On this day:
1344 – The Siege of Algeciras, one of the first European military engagements where gunpowder was used, comes to an end.
The Siege of Algeciras (1342–44) was undertaken during the Reconquest of Spain by the Castillian forces of Alfonso XI assisted by the fleets of the Kingdom of Aragon and the Republic of Genoa. The objective was to capture the Muslim city of Al-Jazeera Al-Khadra, called Algeciras by Christians. The city was the capital and the main port of the European territory of the Marinid Empire.
The siege lasted for twenty one months. The population of the city, about 30,000 people including civilians and Berber soldiers, suffered from a land and sea blockade that prevented the entry of food into the city. The Emirate of Granada sent an army to relieve the city, but it was defeated beside the Río Palmones. Following this, on 26 March 1344 the city surrendered and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile. This was one of the first military engagements in Europe where gunpowder was used.
Born on this day:
1484 – William Caxton prints his translation of Aesop’s Fables.
William Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He is thought to be the first Englishman to introduce a printing press into England, in 1476, and was the first English retailer of printed books.
His parentage and date of birth are both not known for certain, but he may have been born between 1415 and 1424, in the Weald or wood land of Kent, perhaps in Hadlow or Tenterden. In 1438 he was apprenticed to Robert Large, a wealthy London silk mercer. Shortly after the death of Large, Caxton moved to Bruges in Belgium.
Caxton was settled in Bruges by 1450. Caxton went onto became a successful in business and governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. At this time Bruges was a wealthy cultured city, this caused Caxton to become interested in reading and good literature. During his business travels, he observed the new printing industry in Cologne which led him to start a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with Colard Mansion. He also undertook the translation of Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. At this time Margaret sister of Edward the IV married the Duke of Burgundy, they moved to Bruges. Caxton became friendly with the Duchess. It was her who encouraged Caxton to continue his unfinished translation of the Troy stories. Or Iliad as we now know it. The translation was complete in 1471.
Caxton set up a press at Westminster in 1476 due to the heavy demand in his translation on his return. The first book known to have been produced there was an edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He printed perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English, as well as chivalric romances, classical works and English and Roman histories. He translated into English and edited many of the works himself. He is credited with the first English translation of Aesop’s Fables, in 1484. The rushed publishing schedule and his inadequacies as a translator led both to wholesale transfers of French words into English and to misunderstandings. Caxton is credited with helping to standardise the various dialects of English through his printed works. In 2002, Caxton was named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll.
Caxton’s family have been “fairly certainly” found to be his parents, Philip and Dionisia, and a brother, Philip. His date of birth is unknown. Records place it in the region of 1415–1424, based on the fact that his apprenticeship fees were paid in 1438. Caxton would have been 14 at the date of apprenticeship, but masters often paid the fees late. In the preface to his first printed work The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he claims to have been born and educated in the Weald of Kent. Oral tradition in Tonbridge claims that Caxton was born there; the same with Tenterden. One of the manors of Hadlow was Caustons, owned by the Caxton (De Causton) family. A house in Hadlow reputed to be the birthplace of William Caxton was dismantled in 1936 and incorporated into a larger house rebuilt in Forest Row, East Sussex. Further evidence for Hadlow is that various place names nearby are frequently mentioned by Caxton.
Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers’ Company record his apprenticeship to Robert Large, a wealthy London mercer or dealer in luxury goods, who served as Master of the Mercer’s Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439. After Large died in 1441, Caxton was left a small sum of money (£20). As other apprentices were left larger sums, it would seem that he was not a senior apprentice at this time.
Printing and later life
Caxton was making trips to Bruges by 1450 at the latest and had settled there by 1453, when he may have taken his Liberty of the Mercers’ Company. There he was successful in business and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the third wife of Charles the Bold and sister of two Kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with a Fleming named Colard Mansion, and the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. His translation had become popular in the Burgundian court, and requests for copies of it were the stimulus for him to set up a press.
Caxton’s 1477 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Bringing the knowledge back to England, he set up the country’s first ever press in the almonry of the Westminster Abbey Church in 1476. The first book known to have been produced there was an edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004–07). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on 18 November 1477, translated by Earl Rivers, the king’s brother-in-law. Caxton’s translations of the Golden Legend (1483) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower (1484) contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English. He produced the first translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in English.
Caxton produced chivalric romances (such as Fierabras), the most important of which was Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485); classical works; and English and Roman histories. These books appealed to the English upper classes in the late fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by (but not dependent on) members of the nobility and gentry.
