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Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 133-166

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"Longene to the Playe":

Caxton, Chess, and the Boundaries of Political Order

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Among late medieval literary figures, William Caxton poses perhaps the greatest challenge to the task of periodizing literary history, and his double identity as author and printer troubles the generally acknowledged boundary dividing the medieval and early modern worlds. On the one hand Caxton's role as printer marks him as a contributor to the English Renaissance. His publication of Malory's Morte Darthur in 1485 felicitously coincided with Henry VII's ascension to the throne, making this date a "natural" starting point for the early modern era. On the other hand the works Caxton printed do not pander to Renaissance sensibilities. As with many texts that came off his press, both the style and subject of his most famous publication, the Morte Darthur, hearken back to earlier literary forms.

This tension between "medieval Caxton" and "Renaissance Caxton" makes itself felt clearly in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. Unable to categorize Caxton as one or the other, the editors include a discussion of Caxton's printing press in their "Introduction to the Sixteenth Century" yet place selections from Caxton's Morte Darthur in a section titled "The Middle Ages."1 This is a dubious finesse, as under this schema Caxton's use of technology makes him a Renaissance man, while the material he published remains discretely cordoned off in the medieval era.

Caxton's identity as a publisher exacerbates this difficulty of categorization. Scholars often praise Caxton for his business acumen, identifying in his various prologues and epilogues "clear evidence of a mass-marketing strategy."2 Yet while such scholarship helps dispel characterizations of Caxton as exclusively dependent on patrons or as mindlessly translating any texts that came his way, it downplays his contributions to the literary landscape of fifteenth-century England and creates a similarly Nortonesque divide between Caxton-as-marketing-savant and Caxton-as-translator/writer. [End Page 151]

More recently, scholars such as William Kuskin have started to reclaim Caxton as an important literary figure in his own right.3 Kuskin in particular looks at ways Caxton uses his prefaces and his choice of texts to model political power as a participatory society organized around what he calls "a latticework of temporary positions defined by the subject's immediate relation to authority."4 In this way, Caxton "does something new" and his texts help produce "a vernacular literary authority capable of placing his contemporary lay readers within community and literary history."5

While Kuskin successfully positions Caxton as an active participant in England's literary and political culture, I will suggest that Caxton's interest in political models contributes to the confusion surrounding his Renaissance and medieval identities. Specifically, I will look at Caxton's Game and Playe of the Chesse, the first English version of Jacobus de Cessolis's Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum (The book of the morals of men and the duties of nobles on the game of chess), henceforth the De ludo scacchorum.6 Composed in the late thirteenth century, De ludo scacchorum uses chess as an elaborate allegory of an ideal political order, one in which civic power is dispersed throughout a community. In his 1474 translation of Jacobus's De ludo scacchorum, Caxton promoted this text as a straightforward mirror for magistrates. Dedicating the volume to King Edward's brother, Clarence, he carefully framed the text to mask the anti-monarchial implications of the chess allegory. In 1483, however, Caxton re-released the Game and Playe, omitting the initial dedication to the now-deceased Clarence, adding an entirely new preface, and including a series of twenty-four woodcuts.7 Rather than praising a member of the noble class as he had done in his original dedication, Caxton uses the 1483 preface to present De ludo scacchorum as a representation of "associational ideology" (to borrow a phrase from David Wallace8 ), and...