Jun 6, 2014

The Winchester Malory

British Library MS Additional 59678, fol. 35r (detail)

The story of King Arthur and his noble knights is one of the most beloved medieval legends. Arthurian tales abound, but one of the most familiar English versions is Le Morte Darthur, written by an imprisoned English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, in the second half of the 15th century. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is taken from a variety of sources in French and English, and is known to scholars today via two sources: a text printed by William Caxton in 1485, and British Library Additional MS 59678 (known more commonly as the Winchester Manuscript or the Winchester Malory), which was wholly unknown until a series of fortunate events brought it sharply into scholarly focus in 1934. 

A librarian at Winchester College named Walter F. Oakeshott had been working on a project involving medieval book bindings, and had requested access to the library’s medieval manuscript collection. At this time, these manuscripts were kept in a safe in the Warden’s bedroom. In ‘On the Finding of the Manuscript,’ Oakeshott states: ‘When at last I approached the safe with the key in my hands, it was with some excitement,’ but there were no medieval bindings amongst the manuscripts in the vault. ‘It was a disappointment.’ Oakeshott took this opportunity, despite his disappointment, to have a look through these valuable artefacts. He notes that he did see a manuscript, highly rubricated, discussing the Arthurian knights, but admits that he was unfamiliar with Malory’s work and thus unable to recognize it for what it was. Several weeks later, a second fortuitous event occurred. Oakeshott, reading a reference book which he was using for an exhibit, read that Caxton’s revisions of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur could not be examined because ‘no manuscript of the work is known’. Recalling the rubricated manuscript he had handled earlier, Oakeshott bought a cheap edition of Malory and again requested permission to peruse the manuscript vault. After a quick comparison of the two texts, Oakeshott realized the magnitude of his discovery. He had indeed found a manuscript of Le Morte Darthur! The manuscript was in relatively good condition, lacking only the first and last quires, and a few leaves.

The dialect of the Winchester Malory contains many features of the Chancery Standard, originating from the Central Midlands. Where variations occur they are often consistent with ‘the east Warwickshire dialect area’, according to Jeanette Marshall Denton (33). The Winchester Malory was the work of two professional scribes who are also responsible for the heavy rubrication in the manuscript. The first scribe uses an anglicana script for the text, but switches to a formal textura script when rubricating. The second scribe uses secretary script throughout. Folio 35r clearly contains work by both scribes for comparison. The heavy rubrication is immediately recognizable upon examination of the manuscript. Names, places, and important objects are all written in red ink, as are the Lombardic capitals which open some of the sections, creating a remarkable visual experience despite the manuscript’s lack of illustrations. The manuscript contains only one illustration, a line drawing of a cross, also in red, on fol. 357.

Most of the marginal annotations appear to be scribal, and merely offer brief descriptions of the action depicted in the main text, allowing for easier navigation. Other marginalia include a series of 14 manicules on fols. 9v to 42v. Hilton Kelleher notes a drypoint annotation on fol. 296v with the words ‘the red sete’. Kelleher also notes small crosses in the margins of fols. 370v to 403v. The Malory Project provides a few excellent examples of drypoint annotation within the Winchester MS, which are usually difficult to see in photograph or facsimile representation even of the highest quality. Fols. 398v to 409v have pricked crosses in their margins halfway down the pages which are not noted by Hellinga and Kelleher. The purpose of these crosses is not immediately obvious. Later readers have also added their own marginalia to the document. Someone wrote the name ‘Richard Followell’ and a short rhyme on fol. 348r, a blank page, and traced the page’s watermark. Further, fols. 90r, 189r, and 254v display roughly written alphabets (pen trials?). The manuscript paper carries three distinct watermarks, described in detail by Kelleher: one is in the shape of ‘a Gothic P surmounted by a quatrefoil and having a single diagonal line through its base’ (106), and the other two depict the arms of France on a shield with a crown. On one of these shields hangs a pendant which is not found on the other.

the existence of these relatively contemporary witnesses to a single work, existing in print and manuscript form, allow for a study in early printing’s adoptions and divergences from manuscript culture
The Winchester Malory is dated between 1470 and 1483. The relative accuracy of these dates is, like the discovery of the manuscript itself, the result of a series of fortunate events and some serious detective work. After a chance comment ‘reawakened [her] interest in the fate of texts in the hands of printers in the earliest period of printing’ (91), Hellinga chose to examine the Winchester for traces of handling by printing houses. The manuscript notably lacks compositors’ markings, but careful observation showed smudges that Hellinga has matched to offsets of various Caxton types. Specifically, she discovered a capital ‘F’ and ‘B’, and a lowercase ‘w’ in reversed images matching Caxton type 4, as well as lowercase ‘y’, ‘s’, and ‘m’ in Caxton’s type 2. This places the manuscript in Caxton’s workshop between 1480 and 1483, when these two types were present concurrently. Caxton’s edition was published in 1485, so these dates raise serious questions about the nature of the Winchester’s use in the preparation of the Caxton edition. If the Winchester Malory was in Caxton’s workshop prior to the production of the Caxton edition, it would be easy to assume it provided the text for that edition. Variations between the two editions, however, indicate a more complicated story. The Winchester Manuscript’s lack of markup by Caxton and his compositors further raises doubt. The discovery of the Winchester Manuscript has thus raised more questions than it has been able to answer.

The careful page layout used by the scribes and the heavy use of rubrication, along with the navigational aids present in the margins, suggest that this manuscript was made to be read easily. The text itself and its similarity to and digressions from the Caxton printing of the work have been the source of much debate in the 60 years since the discovery of the manuscript. Further, the existence of these relatively contemporary witnesses to a single work, existing in print and manuscript form, allow for a study in early printing’s adoptions and divergences from manuscript culture.

Corie Wiebe


British Library. ‘The Basics.’ British Library Treasures In Full: Malory's Arthurian Manuscript.

Crofts, Thomas. ‘Malory's Moral Scribes: Marginalia, Exemplarity and “Balyn Le Sauvage” in the Winchester Manuscript.’ Revue Belge de philologie et d'histoire 83.3 (2005): 685-706.

Denton, Jeanette Marshall. ‘An Historical Linguistic Description of Sir Thomas Malory's Dialect.’ Arthuriana 13.4 (2003): 14-47.

Evans, Jonathan D. M. ‘Walter F. Oakeshott and the Discovery of the Winchester MS.’ University of Georgia.

Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

Hellinga, Lotte, and Hilton Kelleher, ‘The Malory Manuscript.’ Electronic British Library Journal (1977): 91-101.

Kato, Takako. The Malory Project.

Lumiansky, R. M. ‘Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, 1947-1987: Author, Title, Text.’ Speculum 62.4 (1987): 878-97.

Oakeshott, Walter F. ‘The Finding of the Manuscript.’ Essays on Malory. Ed. J. A. W. Bennett. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1963. 1-6.

[Note: Corie Wiebe is an MA student in English at the University of Saskatchewan. This post was originally a piece written for a graduate seminar based on the Medieval Codes project.]

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