Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Treasuries in Full: Malory's Arthurian Manuscript

A detail from Le Morte Darthur, with 'Galahad' and 'Sankgreall' shown in red ink.
BL Add. MS 59678, 357v. © The British Library Board.

On the website of the British Library one may find sample pages from the manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory's stories about King Arthur, known as the Winchester Manuscript, later printed by William Caxton as Le Morte Darthur.
Malory's work had been known only through William Caxton's printed edition of 1485 for nearly 500 years. However in 1934 a librarian at Winchester College, Walter Oakeshott, discovered this manuscript in a safe in the Warden's bedroom.

The manuscript was written by
two professional scribes working together, some time during the years 1470 to 1483. The most striking feature of the manuscript is its extensive use of red ink. Most of the proper nouns, some place-names and common nouns are written in red, as well as marginalia, Lombardic Capitals, some Explicits and Incipits, and some scribal corrections. Textual variants between the manuscript and Caxton's edition suggest that these two texts derived from a common original. That means that the Winchester Manuscript cannot have been used as the sole basis for Caxton's book.

Clues on the pages of the Winchester Manuscript, however, do suggest that it was kept in Caxton's workshop some time in the years 1480 to 1483, when Caxton was preparing his Le Morte Darthur. Pages fresh from his press were laid on the manuscript and the wet ink accidentally transferred reversed images of
Caxton's type faces. This suggests that Caxton used the Winchester Manuscript together with another, now lost, manuscript.

In the colophon to his edition William Caxton says that this is the end of 'this noble and joyous book entitled Le Morte Darthur', and since then Le Morte Darthur has been used as the title of
the whole book. Malory, however, called his work 'the whole book of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table'.

How Winchester College acquired the manuscript is not known. It was purchased by the British Library from the Warden and Fellows of the College on 26 March 1976.

SOURCE: "Who Was Thomas Mallory?" British Library (Retrieved 30 Dec 2008).

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