Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers
Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers ("The Sayings of the Philosophers") is an incunabulum, or early printed book. Anthony Woodville translated from an earlier French translation of a medieval Arabic work by the Syrian scholar al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik called "Al-Mukhtar al-Hakim wa Muhasin al-Kalim" (مختار الحكم ومحاسن الكلم) and his English version was printed by William Caxton and finished on November 18, 1477.
The book is a long prose text of quotations making a compendium of philosopher’s words of wisdom, or Dits Moraulx des Philosophes', according to the French manuscript from which it was translated, collected from biblical, classical, and legendary philosophers. Most passages are preceded by a biographical story of the philosopher that ranges from a few words to several pages.
History of Original and Earlier Translations
The Arabic original is known as Mukhtar al-hikam wa mahasin al-kalim ('Compendium of Maxims and Aphorisms'), and was written toward the middle of the eleventh century by a Syrian-born emir of the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik. The earliest European translation was the Spanish Los Bocados de Oromade, made in the reign of Alfonso X of Castile (1252–1284). Wisdom literature became popular throughout medieval Europe and subsequently versions appeared in several languages, including Latin, Occitan, Old Spanish, and Old French.
Caxton's Published Translation
The English version by Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, published by Caxton under the title Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, was translated during Woodville's voyage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In 1473 the knight Lewis de Bretaylle had lent him a French manuscript called Les ditz moraulx des philosophes, by Guillaume de Tignonville. This turn-of-the-fifteenth-century French translation was based on a Latin version.
When Woodville finished his translation he gave Caxton the manuscript for proofreading. In addition to revisions Caxton added an epilogue and pointed out the omission of Socrates' remarks concerning women, so a further chapter called "Touching Women" was included.
In 1476 Caxton had travelled to Westminster from Bruges, where he had been running a successful printing business. He wanted to practise his new printing skills in his native country. He had perhaps learned printing technology in Cologne. The first book Caxton printed with a date was Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, although it is not usually regarded as the first book he had printed in England.
This is the first dated book printed in England. It contains not only the date, but for the first time in England a printer's colophon showing the name of the printer, and the place of publication.
- DNB, p. 383
- The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume II.
- "Caxton, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- The dictes and sayings of the philosophers: a facsimile reproduction of the first book printed in England by William Caxton, in 1477. London: E. Stock. 1877.
- "DH300 Dictes Edition Project". An ongoing collated edition of all four printed editions of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers created in a practicum module at Wilfrid Laurier University, started in February 2017.