Death and memorials
Caxton’s precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, suggest that he died near March 1492. However, George D. Painter makes numerous references to the year 1491 in his book William Caxton: a biography as the year of Caxton’s death, since 24 March was the last day of the year according to the calendar used at the time, so the year-change hadn’t happened yet. Painter writes, “However, Caxton’s own output reveals the approximate time of his death, for none of his books can be later than 1491, and even those which are assignable to that year are hardly enough for a full twelve months’ production; so a date of death towards autumn of 1491 could be deduced even without confirmation of documentary evidence.” (p. 188)
In November 1954, a memorial to Caxton was unveiled in Westminster Abbey by J. J. Astor, chairman of the Press Council. The white stone plaque is on the wall next to the door to Poets’ Corner. The inscription reads:
“Near this place William Caxton set up the first printing press in England.”
Caxton and the English language
Caxton printed 80 percent of his works in the English language. He translated a large number of works into English, performing much of the translation and editing work himself. He is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles, including the first English translation of Aesop’s Fables (1484). Caxton also translated 26 of the titles himself. His major guiding principle in translating was an honest desire to provide the most linguistically exact replication of foreign language texts into English, but the hurried publishing schedule and his inadequate skill as a translator often led to wholesale transference of French words into English and numerous misunderstandings.
Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster (painting by Daniel Maclise)
The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton’s time and the works that he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer, and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books that he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.
Caxton is credited with standardising the English language through printing—that is, homogenising regional dialects. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. Richard Pynson started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and favoured Chancery Standard. Pynson was a more accomplished stylist than Caxton and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
It is asserted that the spelling of “ghost” with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Flemish spelling habits.
Aesop’s Fables or the Aesopica is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE. Of diverse origins, the stories associated with his name have descended to modern times through a number of sources and continue to be reinterpreted in different verbal registers and in popular as well as artistic media.
The fables originally belonged to the oral tradition and were not collected for some three centuries after Aesop’s death. By that time a variety of other stories, jokes and proverbs were being ascribed to him, although some of that material was from sources earlier than him or came from beyond the Greek cultural sphere. The process of inclusion has continued until the present, with some of the fables unrecorded before the later Middle Ages and others arriving from outside Europe. The process is continuous and new stories are still being added to the Aesop corpus, even when they are demonstrably more recent work and sometimes from known authors.
Manuscripts in Latin and Greek were important avenues of transmission, although poetical treatments in European vernaculars eventually formed another. On the arrival of printing, collections of Aesop’s fables were among the earliest books in a variety of languages. Through the means of later collections, and translations or adaptations of them, Aesop’s reputation as a fabulist was transmitted throughout the world.
Initially the fables were addressed to adults and covered religious, social and political themes. They were also put to use as ethical guides and from the Renaissance onwards were particularly used for the education of children. Their ethical dimension was reinforced in the adult world through depiction in sculpture, painting and other illustrative means, as well as adaptation to drama and song. In addition, there have been reinterpretations of the meaning of fables and changes in emphasis over time.
1516 – Conrad Gessner, Swiss botanist and zoologist (d. 1565)
Conrad Gessner (also Konrad Gesner, Conrad Geßner, Conrad von Gesner, Conradus Gesnerus, Conrad Gesner; 26 March 1516 – 13 December 1565) was a Swiss naturalist and bibliographer. He was well known as a botanist, physician and classical linguist. His five-volume Historia animalium (1551–1558) is considered the beginning of modern zoology, and the flowering plant genus Gesneria and its family Gesneriaceae are named after him. A genus of moths is also named Gesneria after him. He is denoted by the author abbreviation Gesner when citing a botanical name.
Life and education
Gessner was born on March 26, 1516 in Zürich, Switzerland, he was the son of Ursus Gessner, a Zürich furrier. Gessner’s father realized he was clever, and sent him to live with a great uncle, who grew and collected medicinal herbs for a living. Here the boy became familiar with many plants and their medicinal purposes which led to a lifelong interest in natural history.
Gessner first attended the Carolinum in Zürich, then he entered the Fraumünster seminary. There he studied Latin classics. In school, he impressed his teachers so much that a few of them helped sponsor him so he could further his education at universities such as Strassburg and Bourges (1532–1533). One even acted as a foster father to him after the death of his father at the Battle of Kappel (1531). After the death of his father he left Zürich and traveled to Strasbourg. Here he broadened his knowledge of ancient languages by studying Hebrew at the Strasbourg Academy. In 1535, religious unrest drove him back to Zürich, where he made an imprudent marriage. His friends again came to his aid and enabled him to study at Basel (1536).
