Discover the First Illustrated Book Printed in English, William Caxton’s Mirror of the World (1481)

The print­ing his­to­ry of ear­ly Eng­lish books may not seem like the most fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject in the world, but if you men­tion the name William Cax­ton to a book his­to­ri­an, you may get a fas­ci­nat­ing lec­ture nonethe­less. Cax­ton, the mer­chant and diplo­mat who intro­duced the print­ing press to Eng­land in 1476, was an unusu­al­ly enter­pris­ing fig­ure. He first learned the trade in Cologne and was pres­sured to begin print­ing in Eng­lish after the suc­cess of his trans­la­tion of the Recuyell of the His­to­ryes of Troye, a series of sto­ries based on Homer’s Ili­ad. His first known print­ed book was Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales, and he went on to print trans­la­tions of clas­si­cal and medieval texts from the French.

Caxton’s (often inac­cu­rate) trans­la­tions became so pop­u­lar that, like Chaucer, he intro­duced new stan­dards into the lan­guage as a whole with his use of court Chancery Eng­lish. The books print­ed at the time also give us a fas­ci­nat­ing look at how the print­ed book evolved slow­ly as a new source of sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion and a means of lit­er­ary inno­va­tion.

The so-called Guten­berg Rev­o­lu­tion did not ush­er in a rad­i­cal break with the late medieval past so much as a grad­ual evo­lu­tion away from its adher­ence to clas­si­cal and church author­i­ties and chival­ric romance sto­ries. It would take ear­ly mod­ern writ­ers like Shake­speare, Cer­vantes, and Fran­cis Bacon to tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ize the pos­si­bil­i­ties of print.

The first illus­trat­ed book Cax­ton print­ed in Eng­lish offers an excel­lent exam­ple of ear­ly print­ing history’s reliance on repro­duc­ing extant medieval ideas rather than dis­sem­i­nat­ing new ones. The Mir­ror of the World, first writ­ten in French as L’image du monde, was an ency­clo­pe­dia based on a 12th cen­tu­ry text by Hon­o­rius Augus­to­dunen­sis called Ima­go mun­di. “Ency­clo­pe­dic texts were pop­u­lar through­out the Mid­dle Ages,” Glas­gow Uni­ver­si­ty Library notes. “Dur­ing this peri­od it was com­mon­ly believed that it was pos­si­ble to cre­ate one vol­ume digests of all knowl­edge,” draw­ing sole­ly on clas­si­cal and Bib­li­cal author­i­ties. In the intro­duc­tion to Caxton’s text, we are told that the book “treateth of the world & of the won­der­ful dyui­sion [divi­sion] there­of.”

We are quite a long way yet from the Roy­al Society’s mot­to Nul­lius in ver­ba, or “take no one’s word for it.” But Caxton’s press made sev­er­al medieval man­u­script prose works avail­able for the first time to a new read­er­ship. “Evi­dence of ear­ly own­er­ship of copies of his edi­tions,” writes the British Library, “sug­gests the social breadth of that audi­ence, includ­ing roy­al­ty, nobil­i­ty, gen­try, the mer­can­tile class­es and reli­gious hous­es.” Cax­ton was “not con­tent to sim­ply draw on  pre-exist­ing mar­kets for man­u­scripts.” And he would even­tu­al­ly use print “to cre­ate new mar­kets for nov­el and dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing,” such as the 1485 pub­li­ca­tion of Thomas Malory’s con­tem­po­rary Arthuri­an romance, Le Morte D’arthur.

Rep­re­sent­ing the con­fi­dent but cramped world­view of the medieval sci­ences, the Mir­ror of the World is “ambi­tious,” Alli­son Meier writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic, dis­pelling any notion of a flat Earth, with descrip­tions of “large ideas like the round­ness of the Earth and why we expe­ri­ence day and night… Along with some his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion, there are descrip­tions of the Earth, the solar sys­tem, and eclipses. The round shape of the Earth is illus­trat­ed by two men who stand back-to-back, walk­ing away from each oth­er and meet­ing again in a cir­cle. Anoth­er describes the same idea with a rock tossed through a hole sliced in the world, with it tum­bling out the oth­er side.”

Mike Mill­ward of the Black­burn Muse­um describes the images fur­ther:

The illus­tra­tions are wood­cut prints which could be print­ed as part of the text. Cax­ton’s prints were prob­a­bly pro­duced in Eng­land and are rather prim­i­tive. Many are mere­ly illus­tra­tive… Oth­ers are essen­tial to an under­stand­ing of the text, such those illus­trat­ing the round­ness of the Earth and the effect of grav­i­ty, both show­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly mod­ern under­stand­ing

These illus­tra­tions, notes John T. McQuil­lan, assis­tant cura­tor of print­ed books at the Pier­pont Mor­gan library, were remark­ably pre­served from the orig­i­nal French text of two cen­turies ear­li­er. “Print only car­ried on exist­ing man­u­script and tex­tu­al tra­di­tions,” he notes, “and did not rad­i­cal­ly alter them, at first. Any­one who want­ed to buy this text would have expect­ed it to have these spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tions, and Cax­ton pro­vid­ed that to them.” Pier­pont Mor­gan him­self, who owned sev­er­al of Caxton’s ear­ly print­ed books, “val­ued Cax­ton even over Guten­berg,” Meier writes, and “had the print­er paint­ed on the ceil­ing of his library’s East Room.”

Anoth­er rare books library, Princeton’s Schei­de, which holds per­haps the finest col­lec­tion of ear­ly Euro­pean and Amer­i­can print­ing in the world, fea­tures a scanned full-text edi­tion of Mir­ror of the World, the first illus­trat­ed book print­ed in Eng­land and a work that sits square­ly on the thresh­old between the medieval and the mod­ern, and that chal­lenges our ideas about both des­ig­na­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

One of World’s Old­est Books Print­ed in Mul­ti-Col­or Now Opened & Dig­i­tized for the First Time

See the Old­est Print­ed Adver­tise­ment in Eng­lish: An Ad for a Book from 1476

The Old­est Book Print­ed with Mov­able Type is Not The Guten­berg Bible: Jikji, a Col­lec­tion of Kore­an Bud­dhist Teach­ings, Pre­dat­ed It By 78 Years and It’s Now Dig­i­tized Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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