Today (November 18) in London History –

November 18, 1477 was the birth day of the first dated book printed in England. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.





Where is the easy one. London, that’s where. Well, Westminster, actually. Though Cologne comes into it. As does Bruges. And Ghent. And Kent.

What – well, what is the printing of a book. But it’s the printing of a book with a difference.

Who – that would be William Caxton. The first Englishman to print books. Indeed, William Caxton introduced the printing press to this country. He learned printing in Cologne. He acquired a press there. He brought it to England. That was in 1475 or 1476.

When? though – that’s the one that I really savour.

When was November 18, 1477. That’s the birth day of the first dated book printed in England.

It makes me feel like an expert marksman, that date. 

1477 was 545 years ago.

So when I riff with this historical factoid – put it into expert marksman terms – I see each year as a target. But not as a target that has just one bull’s eye. No, each year has 365 bulls’ eyes. In fact, 136 of those years have 366 bulls’ eyes. And playing this game I imagine the 2021 target is just one yard away. And 2020 target is two yards away. And so on. The 1822 target is 200 yards away.

And so, following this out to the end of the line, the 1477 target is 545 yards away. And it’s got 365 bulls’ eyes on it. And what a crack marksman I am because from 545 yards away I thud my arrow – or bullet – smack dab into the middle of the November 18th bull’s eye.

And look – hand on heart here – I don’t know – I don’t know if I want to know – what it says about the make-up of my mental processes that I conceptualise the thing this way. That I get off – a little bit – on knowing that the first dated book printed in English appeared on November 18th, 1477. And indeed that it was the first book in English to have a colophon.

A colophon is a publisher’s emblem or imprint. These days the colophon is usually on the title page of a book.

But historically the colophon was placed at the end of a book and it contained the title, the printer’s name, date and place of printing.

Now you might think I’ve been teasing you – keeping you waiting. Come on David, cut to the chase. What was the book?

Its title was the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. It’s a collection of quotations. They were originally sourced from an 11th century Arabic compendium. I have to confess, I have a weakness for books like that. I must have 40 or 50 of them. The biggies of course are the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the Penguin Book of  Quotations. But you’ve also got books of Political Quotations and  Books of Insults and the Purrfect Book of Cat Quotes and Lovers Quotes and Art Quotes and Literary Quotes and on it goes. But no, that book that came rolling off Caxton’s press on this day in 1477 was the sayings of the Philosophers. Pretty high brow, really.

And because of that colophon and the date it was fitted up with it’s been said that it was the first book published in England. It wasn’t. A year earlier – it was 1476 but we don’t know when in 1476 – Caxton published an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That was the first book published in this country. There’s so much feel-good attached to that. That the very first book published in this country should be the greatest work of the father of English poetry – the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey – well, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The first book printed in English was The History of Troy. It was printed on the continent, probably in Cologne. It was a French book that Caxton translated. And what do you know, there’s something deeply appealing about the first book printed in English being the History of Troy. What’s deeply appealing about it? I’m glad you asked. Here’s your answer. Hundreds of years ago there was a legend that London was founded by the exiled Trojan Brutus. He called it New Troy. And London of course would become what it still is – the great publishing capital of the English-speaking world. Voila. The fit is perfect. The first book printed in English was about the History of Troy and Troy, according to legend, gave birth to London, New Troy it was called, and London became the printing and publishing capital of the English-speaking world. That’s all the moons of Jupiter in perfect alignment. What’s not to like about that. 

For the record, eighteen copies of that first book printed in English – The History of Troy – still exist. A decade ago one of them fetched a million pounds. Its asking price would probably be double that now, maybe more.

And if you love words, you’re going to like this. The earliest printed books are called incunables. Incunable is Latin for swaddling clothes. So these nearly 500-year-old books are baby books. The oldest books are baby books – what’s not to like about that? Again, also for the record, they’re also called fifteeners. Because they came along in the fifteenth century. There are about 30,000 of them.

Anything else? Yes, the second book Caxton printed – again, this was on the continent – was The Game and Play of Chess. So let’s think about his output there. We’ve got a History of Troy, we’ve got a book about chess, we’ve got Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and we’ve got The Sayings of the Philosophers. The range and variety. Right from the very beginning printing/publishing – it’s a smorgasbord. 

Any other loose ends? Or, if you prefer, guests at the banquet whom we haven’t heard from and who almost certainly will be bringing something to the party, will have a tale to tell.

Yes, let’s meet the guest of honour.

That’d be Johannes Guttenberg and his bible. Known as the Guttenberg bible. It came off the press about 1454. It was printed in Mainz, in Germany.

And I think the other thing that jumps out at as – well, two things, really – is 1) looking back at this – jumping across the years and from location to location – the picture, the impression you get, oddly enough, is not dissimilar to that very epitome of modernism, Picasso’s Cubism movement. Looked at from nearly 500 years later, the picture we have of printing is made up of multiple geometric planes. And that’s wildly appropriate too. Because printing in the 15th century – like Cubism at the beginning of the 20th century – was the very essence of modernity.

And the other thing – and this saddens me – is just how interwoven England, and especially London, was with the continent, with Europe. We worked with them, we traded with them, we learned from them. They taught us how to print. They set us up with our first printing press. We had a place at that table – and it was a very good thing for us. Now of course we’ve pushed back our chair, stood up and stomped out – saying we’d rather not be part of this banquet. Or if. you prefer, we’ve gone way out on our limb, reached back and sawed it off. So we can be free of the tree.

And we’re riding that falling branch down now.

Ah, well. One day…

Anyway, for a Today in London Recommendation – a visit to the British Library. Its Exhibition area.

In their words, From Magna Carta and Shakespeare to Florence Nightingale and Gandhi. Explore some of the world’s most exciting, beautiful and significant books, maps and manuscripts.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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