Le Morte Darthur


§2. The Text, and its Several Editions

Thomas Malory

THE first edition of Le Morte Darthur was printed by Caxton at Westminster in 1485, as he tells us in the colophon. Two copies only are known: they are folio, black letter, with wide margin, and among the finest specimens of Caxton’s printing. One belongs to Mrs. Abby E. Pope, of Brooklyn, United States, by whom it was bought for £1950 at the sale of the Osterley library in 18851; and the other to Earl Spencer. The Osterley copy, which is perfect, has the autograph ‘Oxford’ on the first leaf; it was sold with the Harleian Library to Osborne the bookseller, and apparently bought of him for £5 5s. by Bryan Fairfax, who sold his library to Mr. Child, maternal ancestor of the Earl of Jersey2. The Althorp copy, which was bought at Mr. Lloyd’s sale in 1816 for £320, had eleven leaves deficient; but these were supplied by Mr. Whittaker in fac-simile from the Osterley copy with remarkable skill3, though on collation with the original I have found many mistakes. This edition, like all Caxton’s books but one, has no title-page; the Prohem or Preface begins at the top of the first page4.

The two next editions of Morte Arthur were printed by Wynkyn de Worde, the chief workman and successor of Caxton, in 1498 and 1529. Only one copy of each is known. That of 1498 is in the Althorp Library: it wants some pages, but contains the Preface, which is a reprint of that of Caxton, though it here follows instead of preceding the Table of Contents. This edition, which has numerous woodcuts, is not an exact reprint of Caxton’s; there are differences of spelling and occasionally of a word; and the passage in the last chapter but one, beginning ‘Oh ye mighty and pompous lords,’ and ending with ‘turn again to my matter,’ which is not in Caxton’s edition, appears here, as in all later editions5. The edition of 1529 is in the British Museum, and wants the Title, Preface, and part of the Table of Contents.

In 1557 the book was reprinted by William Copland, with the title of ‘The story of the most noble and worthy kynge Arthur, the whiche was one of the worthyes chrysten, and also of his noble and valiaūte knyghtes of the rounde Table. Newly imprynted and corrected mccccclvij. ¶ Imprynted at London by Wyllyam Copland.’ And on the title-page, above the last line, is a woodcut of St. George and the Dragon, of which that on the title-page of Southey’s edition is a bad copy. A copy of this edition is in the British Museum, with a note that this is the only one with a title which the annotator has seen.

A folio and a quarto edition were published by Thomas East, without date, but probably about 1585, the former of which is in the British Museum.

The next, and last black-letter, edition is that of William Stansby, in 1634, which has been reprinted by Mr. Wright, and which contains the woodcut of the Round Table with Arthur in the middle and his knights around, a copy of which is familiar to many of us in one of the small editions of 1816. From the fact of an omission in this edition which exactly corresponds with a complete leaf in East’s folio, Mr. Wright concludes that the one was printed from the other. Each succeeding edition departs more than the previous one from the original of Caxton; but if we compare this of 1634 with Caxton’s, we find the variations almost infinite. Besides remodelling the preface, dividing the book into three parts, and modernising the spelling and many of the words, there are a number of more or less considerable variations and additions, of which Mr. Wright has given some of the more important in his notes, but which I estimate at above twenty thousand in the whole; and which have probably arisen in the minor instances from the printer reading a sentence and then printing it from recollection, without farther reference to his ‘copy,’ but in the others from a desire to improve the original simplicity by what the editor calls ‘a more eloquent and ornated style and phrase.’

No new edition seems to have been published till 1816, when two independent editions appeared, one in two, and the other in three 24mo volumes. Both are modernised for popular use, and are probably the volumes through which most of my own generation made their first acquaintance with King Arthur and his knights; but neither has any merit as to its editing.

