Caxton and Winchester





Siân Echard, University of British Columbia

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Until 1934, the text of Malory’s Morte Darthur was dependent on William Caxton’s 1485 printing of the book. There is only one perfect copy of this print now in existence. You can see it online thanks to the Llibrary’s subscription to EEBO, Early English Books Online. Search using “Malory” for author. Remember that if you’re connecting from home, to read the Library’s instructions here.

The printed editions which followed Caxton all used his text, the last of these being issued in 1634. After that, it would be 1816 before a new printing of Malory appeared. In that year, two separate printings were issued. We have a copy of one in Special Collections: it’s called The History of the Renowned Prince Arthur, King of Britain, with his life and death, and all his glorious battles... (its call number in Special Collections is PR2043 .W18 1816). But these two editions were based on the 1634 printing and so, ultimately, on Caxton. And that’s how things remained until 1934, when Walter Oakeshott discovered a manuscript copy of the Morte Darthur in Winchester College (part of the College is in the photo at the top of this page).

Winchester had been associated, by Malory, with Arthur’s Camelot (there are other contenders, including places in Wales and Cornwall). You can still see a Round Table in the Great Hall at Winchester; it is not old enough to be Arthur's Round Table (if he ever existed, or ever had such an object...) but it is a testimony to the power of Arthurian associations. It seems to have been used by Henry VII, for example, to celebrate the knighting of his eldest son, Arthur, who would have become King Arthur, had he lived to succeed his father.

Click here to visit the home page of the Winchester Round Table Click here to read about Martin Biddle’s comprehensive book, King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000)

The Winchester Malory set the scholarly world afire, however, not because it was found in Winchester, but rather, because it presented a text which was different from William Caxton’s, in both contents and organization. This page will give you some samples of the differences, not only between Caxton and Winchester, but also, between the originals (the manuscript and the early printed book) and modern editions.

The British Library has announced plans to mount the whole of the manuscript online, as part of its Treasures in Full program. Click here to visit a preliminary site with sample pages. It should be noted that the digitization is now complete: at the Malory Project website, you can view all the folios from the Winchester manuscript, as well as a sample of pages from the John Rylands Library copy of Caxton’n edition.

Below is a detail from the Winchester Manuscript (BL Additional MS 59678, fol. 113v, by permission of the British Library). It is the opening of the story of Gareth. To the right, I have transcribed the excerpt. Where you see something underlined, I have expanded the abbreviations, but otherwise I have tried to transcribe so as to show you exactly what a reader of these versions was dealing with. Remember that words can run over the end of a line; that punctuation is usually minimal; and that it can be hard to tell whether a letter is intended to be upper case or not.

IN Arthurs dayes whan he helde þe Rounde table moste plenou
re hit fortuned the kynge commaunded that þe hy3e feste of Pen
tecoste sholde be holden at a cite and a castell In tho dayes that
was called Kynke Kenadonne vppon þe sondys þat marched ny3e wa
lys/ So evir  þe kynge had a custom that at þe feste of Pente
coaste in especiall a fore oþer festys in the yere he wolde nat go
þat day to mete vnto that he had herde oþer sawe of a grete mer
vayle. And for þat custom all maner of strange adventures com
by fore Arthure as at þat geste before all oþer fests/ And so sir
Gawayne a lytyll to for þe none of the day of pentecoste a
spyed at a wyndowe .iii. men vppon horse bak and a dwarfe
vppon foote and so the .iii. men a lyght and þe dwarff kepte þer
horsis And one of þe . men was hy3ar than the tothir tweyne by
a foote and an half//
Whan Arthur held his round table moost ple//
nour/ it fortuned that he commaunded that the
hyhe feest of Pentecost shold be holden at a cy
te and a Castel the whiche in tho dayes was
called kynke kenadonne vpon the sondes that
marched nyghe walys/ C Soo euer the kyng hadde a custom
that at the feest of Pentecost in especyal afore other feestes in
the yere he wold not goo that daye to mete vntyl he had herd
or sene of a grete merueylle/ And for that custome alle ma//
ner of straunge aduentures came before Arthur as at that fe//
st before alle other feestes/ And soo sire Gawayne a lytyl to
fore none of the daye of Pentecost aspyed att a wyndowe thre
men vpon horsbak and a dwarf on foote/ and soo the thre men
alighte and the dwarf kepte their horses/ and one of the thre
men was hyher than the other tweyne by a foote and an half
To the left is the same passage as it appears in William Caxton’s printing of Malory’s Morte. Again, this is an attempt at an exact transcription, including the line breaks and punctuation (or lack of it) as found in the early printed text.
he next thing to do is to compare these raw transcriptions with their edited versions; below on the left you will see the passage as it appears on p. 231 of volume I of the Penguin edition of the Morte, a text that is based largely on the Caxton printing. On the right is the text as it appears in Eugene Vinaver’s edition of Malory’s Works (the major scholarly edition, based on the Winchester MS). What changes have been made in each case?
When Arthur held his Round Table most plenour, it for-
tuned that he commanded that the high feast of Pentecost
should be holden at a city and a castle, the which in those
days was called Kinkenadon, upon the sands that marched
nigh Wales. So ever the king had a custom that at the feast
of Pentecost in especial, afore other feasts in the year, he
would not go that day to meat until he had heard or seen of
a great marvel. And for that custom all manner of strange
adventures came before Arthur as at that feast before all
other feasts.
     And so Sir Gawain, a little tofore noon of the day of Pente-
cost, espied at a window three men upon horseback, and a
dwarf on foot, and so the three men alit, and the dwarf kept
their horses, and one of the three men was higher than the
other twain by a foot and an half.

