Vitae sanctorum patrum, sive Vitas patrum, in English: The lyff of the faders, translated by William Caxton. 

Westminster, Wynkyn de Worde, [before 21 August] 1495.


FIRST EDITION thus. Folio. five parts in one. ff. [viii], lxxxxiii, lxxxiii-CCCxlvii. 2A⁸, a-o⁸, p⁶, q-x⁸, y¹⁰, z-2t⁸, 2v-2x⁶. (lacking vv 5+6 and xx6). Black letter, double column. Small woodcut initials, xylographic white on black title ‘Vitas Patrum’, full-page woodcut of St. Jerome in his study (Hodnett 800. see fig. 22), repeated as frontispiece to all five parts, 165 column width woodcuts (repeated from 39), “Iste liber constat domina Joanna Regnas Veritas Vinsit omnia, deus caritas est” in a youthful contemporary hand in red ink with large pen-work initial ‘I’ and “IHS” above, inscriptions washed and erased from margins of rr6-7, manuscript note in C19th hand on fly, noting a copy from Thorpe’s catalogue in 1826 at a price of £59 with reference to Ames, autograph in pencil of ‘Rev. J.F. Russell’ below. Light age yellowing, title remargined at fore-edge just touching xylographic title, upper outer blank corners of Aa2 and 3 restored, just touching a few letters of prologue on verso of Aa2, small stain in upper blank margin in places, margins with some very minor occasional spot, dust soiling or thumb mark. A fine copy, crisp and clean, in beautiful dark blue straight grained morocco by Christian Samuel Kalthoeber circa 1800, covers bordered with a single gilt and double blind rule with blind dentelle border, Kalhoeber’s distinctive curved edge corner-pieces with semée of gilt pointillé and small tools, spine with double, gilt ruled, raised bands, upper, lower and two central compartments with finely worked ‘spiders web’ design filled with gilt pointillé and small tools, gilt circles to corners, title and date gilt lettered in compartments, edges gilt ruled, inner dentelles gilt, marbled endpapers, small loss of leather to lower outer corner of lower board, fractionally rubbed at extremities. In folding cloth box. 

A wonderful copy of the exceptionally rare, most important, beautifully and profusely illustrated and remarkably designed first (and only early) edition in English of this popular collection of the lives of the Desert Fathers, translated into English by the great William Caxton, his last translation, and one of his major works. First published in Latin in 1475, Caxton’s translation was based on a French edition printed at Lyon in 1486/7 by Nicolaus Philippi and printed Jean du Pré. According to the colophon, Caxton completed this translation on the last day of his life. Probably originally from Holland, Wynkyn de Worde met Caxton in Cologne in 1470, and accompanied him back to England in 1475. He then worked in Caxton’s printing shop in Westminster until Caxton died in 1492, at which point Wynkyn took over the business. The illustrations for his Vitas Patrum are particularly important as one of his earliest series of woodcuts: “Among the first cuts that De Worde commissioned are those in the Vitas Patrum.” (Hodnett p. 9).

“‘Vitas Patrum’ or the ‘Lyff of the olde Auncyent holy faders’, is a compilation of lives of the desert fathers (or eastern saints) attributed to Saint Jerome, translated into English by William Caxton in 1491 shortly before his death, and published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1495 when he had solidified his overseer-ship of the Caxton press. The emergence in 1495 of de Worde’s edition, a volume of 735 pages with 170 pictures, signals his recognition that an English Vitas Patrum would be welcomed by the buyers of books issuing from the Caxton- de Worde publishing house in Westminster – men and women, lay and religious, aristocratic and merchant. De Worde’s Vitas Patrum, twenty-seven copies of which still exist, is a magnetic subject for study: it is the only form in which Caxton’s translation is available, it is one of de Worde’s first independent productions, it is a vernacular collection of saints’ lives distinctive from the more famous Legenda aurea, and it is one of the most prolifically illustrated of Caxton’s and de Worde’s books. .. The illustrations are critical to the articulation of the printed text and also to the process of reading supported by the design. De Worde’s picture cycle stems from that in an edition of the French translation published first by Jean du pre and Nicholaus Philippi in Lyons in January 1486, which is probably the edition Caxton refers to in his prologue as the copy he followed for his translation, and again by Du Pre in Paris on June 8, 1486. De Worde commissioned forty woodcuts: the full page drawing of with Jerome and thirty-nine single column rectangular drawings. .. Twenty five of de Worde’s thirty-nine single-column woodcuts and the full-page frontispiece of Jerome are more or less versions of Du Pre’s, and another five .. are loosely related to his. However de Worde uses only about half of Du Pre’s sixty-two designs, and his own designer substitutes nine drawings not to be tracked to Du Pre.” Sue Ellen Holbrook. ‘Story, Picture, and Reading in Wynkyn de Worde’s Vitas Patrum. 

This first edition of Caxton’s translation is particularly important as it was his last, his most mature work, and is most revealing in terms of the evolution of his use the English language, something that helped set the standard form of English in use today. “The year before his death, Caxton claimed that he had adapted a new technique for translation .. he explains that some had criticised him for using “over-curyous termes whiche coude not be understande of comyn peple.” This probably refers to his tendency to transfer French words basically untranslated into his earlier works. He also notes his task is made more difficult by the fact that there is no standard form of English and that the language varies from shire to shire. To strike a balance, he says he will “reduce and translate” in a style “not overrude ne curyous” but “in a meane bytwene bothe”. A passage from ‘Of the Chylde Orphenym’ in the ‘Lives of the fathers’ seems to confirm this method. The English style, which reads more like a fairy tale than a saints life, is rich in words with Old English of Germanic roots (‘worthe’, ‘troothe’, ‘wyte’, ‘lever’) though French/Latinate words such as ‘tresoress’ and ‘orysons’ create a balance – as Caxton said – ‘between rude and curious.’ Although his word choices may have shifted somewhat, he nonetheless retains his word-for-word approach to translating.” Valerie Hotchkiss. ‘English in Print from Caxton to Shakespeare to Milton.’

The work is inscribed with a remarkable, elaborate and most intriguing contemporary manuscript exlibris, in red ink, with a large penwork initial, with motto below, almost certainly the first owner of the work. We have as yet been unable to identify the “Domina Joanna Regnas” – presumably Lady Joanna Reynes – but this was a very grand and expensive book to find in a young girl’s library in the C15th.

The beautifully worked binding is by Christian Samuel Kalthoeber. The Bl has several examples of his bindings with the identical corner-piece design of pointillé tools. One such example is BL shelf mark c19d10, a Kalhoeber binding on another hugely important incunable, the first work printed in Italy; the Cicero, De Oratore, printed at Subacio in 1465. 

A stunning, most important, and exceptionally rare English incunable; one of the finest productions of Wynkyn de Worde and the first edition of Caxton’s last great translation. 

BMC XI 197. GW M50906. Bod-inc H-116. ISTC ih00213000; Goff H-213.Ames II 89. “This is one of Wynkyn de Worde’s most magnificent typographical productions.” Duff, E. Printing in England in the Fifteenth Century. 


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