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Progress of Culture. Introduction of Printing

313.The 15th and 16th c. in Western Europe are marked by a renewed interest in classical art and literature and by a general efflorescence of culture. The rise of a new vigorous social class the bourgeoisie proved an enormous stimulus to the progress of learning, science, literature and art.

The universities at Oxford and Cambridge (founded in the 12th c.)became the centres of new humanistic learning. Henry VIII assembled at his court a group of brilliant scholars and artists. Education had ceased to be the privilege of the clergy; it spread to laymen and people of lower social ranks. After the Reformation teachers and tutors could be laymen as well as clergymen.

As before, the main subject in schools was Latin; the English language was labelled as "a rude and barren tongue", fit only to serve as an instrument in teaching Latin. Scientific and philosophical treatises were written in Latin, which was not only the language of the church but also the language of philosophy and science. The influence of classical languages on English grew and was reflected in the enrichment of the vocabulary.

314.Of all the outstanding achievements of this great age, the invention of printing had the most immediate effect on the development of the language, its written form in particular. "Artificial writing", as printing was then called, was invented in Germany in 1438 (by Johann Gutenberg); the first printer of English books was William Caxton.

William Caxton (1422-1491) was born in Kent. In 1441 he moved to Flanders, where he spent over three decades of his life. During a visit to Cologne he learned the method of printing and in 1473 opened up his own printing press in Bruges. The first English book, printed in Bruges in 1475, was Caxton's translation of the story of Troy RECUYELL OF THE HISTORYES OF TROYE. A few years later he brought his press over to England and set it up in Westminster, not far outside the city of London. All in all about one hundred books were issued by his press and about a score of them were either translated or edited by Caxton himself.

Among the earliest publications were the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, still the most popular poet in England, the poems of John Gower, the compositions of John Lydgate, the most voluminous poet of the age, Trevisa's translation of the POLYCHRONICON, and others. Both Caxton and his associates took a greater interest in the works of medieval literature than in the works of ancient authors or theological and scientific treatises published by the printers on the continent. About one quarter of his publications were translations from French, e. g.: RECUYELL OF THE HISTORYES OF TROYE mentioned above, GAME AND PLAYE OF THE CHESSE, the famous romance of knightly adventure MORTE D'ARTHUR ("Death of Arthur") by Thomas Malory, one of the last works in this genre.

The last page of MORTE D'ARTHUR as printed by William Caxton

In preparing the manuscripts for publication William Caxton and his successors edited them so as to bring them into conformity with the London form of English used by their contemporaries. In doing this they sometimes distorted the manuscripts considerably. Their corrections enable us to see some of the linguistic changes that had occurred since the time when the texts were first written. Here are some substitutions made by Caxton in Trevisa's POLYCHRONICON, written a hundred years before:

Trevisa: i-cleped, ich, steihe, as me troweth[31], chapinge;

Caxton: called, I, ascended, as men supposed, market.

315. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the first printers in fixing and spreading the written form of English. The language they used was the London literary English established since the age of Chaucer and slightly modified in accordance with the linguistic changes that had taken place during the intervening hundred years. With cheap printed books becoming available to a greater number of readers, the London form of speech was carried to other regions and was imitated in the written works produced all over England.

The greatest influence exerted by the printers was that on the written form of the word. Caxton's spelling, for all its irregularities and inconsistencies, was more normalised than the chaotic spelling of the manuscripls. The written forms of many words perpetuated by Caxton were accepter] as standard and have often remained unchanged to the present day in spite of the drastic changes in pronunciation. It should be noted that Caxton's spelling faithfully reproduced the spelling of the preceding century and was conservative even in his day.

In conclusion we may recall that so great was the effect of printing on the development of the language that the year 1475 the date of the publication of the first English book is regarded as a turning point in English linguistic history and the start of a new period NE.


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  5. C. Choose the best alternative between Past Simple or Past Progressive.
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Economic and Political Unification. Conditions for Linguistic Unity | Foreign Contacts in the Early New English Period

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