IN Arthurs dayes, whan he helde the Rounde Table moste plenoure, hit fortuned the kynge commaunded that the hyghe feste of Pentecoste sholde be holden at a cité and a castell, in tho dayes that was called Kynke Kenadonne, uppon the sondys that marched nyghe Walys. So evir the kynge had a custom that at the feste of Pentecoste in especiall afore other festys in the yere, he wolde nat go that day to mete unto that he had herde other sawe of a grete mervayle. And for the custom all maner of strange adventures com byfore Arthure, as at that feste before all other festes.

And so sir Gawayne, a lytyll tofore the none of the day of Pentecoste, aspyed at a wyndowe three men uppon horsebak and a dwarfe uppon foote. And so the three men alyght, and the dwarff kepte their horsis, and one of the men was hyghar than the tothir tweyne by a foote and an half.

he differences between the Winchester and Caxton versions of the opening of the tale of Gareth, above, are not particularly dramatic: you will see different spellings, a few different words, but not much more than that. One of the places where Winchester differs most radically from Caxton is in the account of Arthur’s war with the Roman emperor Lucius. To read about Malory’s sources for this section of the Morte, go to our class Roman Wars page. Below, I’ve reproduced, as they appear in the editions, the opening of the Roman Wars section in Winchester (on the left) and Caxton (on the right). Note that this time I haven’t given you the exact line breaks.
HYT befelle whan kyng Arthur had wedded Gwenyvere and fulfylled the Rounde Table, and so aftir his mervelous knyghtis and he had venquyshed the moste party of his enemyes, than sone aftir com sir Launcelot de Lake unto the courte, and sir Trystrams come that tyme also, and than kyng Arthur helde a ryal feeste and Table Rounde.
  So hit befelle that the Emperour Lucius, Procurour of the publyke wele of Rome, sente unto Arthure messyngers commaundynge hym for to pay his trewage that his auncettryes have payde before hym. Whan kynge Arthure wyste what they mente he loked up with his gray yghen and angred at the messyngers passyng sore. Than were this messeyngers aferde and knelyd stylle and durste nat aryse, they were so aferde of his grymme countenaunce. Than one of the knyghtes messyngers spake alowde and seyde,
  “Crowned kynge, myssedo no messyngers, for we be com at this commaundemente, as servytures sholde.”
  Than spake the Conquerour, “Thou recrayed and coward knyghte, why feryst thou my countenaunce? There be in this halle, and they were sore aggreved, thou durste nat for a deukedom of londis loke in their facis.”
  “Sir,” seyde one of the senatoures, “so Cryste me helpe, I was so aferde whan I loked in thy face that myne herte wolde nat serve for to sey my message. But sytthen hit is my wylle for to sey myne erande, the gretis welle Lucius, the Emperour of Roome, and commaundis the uppon payne that woll falle to sende hym the trewage of this realme that thy fadir Uther Pendragon payde, other ellys he woll bereve the all thy realmys that thou weldyst, and thou as rebelle, not knowynge hym as thy soverayne, withholdest and reteynest, contrary to the statutes and decrees maade by the noble and worthy Julius Cezar, conqueror of this realme.”
When King Arthur had after long war rested, and held a royal feast and Table Round with his allies of kings, princes, and noble knights all of the Round Table, there came into his hall, he sitting on his throne royal, twelve ancient men, bearing each of them a branch of olive, in token that they came as ambassadors and messengers from the Emperor Lucius, which was called at that time, Dictator or Procuror of the Public Weal of Rome; which said messengers, after their entering and coming into the presence of King Arthur, did to him their obeisance in making to him reverence, said to him in this wise:
  “The high and mighty Emperor Lucius sendeth to the King of Britain greeting, commanding thee to acknowledge him for thy lord, and to send him the truage due of this realm unto the Empire, which they father and other tofore thy precessors have paid as is of record, and thou as rebel not knowing him as thy sovereign, withholdest and retainest contrary to the statutes and decrees made by the noble and worthy Julius Cesar, conqueror of this realm, and first Emperor of Rome.”

hese versions are quite different, as you can see, and we will talk more in class about the implications of the differences between Winchester and Caxton. But this page has been intended to show you as well that there are many small differences, not just between Winchester and Caxton, but between those texts and the editions through which we now encounter them. The point here is not to argue that any one version is better or worse than the other, but rather, to show how an awareness of the different forms a text takes affect how we read it, and to make clear that the physical presentation of a text is part of a reader’s total experience. I close this page with a few quotations from the work of textual theorists:

Whatever its metamorphoses, the different physical forms of any text, and the intentions they serve, are relative to a specific time, place and person. This creates a problem only if we want meaning to be absolute and immutable. In fact, change and adaptation are conditions of survival, just as the creative application of texts is a condition of their being read at all. (D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, p. 50)

... the very physique of a book will embody a code of meaning which the reader will decipher, more or less deeply, more or less self-consciously. To read, for example, a translation of Homer’s Iliad in the Signet paperback, in the edition published by the University of Chicago Press, in the Norton Critical Edition, or in the limited edition put out by the Folio Society (with illustrations), is to read Homer’s Iliad in four very different ways. Each of these texts is visually and materially coded for different audiences and different purposes. (Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition, p. 115)

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