In 1817 Messrs. Longmans and Co. published an edition in two volumes quarto, with an introduction and notes by Southey, who says, ‘The present edition is a reprint with scrupulous exactness from the first edition by Caxton, in Earl Spencer’s library6.’ As it appears from a note7 that he had nothing to do with the superintendence of the press, which was undertaken by Mr. Upcott, he was probably unaware that eleven leaves were, as I have mentioned above, then wanting in the copy from which this reprint was made. These had not then been restored in fac-simile; for Earl Spencer’s copy contains a note, signed by Messrs. Longmans and dated 1816, which gives a list of the pages then wanting; and, in fact, the substitutes for them which actually appear in Southey’s edition differ widely from the restored, or the original, text. Thus in chapter xii. of the last book, besides the interpolation of the long passage ‘O ye myghty and pompous lordes,’ &c., which is not in Caxton, there are in the first eleven lines thirty-five variations of spelling and punctuation, besides the introduction of the words ‘but continually mourned un—’ and ‘needfully as nature required,’ which are not in Caxton, and the change of Caxton’s ‘on the tombe of kyng Arthur & quene Guenever’ into ‘on kynge Arthur’s & quene Gwenever’s tombe.’ And thus throughout the pages in question—seventeen in number8—the spelling constantly, and words and even sentences occasionally, differ from the real text of Caxton9.

When at page 113 of volume i. the editor introduces the words ‘certayne cause’ to complete the sense, he is careful to call attention, in a foot-note, to the fact that these words are not in the original, but taken from the ‘second edition,’ by which I presume he means that of 1498. But when he subsequently supplies seventeen pages which were also not in his original, he gives no hint of the fact; and his reticence was so successful that for fifty years the interpolations passed as genuine among learned critics, who quoted from them passages wholly spurious as Caxton’s genuine text. It was only in 1867 that, in collating Earl Spencer’s copy with the edition of Southey, I discovered that these passages—to which my attention was directed by Messrs. Longman’s note above mentioned—did not correspond with Caxton’s text, as represented by Whittaker’s restorations: and on afterwards collating them with the Osterley text itself I found the like result. It remained to trace them to their real sources. This was not so easy as might be supposed, for though it was evident that Mr. Upcott must have had recourse to one or other of the existing editions, the interpolated passages in fact agree exactly with none of them. But a careful collation of the last four chapters of the book (which include more than half the interpolations, and may be taken as a fair specimen of the whole) with the old texts, leaves no doubt that, with the exception of the first thirty-six lines of chapter x, they were taken, like the two words mentioned above, from the first edition of Wynkyn de Worde, but with the spelling occasionally altered, and here and there a small word put in, left out, or changed. These alterations throw an ingenious disguise over the whole; but if we penetrate through this we find that in these four chapters there are only thirteen words differing from those in Wynkyn de Worde’s first edition, and these unimportant; while in his second edition, and in those of Copland and East, the variations from Mr. Upcott’s text of the same chapters are respectively fifty-seven, fifty-six, and fifty in number, and many of them important in kind: and if we go to the edition of 1634 we find the differences still greater, except as to those thirty-six lines, which are supplied from this edition, as they were wanting in the other copy. But the colophon, or concluding paragraph of the book, Mr. Upcott could not take from any of the editions which followed that of Caxton; for though Wynkyn de Worde might, and in fact did, supply at least one or two of the first words, the latter part of his colophon relates to his own edition, and departs widely from that of Caxton, while those in the later editions are still more unlike; and yet Mr. Upcott’s colophon is a tolerable, though not an exact, representation of that of Caxton. But his other materials can be ascertained beyond a doubt. They are, the colophon as given by Ames, and repeated by Dibdin in a modernised and otherwise inexact form10, and that which first appeared in the Catalogue of the Harleian Library11, and was thence copied in the article on Caxton in the Biographia Britannica, and also in Herbert’s Additions to Ames. The colophons of Ames and of the Harleian Catalogue have important variations from each other and from that of Caxton; and as Mr. Upcott adopts some portions of each which are not found either in the other, or in Caxton, we see the manner in which the paragraph in question was compounded. Each stone of the ingeniously fitted mosaic may be referred to the place from which it was taken. We cannot indeed choose positively between Ames and Dibdin, or among the Harleian Catalogue, the Biographia, and Herbert; but as the two paragraphs which are required in addition to that of Wynkyn de Worde are both found in Herbert’s Ames, it seems most probable that Mr. Upcott had recourse to that work, though another combination would have served the purpose equally well. That the interpolated passages are not taken from the Osterley Caxton itself, even in the roughest and most careless manner, is quite evident12.

In 1858 and 1866 Mr. Wright published successive editions reprinted from that of 1634. His learned introduction and notes are of considerable interest; but nothing can justify the reprinting the most corrupt of all the old editions when the first and best was within reach, though perhaps at greater cost.

