A Fifteenth-Century Bestseller

Allan Barton on the Golden Legend

 

William Caxton was a London merchant who, in his middle age, decided to invest in new technology and diversify his business. Having lived and worked on the Continent in the 1450s and 60s, he had seen first-hand the products that were coming off the newly establishing printing presses. With an entrepreneur's eye, he saw the opportunity that this exciting new technology offered. In 1476, having returned to England, he established a printing press ‘at the sign of the Red Pale' within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. At first the press was run by inexperienced hands, and the earliest products of the Red Pale lacked flair. They improved after 1481, when Caxton had the good business sense to entrust the press to a printer of greater skill. The man he put in charge was a Dutchman called Wynkyn de Worde. De Worde had a keen artist's eye, and he greatly improved the work of the press, developing the clarity of the typefaces and the layout of the text. Equally commercially minded, de Worde took to illustrating the Red Pale's books with woodcuts, many by his own hand.

One of the earliest products of Caxton and de Worde's collaboration was an edition of the Legenda Aurea – the Golden Legend – a text compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (c.1230-98), Archbishop of Genoa. It is a collection of hagiographies, and was among the most popular late medieval texts. As well as having a keen business brain, Caxton was also a gifted man of letters, and he translated the text of the Golden Legend into English. De Worde was entrusted with the typesetting, and to the text he added over a hundred individual woodcuts. This English version of the Golden Legend was first printed at the Red Pale in 1483, and it was the earliest book produced in Europe to be so profusely illustrated.

In the intense religious atmosphere of late-fifteenth-century England, to print a hagiography in English with illustrations was a master stroke. When the book appeared it was an extraordinary success. Caxton died in 1491, and in 1495 de Worde took over the press at the Red Pale, eventually moving to premises to Fleet Street. Both in Westminster and in Fleet Street he continued to re-print the Golden Legend of 1483, until it reached a ninth impression in 1527.

The woodcuts illustrated here are taken from an edition of the book printed by de Worde at the Red Pale in 1498 – but they are the same blocks used in the 1483 edition. They illustrate the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Our Lord, and the day of Pentecost. The book is now very scarce and the illustrations here are taken from a copy that is owned by the University of Wales Trinity St David. It once belonged to Thomas Burgess (1756-1837), Bishop of St David's and Bishop of Salisbury, who presented it to the college he founded in Lampeter. ND

The Revd Dr Allan Barton is Chaplain to the University of Wales
Trinity Saint David at Lampeter, and Curator of the University Art Collections
.

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