Throughout his life Gessner was interested in natural history, and collected specimens and descriptions of wildlife through travel and extensive correspondence with other friends and scholars. His approach to research consisted of four main components: observation, dissection, travel to distant lands, and accurate description. This rising observational approach was new to Renaissance scholars because people usually relied completely upon Classical writers for their research. He died of the plague, the year after his ennoblement on December 13, 1565.
In 1537 his sponsors obtained for him the professorship of Greek at the newly founded academy of Lausanne (then belonging to Bern). Here he had leisure to devote himself to scientific studies, especially botany.
After three years of teaching, Gessner was able to travel to the famous medical university of Montpellier, where he received his doctoral degree (1541) from Basel. He then settled down to practice medicine in Zürich, where he obtained the post of lecturer of Aristotelean physics at the Carolinum, the precursor of the University of Zürich.
After 1554 he became the city physician and it is there, apart from a few journeys to foreign countries, and annual summer botanical journeys in his native land, he passed the remainder of his life. He devoted himself to preparing works on many subjects of different sorts. Not content with such vast works, Gessner was also active as a linguist, putting forth in 1555 his book entitled Mithridates de differentis linguis, an account of about 130 known languages, with the Lord’s Prayer in twenty-two languages.
Gesner’s great zoological work, Historiae animalium, is a 4,500-page encyclopedia of animals that appeared in Zürich in 4 volumes between 1551 and 1558: quadrupeds, amphibians, birds, and fishes. A fifth folio on snakes was issued in 1587. A German translation of the first 4 volumes titled Thierbuch was published in Zürich in 1563. This book was considered to be the first modern zoological work. It built a bridge between ancient, medieval and modern science.
In Historiae animalium Gessner combines data from old sources, such as the Old Testament, Aristotle, Pliny, folklore, and medieval bestiaries, adding his own observations. He created a new, comprehensive description of the Animal Kingdom. This was the first attempt by anyone to describe many animals accurately. The book unlike many works of its time was illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts drawn from personal observations by Gessner and his colleagues. Gessner was the first to describe the brown rat and the guinea pig in Europe.
Even though he sought to distinguish observed facts from myths and popular errors and was known for his accurate depiction of many animals in Historiae animalium, he also included many fictional animals such as the Unicorn and the Basilisk, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. But when Gessner doubted the accuracy of the opinions he relayed in his own writings, or the validity of the illustrations he included, he clearly said so. Besides any plant or animal’s potential advantage to people, Gessner was interested in learning about them because of the moral lessons they could teach and the divine truths they might tell. He went into as much detail about some unreal animals as he did about real ones. Later in 1556 he also combined real and fictional creatures in his edition of the works of Claudius Aelianus.
Historiae animalium includes sketches for many well-known animals, and some fictional ones, including unicorns and mermaids. He accomplished many of his works in a large part due to the web of acquaintances he established with leading naturalists throughout Europe, who included John Caius, English court physician to the Tudors and second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Not only did they send him their ideas, but also sent him plants, animals and gems. He returned the favor — and kept helpful specimens coming — by naming plants after correspondents and friends.
There was extreme religious tension at the time Historiae animalium came out. Under Pope Paul IV it was felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writings. Since Gessner was Protestant his works were included into the Roman Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books. Even though religious tensions were high, Gesner maintained friendships on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. In fact, Catholic booksellers in Venice protested the Inquisition’s blanket ban on Gesner’s books, and some of his work was eventually allowed after it had been “cleaned” of its doctrinal errors.
Fragaria vesca in Historia plantarum
To his contemporaries he was best known as a botanist. Gessner wrote a similarly comprehensive survey to Historiae animalium about plant life, but his notes and about 1,500 wood engravings of plants and their important flowers and seeds were used by other authors for two centuries after his death. Although his botanical manuscripts were not published (in Nuremberg, 1751–1771, 2 vols. folio) until long after his death, he himself issuing only the Enchiridion historiae plantarum (1541) and the Catalogus plantarum (1542) in four languages. In 1545 he published his remarkable Bibliotheca universalis (ed. by J. Simler, 1574), supposedly a catalogue (in Latin, Greek and Hebrew) of all writers who had ever lived, with the titles of their works, etc. A second part, Pandectarum sive partitionum universalium libri xxi, appeared in 1548; only nineteen books being then concluded. The last, a theological encyclopaedia, was published in 1549, but the last one, intended to include his medical work, was never finished.
