First book printed in English sold at auction for over £1 million

"Recuyell of the Histories of Troye," printed around 1474, ultimately cost the buyer over $1.8 million.

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    The Arion Press, using a more modern version of a movable type printing press, from October 3, 1999. The first book printed in English used similar technology back in 1474.
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When a rare book goes into an auction, sellers can expect the price to go up quickly, and "Recuyell of the Histories of Troye" is about as rare as they come.

The book is the first title to ever printed in English, according to the BBC, and is one of only 18 surviving copies in the world.

At a recent auction, a bidding war caused the price to skyrocket. It finally sold for over one million pounds (over $1.7 million).

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"Troye" was originally a French work translated into English by William Caxton. Caxton was a leading merchant in 15th-century Britain, and became the first person to bring the printing press to Britain (though he did so a few years after printing "Troye" in Belgium). He started translating the French work (despite not having any prior translation experience) in 1468 and finished rendering the epic romance into his native English by 1471, according to the Express. The book was printed around 1474.

The movable type printing press had only been invented in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450, though similar technologies already existed in China and Korea. Most book printings in Europe during this time period happened in Belgium, particularly in the cities of Ghent or Bruges, according to the BBC.

While the vast majority of printed books were in Latin, the first books printed in German and Italian had already appeared in 1461 and 1470 respectively, according to the Express. Ironically, the first book printed in French would not come around until 1476, even though "Troye" was actually the translation of French work.

The original French story translated by Caxton was written by Raoul Lefevre in an effort to transform the heroes of Greek mythology into chivalric figures in order to better represent the traditions of the Burgundian court in France.

Gabriel Heaton, a book specialist for Sotheby's, the auction house which sold the book, said the English printing of the work was "produced at a time when printing in the vernacular was still in its infancy, and when there was a relatively small domestic readership, this was a risky enterprise," according to the BBC.

The copy sold by Sotheby's was given as a gift to Margaret, the new wife of the Duke of Burgundy. In addition to being married to the Duke, Margaret's brother was the English king himself, Edward IV, who ruled from 1471 to 1483.

In the move to its latest owner, however, "Troye" was anything but a gift. According to the BBC, offers on the book started at £600,000 (a little over $1 million), but a bidding war between three rival bidders broke out and the price jumped to £900,000. With Sotheby's comission, the price tag came to £1,082,500 ($1,849,980).

Caxton may have grasped some of the importance of what he was doing at the time, working despite seeming to be exhausted by the work. He writes in the epilogue of the book (as quoted by the BBC), "In the wrytyng of the same my penne is worn/ myn hande wery & not stedfast myn eyen dimed with overmoche lokyng on the whit paper." (In modern English: "In the writing of the same [this book,] my pen is worn, my hand weary and not steadfast, my eye dimmed with too much looking at white paper.")

The heavy price tag Caxton's labor produced 540 years later is a tribute to his pioneering efforts, as well as the book's significance as the forerunner of printed English-language reading material.

Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.

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