Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Thus Craig Raine in his 1979 poem “A Martian sends a postcard home”.

I myself have known one or two Caxtons to fly: many a schoolmaster delighted in throwing the book at their recalcitrant pupils’ head. As I remember it young boys, being attacked by such a bird were more likely to shriek without pain, rather than to allow their eyes to melt — unless they laughed so hard they’d weep. The lot of a schoolmaster was ever a tough one. The Caxton’s multiple wings do often flutter invitingly when you are reading in the open air, and one in the hand is definitely preferable to any number in the bush. Being left out under a bush is definitely bad for a Caxton’s well-being.

The Oxford English Dictionary somewhat stolidly and redundantly defines a Caxton as “a book printed by Caxton” but follows up with a charmingly expressed second meaning: “A variety of printing-type, imitating that first used in England by Caxton, introduced by Vincent Figgins in 1855 (for his reprint of the Chess book).” OUP does note that this definition hasn’t been updated since 1869, at which time perhaps the fact that Caxton had printed a book entitled The History of the Game of Chesse was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. (Wikipedia notices Vincent’s father but is silent about our Vincent’s work at the family typefoundery.)

William Caxton is a bit of a mystery man. He was born around 1422 in Kent, probably in Hadlow but maybe Tenterden. He is credited with being the first Englishman to introduce a printing press into Britain, having gotten into the new business of printing while living in Bruges. There he printed the first book known to have been printed in English, Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, probably in 1473. He set up his press in Westminster in 1476, the first known output of which was an edition of The Canterbury Tales. He was a jack of all trades and acted as editor and translator — a versatility not unusual in the early days of print. Unsurprisingly the date of his death is also uncertain; probably 1491.

One of the things we can be certain about is that Caxton had no input in the design of the typeface named after him by Mr Figgins. This illustration shows a page from Caxton’s book (from the Figgins facsimile). Caxton obtained his types from Flanders or later from France.

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img_0170The modern Caxton type looks like this, which appears to bear zero relation to the original unless you regard the curlicue-ish serifs as imitation.

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