Gessner in 1551 was the first to describe brown adipose tissue; and in 1565 the first to document the pencil.
To non-scientific readers, Gessner is best known for his love of mountains (below the snow-line) and for his many excursions among them, undertaken partly as a botanist, but also for the sake of exercise and enjoyment of the beauties of nature. In 1541 he prefixed to his Libellus de lacte et operibus lactariis a letter addressed to his friend Jacob Vogel of Glarus on the wonders to be found among the mountains, declaring his love for them, and his firm resolve to climb at least one mountain every year, not only to collect flowers, but in order to exercise his body. In 1555 he issued his narrative (Descriptio Montis Fracti sive Montis Pilati) of his excursion to the Gnepfstein (1920 m), the lowest point in the Pilatus chain.
Despite his traveling ways and the job of maintaining his own gardens, Gesner probably spent most of his time inside his own library. He listed among his History of Animals sources more than 80 Greek authors and at least 175 Latin authors, as well as works by German, French, and Italian authors. He even attempted to establish a “universal library” of all books in existence. The project might sound strange to the modern mind, but Gessner invested tremendous energy in the project. He sniffed through remote libraries along with the collections of the Vatican Library and catalogs of printers and booksellers. By assembling this universal library of information, Gessner put together a database centuries before computers would ease such work. He cut relevant passages out of books, grouped the cuttings by general theme, subdivided the groups into more specific categories, and boxed them. He could then retrieve and arrange the cuttings as needed. In the words of science writer Anna Pavord, “He was a one-man search engine, a 16th-century Google with the added bonus of critical evaluation.”
To his contemporaries, Gessner was known as “the Swiss Pliny.” According to legend, when he knew his time was near, he asked to be taken to his library where he had spent so much of his life, to die among his favorite books. At the time of his death, Gesner had published 72 books, and written 18 more unpublished manuscripts. His work on plants was not published until centuries after his death.
Gessner was posthumously partly responsible for Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum or Theatre of Insects, written jointly by him with Edward Wotton, Thomas Muffet and Thomas Penny.
In 1576 George Baker published a translation of the Evonymus of Conrad Gessner under the title of The Newe Jewell of Health, wherein is contained the most excellent Secretes of Physicke and Philosophie divided into fower bookes.
Gessner was featured on the 50 Swiss francs banknotes issued between 1978 and 1994.
The Gessner herbal garden at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich, is named after Conrad Gessner, and
the cloister in the Carolinum, Zürich in the Grossmünster church, where Gessner is buried, also houses a herbal garden dedicated to Conrad Gessner.
On 16 March 2016 the State Museum in Zürich, in close collaboration with Zurich’s Central Library(Zentralbibliothek Zürich), dedicated a special exhibition to Gessner in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his birth. 
1873 – Dorothea Bleek, South African-German anthropologist and philogist (d. 1948)
Dorothea Frances Bleek (later Dorothy F. Bleek; born 26 March 1873, Mowbray, Cape Town – died 27 June 1948, Newlands, Cape Town) was a South African-born German anthropologist and philologist known for her research on the Bushmen (the San people) of southern Africa.
She was born into her profession as the fifth daughter of Wilhelm Bleek, a pioneering philologist studying the languages and cultures of southern Africa in the late 1800s. Much of his work was done in partnership with his sister-in-law (Dorothy Bleek’s aunt, Lucy Lloyd). The work of Dorothy Bleek was largely a continuation of her father and aunt’s research, but she also made numerous notable contributions of her own to the field. Her culminating work, published after death, was the book A Bushman Dictionary, still referenced today.
Laurens van der Post, who liked to think of himself as “a white Bushman”, credited her book Mantis and His Hunter (along with Specimens of Bushman Folklore by her father and aunt) as “a sort of Stone Age Bible”. This is in the introduction to The Heart of the Hunter (1961), a follow-up to The Lost World of the Kalahari, the book based on the BBC series that brought the Bushmen to international attention.
Bleek’s research and findings are often overshadowed by the work of her father, and she has been criticised for lacking the empathy and intuition of him and her aunt. This has led to a misperception of her as a racist.
Despite this, Bleek’s research on the language, customs, and especially rock art of southern Africa (present-day South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, and Namibia) stands as a vital contribution to scholarship on the region. Her photographs and audio recordings were especially important to later researchers.