton, Arthur seems to be relatively unpopular in general at this moment in English history, as he says, “it is a mervayl why [Arthur] is nomore renomed in his owne contreye, sauf onelye it acoordeth to the word of God, whyche sayth that no man is accept for a prophete in his owne contreye” (p.816). Caxton cagily phrases his argument so that he’s distant from the men who think the Arthurian tales are feigned – a safer position especially since a member of the court he’s addressing thinks doubting Arthur is “grete folye and blyndenesse” (p.816) – and yet his declaration that Arthur cannot be found in some chronicles is a firm one. If we believe that these diverse men are actually diverse men (and not Caxton using the old red herring “a friend of mine”), it suggests a reading public who is not only interested in English history, but interested in accurate history that doesn’t include fictional kings.