Imaginative Ancestry: 3. Caxton’s England, 1422-1491


My ancestors may not have known William Caxton but they sure as heck were influenced by him, as were all of YOUR ancestors if you live in the English speaking world. His machine did more than just print “things”…… it prepared the way for a new language, literary English, in which multiple dialects were unified and used in the education of generations, including me and my children. Piers Plowman and Canterbury Tales of the previous century became widely available and readable to all and we must try and imagine the massive impact of such an event.

“Our imagination craves to behold our ancestors as they really were, going about their daily business and daily pleasure. In fact the whole appeal of history (and ancestry) (my addition) is imaginative, and without social history especially, economic history is barren and political history is unintelligible” G.M.Trevelyan 

However before we delve deeper into the Caxton effect, reading my previous post Chaucer’sEngland which told of so much social and intellectual unrest, you might have expected that something big and dramatic would soon occur. This was the century of The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) with the campaigns and battles of St Albans, Towton, Barnet and Bosworth Field. But these battles affected the social life of England very little directly in the way that Cromwell’s war two centuries later was to do. But this civil war DID lead to a period of social disorder and the whole social fabric of the country was affected by the general state of misrule rather than directly by the war itself. While Edward and Richard battled Henry, the rest of the country was ungoverned! Here’s some key points from Trevelyan:

“The disorder consisted mostly of a struggle of landowners among one another for land. And considering the country was 90% rural it was a nationwide phenomenon. The technique of “estate-jumping” included assault and battery or downright murder often committed in public to create a greater effect! Perpetual law suits about title to land, often dragged on for years without settlement, were a serious matter for the farmer, especially when both sides sent in armed men to extort rents by force.”

“However, it was a better time for the peasant and labourer because of the shortage of labour caused by recurring plagues AND the decay of serfdom, enabling the labourers to put a high price on their service. Overall the total national income was less than in Chaucer’s day, but more evenly distributed and more favourable to the peasant and the poor.”

So if your ancestors were farmers or landowners in rural England there were both positive and negative effects of war and plague. Across the 15th century, economic activity in urban England however remained at a low ebb and it was only the Guilds who kept it flowing through their association of merchants and craftsmen. They were specialists who managed the trade in a specific commodity or product as well as regulated employment. Wages had risen because of the shortage of manpower in most walks of life. Although these guilds were based in the towns the manufacture of cloth was carried out in rural areas and villages where people could also grow food and keep livestock for their own use. A quote from Trevelyan again:

“And …. from this time onwards, the manufacture and export of cloth was growing at the expense of the export of raw wool. This meant that the Merchant Adventurers were gaining ground. However the manufacture of such cloth was carried out in rural areas and country villages and so we began a different life for many that was partly industrial. But the day was still distant when the mechanical inventions of the 18th and subsequent centuries would reverse the movement and herd workmen back to the cities. In this century most towns except London were declining in wealth and population.” (It was in essence a migration, a small one, but another seed was sown!)

The major step forward socially however was in the area of education with many more schools being built, therefore enabling a greater level of literacy across the country. This in turn was propelling non-clergy into higher positions in town, county and central government of England. If the motivation was to enter such jobs and professions, the wherewithal for it was the steady flow of endowments into education from the merchants and burghers. New schools and scholarships were paid for thus creating a new lower middle class, which when added to the lengthy apprenticeships was now also becoming a further transformation of society.

“Now England acquired a fine system of secondary education with many endowed to teach the “poor” for free. But these were not the REAL poor, they were the lower middle class, the sons of small gentry, yeomen or burghers who then rose through the ranks to take part in the government of the land. Thus were prepared the social and intellectual changes of the next century. Grammar schools were NOT the result of the English Reformation ….. they were its CAUSE. Familiarity with Latin, such as these grammar schools set out to supply, was essential as it was required by the diplomat, the lawyer, the civil servant, the physician, the town clerk, the merchants accountant ….. in using their daily documents. Though some schools were undoubtedly better than others, the noblemen as a class and their retinues were rapidly going downhill at the end of the 15th century, and the men from the manor house, the counting house, the grammar school and the university were coming up. to them, the new age was destined to belong.”

More was to come as William Caxton brought his “printing machine” into England which added to the education effect. Caxton poured out nearly a hundred books and did much to lay the foundations of literary English, and to prepare the way for the great triumphs of our language in the next century.The number of dialects in England at the time were as numerous as the counties of England as typified by the west midland dialect used in Langland’s Piers Plowman, the allegorical poem that so influenced Chaucer and his writing of Canterbury Tales. It was Caxton who followed on the work of Chaucer with his press to drive such dialects out of common use. Thus, in the course of the 15th then 16th centuries the educated English obtained a common dialect, corresponding to “literary English”, and as education spread, this dialect became the language of all the land! This was the language that our newly educated ancestors were now learning to speak, read and write ……… the language that in turn was passed down to us through the next 5 centuries and affected all of us!


13 thoughts on “Imaginative Ancestry: 3. Caxton’s England, 1422-1491

    1. Look the other way round, what would our ancestors say of us if they could see us from the grave? It’s another post I have scheduled funnily enough and I’ve done it as one of our “conversations with Buddha”.

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    1. Lots of times ….. my dad was from Durham so by the time I left home from Cumbria when I was 19 to live in posh Chester, nobody could understand me! Can you understand Kernowek? You’ll need to for April!

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      1. I need to get swotting!

        Actually, I don’t see the point of all these old languages, Cornish, Breton, Manx, Scouse, to revive them seems to make the alternative point that you make in your post about a universal English language without dialects.

        If it wasn’t for the fact that they are linguistic terrorists I might have some sympathy with the Welsh in this matter.

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    1. Not a lot of mobility in the 13th century, and …. Cornwall still has even its own language today from Celtic origins. Culture worth preserving in a global onslaught some would say.

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