Collections of Distinction

A Caxton autograph, but which?

by jmoschella


The binding of MS f Med. 92 is attributed to a monastery in northern France, no later than 1471.

William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491) is primarily remembered as the printer of the first English book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, and for his subsequent production of at least 100 other books, pamphlets, and other pieces of printing. Caxton’s work, along with that of Richard Pynson and a small group of other early printers, helped to usher in a period of linguistic standardization through which an often disjointed patchwork of local dialects was molded into modern English.

William Caston (fl. 1452-1460) was a wool merchant of the English Staple at Calais who has been all but forgotten save for an accident of history: W.J.B. Crotch found Caston’s name within certain contemporary legal documents and mistook him for the printer. Such a mixup was understandable: the two Englishmen worked in similar fields for a time and had both lived abroad during roughly the same period in roughly the same part of the world. Even their names — “Caxton” and “Caston” — were themselves historically interchangeable.

It seems highly likely that one of these two men — the printer or the wool merchant — owned the volume of manuscripts at the BPL now cataloged as MS f Med. 92 (formerly BPL MS 1519). Three distinctive autographs, along with a raft of circumstantial, but substantially convincing evidence attests to its provenance. Still, exactly which of the two men did in fact own the volume has been the source of numerous long-running disagreements.

Before he established himself as a printer, William Caxton, born in the Weald of Kent, had made himself into a prominent member of the  Company of Mercers. As Governor of the English Merchant Adventurers at Bruges during the 1460s, he frequently acted as an agent of the House of York in negotiating trade agreements and diplomatic accords between England and the wealthy dukes of the Burgundian Netherlands. It was only during the final paroxysms of the Wars of the Roses that Caxton reinvented himself as a printer. Then, sometime shortly after producing the Recuyell, he moved his press homeward to Westminster. Thus, to study Caxton is to study early English politics and a world in the throes of transition: from Medieval to modern, from Plantagenet to Tudor, from manuscript to print.

Why, though, did Caxton abandon his apparently lucrative career as a merchant in order to undertake the far more risky business of printing? The relative lack of primary source documentation available to answer this question has left Caxton’s biographers at a loss, and scholars eager to glimpse the inner workings of his print shop have long sought, and occasionally found extant books and manuscripts used as exemplars by the typesetters he employed. However, no books or manuscripts thought to have personally belonged to Caxton have been discovered and no examples of his own handwriting are known.

"Iste liber co[n]stat Will[el]mo Caston [and in a different hand:] quy dedit Will[el]mo Son[n]yng Ano m[i]iiij[c]lxxj." (This book belongs to William Caston, who gave it to William Sonnyng in the year 1471).

“Iste liber co[n]stat Will[el]mo Caston [and in a different hand:] quy dedit Will[el]mo Son[n]yng Ano m[i]iiij[c]lxxj.” (This book belongs to William Caston, who gave it to William Sonnyng in the year 1471). From the first page of MS f Med. 92

Here, then, we return to MS f Med. 92, a composite manuscript that was produced in both England and in northern France during the final half of the 15th century. It is autographed, in three places, by “Willelmo [i.e. William] Caston.” If these autographs are indeed those of Caxton the printer, MS f Med. 92 is a totally unique historical document; aside from the only known examples of his handwriting, it would be the only known, extant volume from the personal library of a man whose literary tastes Shaped both the history of the printed book and the English language itself. It would be a collection of manuscripts owned by Caxton just before he left Bruges for Cologne, where he was first trained in the art of printing. If, however, MS f Med. 92 belonged to Caston of the English Staple, its still-considerable literary and historical import will need to be interpreted differently.


An opening of MS f Med. 92 showing leaf 143 (on the right) with one of the three autographs in the lower right corner.

The evidence suggesting that this volume once belonged to Caxton the printer is not unconvincing. The contents — treatises on international and mercantile law, as well as one piece that Caxton himself eventually printed (Lydgate‘s The Churl and the Bird) — would seem to be precisely the types of materials that an erudite English merchant living abroad on the continent might, at that time, have been reading. The presence of the three autographs, even in their variant spellings, represents the next piece of this puzzle: we know, at least, that a man with the same name as the printer owned the volume. Physical evidence provides yet another clue: based on its style of decoration, the binding has been attributed to the Abbey of St. Peter of Hasnon, in the northern French city of Arras. Established in the 8th century, the Abbey of St. Peter is just 80 miles south of Bruges, where Caxton lived and worked. Thus, we have a book that was evidently owned by a man with the same name and the same literary and commercial interests as Caxton the printer; a man who even lived in the same region where Caxton the printer once lived. Finally, because two of the autographs are dated, the whole volume can be somewhat confidently placed near Caxton the printer at a specifically meaningful period in his life. 1471, the year borne by both of the dated autographs, is exactly when Caxton was leaving Bruges for Cologne. Perhaps, then, it was during the resulting reorganization of his possessions that Caxton chose to give this book from his precious library to William Sonnyng?

The rear pastedown showing the last of the three autographs

The rear pastedown showing the last of the three autographs

However, most all these pieces of circumstantial evidence could be used to make the same case for the volume having belonged to Caston of the English Staple. One can only assume that he, too, would have been interested in international and mercantile law. And Calais, where several of the pieces in the volume were copied down, is ten or so miles closer to the Abbey of St. Peter than Bruges. Furthermore, though the printer Wynkyn de Worde, who worked under Caxton for many years, occasionally spelled his master’s name with an “s” rather than an “x,” there are no instances of Caxton himself having done so.

The most optimistic case for Caxton the printer, then, seems at best uncertain. N.F. Blake, the leading 20th-century Caxton scholar who addressed the issue remained in doubt, while other scholars were more readily convinced.

Those interested in further reading on MS f Med. 92 and the questions surrounding its origins and provenance might find the following publications to be enlightening:

  • McCusker, Honor. “A book from Caxton’s Library.” More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library 15 (1940): 275-285
  • Sotheby & Co. Catalogue of a Selected Portion of the Valuable Library and Collection of Manuscripts, the Property of Major Q.E. Gurney, D.L. London: The Firm, 1936 (lot 146, pp. 35-40)
  • Blake, N.F. Caxton and His World. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969. pp. 36-38, 222-223
  • Blake, N.F. William Caxton and English Literary Culture. London: The Hambledon Press, 1991
  • Crotch, W.J.B. The Prologues and Epilogues of William Caxton. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. xvli-xlviii
  • Painter, G. William Caxton, a Biography. New York: Putnam, 1977. p. 161


The BPL holds many books produced by the early English printers, including Richard Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, and William Caxton. Of the latter, the BPL holds the following:

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Ca. 1484

Several detached leaves from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. 1483

Duff, Edward Gordon. William Caxton. 1905 (contains an original leaf from Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales)

Bibliographic records for MS f Med. 92:

L’arbre des Batailles

The Libel of English Policy

The Churl and the Bird





Tags: , , ,