In 1868 was published the first edition of the present volume, with the purpose of giving the original text in a form available for ordinary readers, and especially for boys, from whom the chief demand for this book will always come. It is a reprint of the original Caxton with the spelling modernised, and those few words which are unintelligibly obsolete replaced by others which, though not necessarily unknown to Caxton, are still in use, yet with all old forms retained which do not interfere with this requirement of being readable. For when, as indeed is oftenest the case, the context makes even an obsolete phrase probably, if not precisely, known, I have left it in the text, and given its meaning in the Glossary, in which I have chiefly followed Roquefort, Halliwell, and Wright. In the Glossary I have also added a few geographical notes for those readers who may care for them. And for the like reason—of making the book readable—such phrases or passages as are not in accordance with modern manners have been also omitted or replaced by others which either actually occur or might have occurred in Caxton’s text elsewhere. I say manners, not morals, because I do not profess to have remedied the moral defects of the book which I have already spoken of. Lord Tennyson has shown us how we may deal best with this matter, in so far as Sir Thomas Malory has himself failed to treat it rightly; and I do not believe that when we have excluded what is offensive to modern manners there will be found anything practically injurious to the morals of English boys, for whom I have chiefly undertaken this work, while there is much of moral worth which I know not where they can learn so well as from the ideals of magnanimity, courage, courtesy, reverence for women, gentleness, self-sacrifice, chastity, and other manly virtues, exhibited in these pages.

The omissions, not many, nor in any sense constituting an abridgment of the original, were thought desirable to fit the book for popular reading. And if any one blames the other departures from the exact form of that original, I would ask him to judge from the specimens of the old type and spelling which I have given at the end of each book, and of the volume, whether a literal and verbal reproduction of the whole would not be simply unreadable except by students of old English13. And if some departure from the original was necessary, it was reasonable to carry it so far as, though no farther than, my purpose required. And, subject to these conditions, the present volume is in fact a more accurate reproduction of Caxton’s text than any other except those of Southey and Dr. Sommer. I have, indeed, made use of Southey’s text for this edition, having satisfied myself by occasional collation with the Althorp and Osterley Caxtons that it is a sufficiently accurate reprint excepting as to the passages above mentioned; and these have been taken by me from the original in the way I have said.

In 1862, 1868, 1871, 1880, abridgments of Malory’s book were edited by J. T. King, E. Conybeare, B. M. Ranking, and S. Lanier, respectively. And in 1886 Mr. Ernest Rhys edited a reprint of fourteen of the twenty-one books, from the version of Mr. Wright, with further modernisations and an introduction.

In 1889, 1890, and 1891, Dr. H. Oskar Sommer edited, and Mr. Nutt published, in three volumes, what will henceforth be the best, if not quite the best possible, edition of Caxton’s original text, for the scholar and the student. It would be hard to over-rate the industry, the learning, and the munificent public spirit of these worthy representatives of Sir Thomas Malory and William Caxton. The first volume gives the text of the Althorp copy, page for page, line for line, word for word, and letter for letter, with no change but that of Roman for black letter type. It is, indeed, too scrupulously exact, for it reproduces the mistakes in Whittaker’s fac-simile pages which now form part of the Althorp copy, only correcting these by collations with the Osterley original, given in the second volume. Whittaker has no more authority than any other mere copyist; and the direct correction of his mistakes would have made Dr. Sommer’s reprint a perfect representation of the original while making a reprint of the collations unnecessary. Besides these collations, and others of the second edition of Wynkyn de Worde with the text of Caxton, Dr. Sommer’s second volume contains a complete bibliography of the original text and all its after editions; an Index of names of persons and places; a Glossary, or indeed dictionary, of words, whether obsolete or still in use; and an Essay on the language of the book.

In the third volume, after a graceful essay by Mr. Andrew Lang on the literary merits of Malory, Dr. Sommer gives us a series—an original and very important series—of ‘Studies on the Sources’; and he prints from MSS. in the British Museum the only two of those ‘sources’ which had not been so made accessible already, either by ancient or modern editors. Into this hitherto chaotic mass of mediæval romances, French and English, prose or verse, Dr. Sommer has now first brought light and order. With an almost inconceivable amount of thoughtful and learned labour, he has collated the various manuscripts with the printed editions and with Malory’s book, in a detail which, great as it is, represents, as he tells us, a still more minute investigation of which he only gives the main results. With the exception of the story of Beaumains, which is an enlarged narration of that of La Cote Male Taile, and subject to the changes made by Malory’s own genius, all the adventures and incidents of Malory’s Morte Darthur are now shown to be found in one or more of these ‘sources,’ often translated literally from French, or transferred word for word from the English, yet still oftener so compressed and fused into a new shape that the finished work is but a tenth of the bulk of the original matter. Dr. Sommer arranges these sources into the four groups of the Merlin, the Lancelot, the Tristan, and the Prophecies of Merlin, and shows the relations of each group to the corresponding portions of Malory. He thinks, with M. Gaston Paris, that Malory had a now lost form of the ‘Lancelot,’ comparable to the ‘Suite de Merlin’ discovered only fifteen years since; and indeed believes that he has found some pages of this missing ‘Lancelot’ imbedded in a ‘Tristan’ MS. in the British Museum. But the work of this learned critic must be studied in itself, not in a summary. Of the light which these investigations throw upon the genius of Malory, and on the character of his art, I have already spoken.

