Wednesday, July 23, 2014

About the Sale of a Caxton Printing

A 17 July 2014 article, "First Printed Book in English Sold for Over £1m," notes that a copy of Caxton's Recuyell of the Histories of Troye was auctioned off by Sotheby's, through which it had been offered by the Duke of Northumberland in an attempt to offset costs of flood damage. The article offers a brief summary of the book's plot and history, highlighting the role of Caxton in bringing printing to English and England from the Continent and Continental languages. It also serves to indicate the continued valuation of the medieval--even at the fringes of what can be called the medieval--by contemporary popular culture; that the sale of such a thing occasions public comment, and that the sale of such a thing commands the price, both bespeak the importance of it.

Insofar as it does those things, the piece is good. The provision of historical context is always helpful in enhancing understanding, and the reiteration of the idea that what has gone before matters even now is appreciated. There is a possible problem in the article, however; the assertion in the final two paragraphs that the Recuyell that the work told on Caxton, based on his statement in the epilogue that he was wearied and fatigued, may not be entirely correct. While it is certainly the case that those who engage in long works of translation may find themselves tired at the end of the projects, it is also the case that the medievals--even at times late medievals such as Caxton--indulged in the trope of humilitas, protesting their unworth as a backhanded means of either securing patronage or self-aggrandizing. While Caxton was not necessarily in a position to need additional patronage--he was, as the article notes and I have discussed elsewhere, in several positions of power and influence--he was steeped in the culture and traditions that made the pursuit of patronage by scholars obligatory. And, as I discuss in the earlier "elsewhere," Caxton continued to deploy phrasings consistent with humilitas although not with the demonstrated qualities of his printing work. That he does write as he writes in the epilogue to the Recuyell may therefore be less an honest admission of his incapacity than a common rhetorical maneuver of his and his contemporaries' and thus situation of himself as a fully engaged member of his culture. The latter seems far more consistent with the successful public servant, businessman, and cultural touchstone that was William Caxton than the mewling whiner connoted by the former.

Even so, having the piece appear in major news media is refreshing. If nothing else, it says that the Tales after Tolkien Society continues to have work to do looking at how what is medieval continues to be presented.

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