The importance of Caxton’s Printing Press cannot be minimized or underestimated. In 1476 Caxton set up his printing press in England.
He had learned of this German invention during his stay in France and Low countries. Caxton’s services to English prose cannot be praised too highly. English prose was yet unformed, without any fine vocabulary or style. But prose was the medium Caxton chose for his translations which he printed and published.
He was a conscientious translator, he scrupulously avoided what was rustic, vulgar or obsolete, and tried to be as intelligible as possible. He was thoroughly impregnated with the French literary ideal and it is this ideal which colours his translations. He imparted to English prose the ease and clarity of French. He no doubt, translated John Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate in poetry, but he also translated the metrical romances into prose.
He helped the spread of education, by making cheap books available, and ensured a longer survival for the romances, which otherwise would have fallen into neglect and lost to the people. In the more or less abridged form, the romances passed from hand to hand and were made accessible to all sections of society. By means of Caxton’s prose compilations, “The Middle Ages were kept from dying altogether and sank, instead, to deeper and deeper strata of consciousness” (Legouis).
Thus Caxton’s role was two-fold: on the one hand, he helped the spread of knowledge and thus favoured the great literary revolution (Renaissance) which was at hand; but the first effect of the books he printed was to prolong and to fortify the Middle Ages.
SIGNIFICANCE OF PASTON LETTERS
The Pastons were a well-to-do family of Norfolk and their letters which have been preserved, cover three generations and give much intimate information about English life from 1422 to 1509. They constitute a valuable social chronicle of the fifteenth century.
Every type of topic is dealt with intimately and without reserve. They tell us of the barbarism of the time, that it was a time when boys were severely lashed at school and even at colleges and when girls, who refused to marry husbands their parents chose for them, were mercilessly beaten till they obeyed. Child marriages were the order of the day and love had nothing to do with marriage which were often a means of advancing the family fortunes.
However, these letters also reveal that gradually things were changing and love-marriages were becoming more frequent towards the close of the century. The position of women may be low before marriage, but after marriage as matrons, they exercised considerable influence. The management of the household, often large and growing depended largely upon them, for many of the necessities of life were not easily available and had to be ordered from abroad.
The Letters also tell us of a wealthy middle class fast rising in social influence and prestige. This class was engrossed in money matters and endless lawsuits and quarrels with neighbors. The letters are entirely utilitarian, there is nothing literary about them. But the aim of the writers is to be understood, to convey their views as clearly as possible and this in itself is a great advantage.
Moreover, they reveal the gradual change that was coming over the English language and grammar. The Letters written towards the close of the century are more polished and modern than those written in the beginning of the century. The great value of the Letters is that they were not intended for publication, hence, they are true and reliable social chronicles.
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