There is no title-page, as I have already mentioned, to the Caxton, that which is given by several bibliographers being only an extract, not very critically selected, from Caxton’s preface. But it is stated in Caxton’s colophon that the book was ‘entytled le morte Darthur,’ and he explains that it was so ‘entitled’ notwithstanding it treated of Arthur’s birth, life, and acts as well as death, and also of the adventures of his knights of the Round Table. And the concluding words of Malory, ‘Here is the end of the death of Arthur,’ taken with their context, point to the same title. It was indeed before Malory’s time, and has been ever since, the traditional title of this story. We have Mort Artus and Morte Arthure in the earlier times; Ascham, in Henry VIII’s reign, calls this book La Morte d’Arthure; Tyrwhitt, Mort d’Arthur; and Walter Scott and Southey, Morte Arthur, which last probably many of us are familiar with as the old name which we heard from our own fathers.

1.    Englishmen, who feel shame and sorrow for the loss of the only perfect first copy of our National Epic, may yet be glad to know it has an honoured place with our worthier kinsfolk across the Atlantic, in the rich library and museum of Mr. and Mrs. Abby Pope:

‘And, so sepulchred, in such pomp doth lie,
That kings, for such a tomb, would wish to die.’    [back]

2.    Dibdin’s Typographical Antiquities, 1810, vol. i, pp. 242, 254.    [back]

3.    Dibdin’s Supplement to the Bibliotheca Spenceriana, vol. ii. p. 213; or Ædes Althorpianæ, vol. vi. p. 213. I would here express my thanks to Earl Spencer for sending to the British Museum for my use his Caxton, and his unique copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s first edition of Morte Darthur, as also for favouring me with details of information respecting the former; and to the Earl of Jersey for permitting me to examine his Caxton at Osterley.    [back]

4.    ‘Caxton followed the usage of the scribes in this particular; for, with one exception only, and at the very end of his career, where the title of the book is printed alone in the centre of the first page, his books appear without any title page whatever. Wynkyn de Worde adopted the use of title-pages immediately after the death of his master.’ Biography and Typography of William Caxton, England’s first printer, p. 45. By William Blades, 1877.    [back]

5.    As the passage is worth preserving I have given it at the end of the volume, Note A, p. 488.    [back]

6.    Vol. i, p. xxviii.    [back]

7.    Ibid. p. lviii.    [back]

8.    The pages are vol. i, p. 167, line 18, to p. 169, line 17; p. 275, third line from bottom, to p. 279, line 5 from bottom; vol. ii, p. 202, line 13, to p. 204, line 14; p. 446, line 5, to end of 455.    [back]

9.    An account of these interpolations was given by me in the Athenæum of Sept. 7 and Dec. 10, 1867, and Feb. 10, 1868.    [back]

10.    Typographical Antiquities, by Ames and Herbert, 1785, vol. i, p. 61; Ibid. enlarged by Dibdin, 1810, vol. i, p. 253. The ‘Additions’ are at the end of vol. iii. of Herbert’s edition.    [back]

11.    Catalogus Bibl. Harleianæ, 1744, vol. iii, no. 372.    [back]

12.    See note B at the end of the volume, p. 488.    [back]

13.    Even the learned M.M. Gaston Paris and Ulrich, say, in reference to editions of Le Morte Darthur, ‘La plus commode à lire, parce que le langage y est discrètement rajeuni, est l’édition donnée chez Macmillan en 1868 par Sir Edw. Strachey.’    [back]

Le Morte Darthur - Contents    |     Le Morte Darthur - §3. An Essay on Chivalry

Back    |    Words Home    |    Thomas Malory Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback