Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend.Westminster: William Caxton, 1483.  Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend.Westminster: William Caxton, 1483. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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Jacobus de Voragine. The golden legend.Westminster: William Caxton, 1483. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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The golden legend

Author: Jacobus de Voragine
Ref No: 1483 JACO
Date Created: 1483

Although chiefly remembered as the first English printer, William Caxton spent much of his life in the clothing trade. Born in Kent in the early 1420s (the exact date is uncertain), he was apprenticed in his youth to a wealthy London businessman and eventually became a prominent merchant himself. Caxton’s adulthood coincided, however, with the Wars of the Roses. An affirmed Yorkist, Caxton probably felt his position as importer and exporter was under threat when the Lancastrian Henry VI briefly assumed power in 1470. He moved to Cologne, which had become the most productive printing centre in Germany.

Compared with his European contemporaries, Caxton was not a great craftsman. His significance lies more in his promotion of English literature at a time when Latin still held sway among educated readers. He produced far more books in his own tongue (more than half his output) than did any other printer of his era.

His most ambitious project was The golden legend, an English translation of Legenda aurea sanctorum, a collection of the lives of saints written by the Dominican bishop Jacobus de Voragine (1229-98). Popular throughout Europe, Legenda aurea sanctorum was one of the most copied manuscripts in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Intended for devout laypeople rather than scholars, the manuscript versions were almost always heavily pictorial. Containing seventy woodcuts, Caxton’s edition is richly illustrated too. The printing process evidently did not go smoothly. In his prologue to the book, Caxton confesses he was at one time ‘in maner halfe desperate to have accomplished it’ and ‘was in purpose to have left it’.

In 1887 Sir George Grey gave three Caxton books to the Library: the 1482 edition of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon and the 1490 English translation of selections from Virgil’s Aeneid as well as The golden legend.

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