William Caxton was the first printer in England. His editions of The Canterbury Tales and The Golden Legend were literally the first time in history those works appeared both in English and in printed type. As a clerk at the Yale British Art Center, I used to sneak some alone time with the Caxton Canterbury Tales whenever I was sent on an errand into the rare books stacks. Oh, the steamy delights of wayward English majors!
I recently picked up a copy of the Mort D’Arthur, which is Caxton’s version of the Arthur legend and also the version that inspired most of the later retellings, like The Once and Future King. In Caxton’s preface, he describes how the manuscript of the Mort D’Arthur was brought to him by some bigwigs from the court of King Edward IV. At that time, a lot of noblemen in England were bringing Caxton interesting books that they happened upon in their castles and manors and suggesting that they be printed. I get the hint from Caxton that the guys from King Edward’s court had in mind more propaganda for their king than a genuine desire to share some cool stories with the world. Edward had been overthrown and restored by then and perhaps by reviving the cult of Arthur, Edward hoped to strengthen his own authority.
At first Caxton refused to print the Mort D’Arthur for the simple reason that he didn’t believe King Arthur had ever existed. This is the 1480s, mind you. Most of us have an idea that the 1400s were nothing but a wasteland of filth and superstition compared to our own enlightened age. To refute that, I’ll let Caxton speak for himself:
“I answered that divers men hold the opinion that there was no such Arthur, and that all such books as has been made of him be feigned and fables, because that some chronicles make of him no mention, nor remember him nothing, nor of his knights.”
In other words, he refused to print something or believe something which wasn’t backed up by the historical record. This is precisely the attitude which just about everybody identifies as the correct one today, 600 years later. King Edward’s operatives, eager to engage unreason in the service of politics (yet another parallel to today) gave Caxton a list of spurious archeological clues (like Arthur’s supposed tomb at Glastonbury, still visited by tourists) which pointed to the actual existence of Arthur. They encouraged Caxton to print the legend as fact.
To placate Edward’s men, Caxton dutifully listed the evidence in his preface to the Mort D’Arthur but also added the caveat that he himself hadn’t been convinced. Caxton says that while the evidence points to some sort’ve existence for a historical King Arthur, it doesn’t mean that the stories in the legend are true. He does go on to say that the stories are pretty good, though. In other words, the same mix of skepticism and appreciation for King Arthur that we have in the 21st century was included in the preface to the very first edition of the Arthur legend ever to appear in print.