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14 November 2012

Rediscovering Malory: Digitising The Morte Darthur

Add_ms_59678_f071rFirst page of the section on Arthur's Roman wars ('Hyt befelle whan kyng Arthur had wedded quene Gwenyvere...'); from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 71r.

The Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory has been, for the English literary tradition, the most influential presentation of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  It directly inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court –- and all that before the rediscovery of the only extant manuscript copy of the text, in 1934.

Malory was as much a translator and adaptor as an author, and his book gathers together and sets in order a comprehensive retelling of the full Arthurian story, from Arthur's conception and birth to his death, the fall of Camelot, and the deaths of Guinevere and Lancelot.  Malory's sources range from English poetic texts (like the Alliterative Morte Arthure, about Arthur's continental campaign against the fictional Roman emperor Lucius) to the great French 'Vulgate Cycle', a monumental, multivolume prose work about (among other things) Lancelot, Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Add_ms_59678_f070vLast page of what was Book IV in Caxton's edition, with a colophon identifying the author as 'a knyght presoner Sir Thomas Malleorre'; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 70v.

Prior to 1934, the Winchester manuscript was not 'lost', but was part of the Winchester College Library.  But no one had realized its importance: its text had not been identified with the book published by the pioneering English printer William Caxton in 1485.  Before the manuscript's rediscovery, Caxton's early edition had been our only witness for Malory's text, the basis for all subsequent printed versions.  But the Winchester manuscript (now British Library, Add. MS 59678) was a slightly earlier copy, written c. 1480.  Indeed, while it is not the manuscript Caxton used as the basis for his edition, the printer did consult it.  Close examination of the manuscript's pages has revealed smudges left by the still-wet ink of freshly printed pages left lying on the book –- in a typeset identified as Caxton's (an article by Lotte Hellinga and Hilton Kelliher in the British Library Journal gives the full story of this discovery).

Add_ms_59678_f029vA page from the Tale of Sir Balin, including two marginal notes calling attention to the exploits of Garlonde the invisible knight, and a pointing hand indicating something of interest in the text; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 29v.

Finding the manuscript revolutionised our understanding of what had been believed to be a well-known book.  Caxton had made slight changes to the text, sometimes rewording or abridging what Malory had written, in order to fit the correct amount of text onto each page.  Caxton's changes were particularly significant in the portion of the text derived from the Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Malory's prose reworking of the poem retained much of the alliteration and metre of the original, to a far greater degree than was reflected in Caxton's version.

Add_ms_59678_f152rPage from the Tale of Sir Tristram, including a marginal note calling attention to a 'fayre Brachette', or hunting dog, given to Tristram by the daughter of the King of France; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 152r.

To 'rediscover' the Winchester manuscript for yourself, visit Digitised Manuscripts, where a full digital version of the manuscript has just been made available!  The experience of reading the book in its manuscript form is quite different from that offered by modern editions, even those based on the Winchester version of the text.  Most striking is the liberal use of red ink, with nearly every proper name in the manuscript written in red, in a slightly more formal script.  Scholars do not yet agree on why this was done, but everyone concurs it makes for a very striking visual presentation.


Add_ms_59678_f357vPage from the 'Sankgreal' (Holy Grail), including a marginal sketch of a cross, perhaps related to the adjoining story of Sir Galahad and Sir Melyas at a crossroads, with a cross signposting, on the right, the path of 'a good man and a worthy knyght', and, to the left, a way where they 'shall nat there lyghtly wynne prouesse'; from Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur, England, c. 1471-1483, Add. MS 59678, f. 357v.

Nicole Eddy


Those pages are so gorgeous, it's a pleasure just to admire them as works of visual art!

The red words remind me of newspaper gossip columns in which the names of celebrities are bolded. It's like an in-line index.

Thank you so much for this site. I've been reading it, catching up with old posts, for two weeks straight.

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