The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory’s Morte Darthur: Rubrication, Commemoration, Memorialization is an ambitious title for an ambitious study. K. S. Whetter analyzes the mise en page of the Winchester Manuscript, the primary witness for the text of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, to show that it is unique as far as anybody can tell. The most distinctive feature of Winchester’s ordinatio is the red ink with which the scribes have rendered all of the proper names, apparently stopping to change pens in every instance. Whetter attempts to demonstrate that this feature, as well as others of the manuscript’s layout, must have originated with the author himself. This book is well-researched, its author seeming to have read all contemporary scholarship and criticism of Malory as well as the best of the past. Two chapters lay out Whetter’s case for Malory as the originator of the rubrication, and two further chapters build upon this conclusion to provide critical insights into Malory’s story. These chapters are flanked by an unnumbered ‘Textual Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion: The Red and the Black’. In many ways, this is a refreshing entry into Arthurian studies. Considering how little is known in detail of how medieval authors worked, it takes a bold mind to try to establish new information and push forward the limits of knowledge. Towards this end, Whetter has examined numerous manuscripts of contemporary medieval romances and illustrates his points with high-quality colour images from some of the more important. Whetter discusses in more detail than anyone has hitherto the Cambridge manuscript of the Old French Suite du Merlin, one of Malory’s more important sources, as well as manuscripts of both versions of Malory’s most important minor source, John Hardyng’s Chronicle. The Cambridge Suite is often cited as another example of an Arthurian romance with rubricated proper names. Whetter’s analysis clarifies that this position needs serious qualification. Perhaps the most useful part of the book for future researchers will be the appendices to Chapter 2, which detail the rubrication and errors or deviations from the normal practice. Spot checking against the online digital facsimile confirms Whetter’s accuracy. Even so, however, Whetter is not able to prove his case for Malory as the rubrication’s originator nor does the mise en page of a particular manuscript witness seem to be the deciding factor in the interpretative arguments he pursues. Winchester’s rubrication system probably does not originate with Malory. Whetter makes the most of the scanty evidence, but his arguments are not finally convincing. His most interesting piece of evidence is similar patterns of rubrication in manuscripts of Hardying’s Chronicle, which suggests to Whetter that Malory may have been familiar with a copy of Hardying that inspired the rubrication of his own book. Against this, however, it must be admitted that no one has ever been able to identify any extant manuscript as one that Malory had used, and therefore no one knows what Malory’s actual copy might have looked like. Whetter repeats like a leitmotif the idea that Winchester’s style of rubrication is so unusual that it must be authorial rather than scribal, but this does not follow. All medieval manuscripts will have their unusual and unique features, and there is no reason to expect that the more unusual the manuscript feature, the more likely it is to originate with the author of the text. Whetter presumably means that a professional scribe is unlikely to have devised a decoration that was so far from common practice, but because rubriation of the names in this way must have greatly increased the labour involved in the copying, it is hard to imagine a team of scribes deciding to do so simply because it had appeared in their exemplar without explicit instructions from their patron. Whetter suggests that ‘there is considerable reason for believing that Winchester’s layout was carried over from its exemplar and thence back to the authorial holograph’ (p. 53). This evidence is mainly the great regularity with which the scribes perform this task with relatively few mistakes; however, other explanations are conceivable and preferable. The probability of instructions from a patron makes the exemplar hypothesis superfluous and eliminates the need to posit hypnotical manuscripts that share the same otherwise unique features of Winchester. Rather, therefore, the Winchester scribes could well have marked the names in each leaf of their exemplar to remind them as they copied. The very fact that the style of rubrication is so rare also counts against the theory of it being authorial. If there had been a fifteenth-century tradition of this kind, then scribes might expect to see something like this as implying an author’s wishes, rather than as a fancy of a previous scribe, and be inclined to comply. Also, as Whetter himself points out (pp. 8–9), the Winchester is probably at least two generations of copying removed from Malory’s holograph. Therefore, even if the Winchester rubrication had been present in the scribes’ exemplar, it still would not have originated with Malory unless another team of scribes had also decided or been instructed to duplicate this extraordinary feature. Although there is not enough evidence to establish the identity of the person who ordered the rubrication to the exclusion of anyone else, such evidence as there is points away from Malory. It is notable that the Caxton edition contains no hint of this nor does the edition of Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde. De Worde supplied attractive woodcuts, running headers, and added Caxton’s chapter rubrics at the head of each chapter for the benefit of his readers. Furthermore, he has been shown by scholars such as Tsuyoshi Mukai and P. J. C. Field as having most likely used Caxton’s own copy text to recreate a particular section. Considering that Winchester was also in Caxton’s shop for many years, de Worde would have been rather well placed to know, if anyone could, whether Winchester’s decorations had the authority of Malory’s wishes. Of course, if de Worde had produced an equivalent to the Winchester’s rubrication, scholars would have to consider that he might have done so under the influence of Winchester itself; yet, the fact that neither Caxton nor de Worde felt the need to approximate this feature suggests that Malory was not the author of the Winchester rubrication. Instead Winchester’s layout should be seen as a part of the scribes’ overall performance. Knowing where they took pains and where they took shortcuts can illuminate their patron’s priorities, and they show a willingness to disregard their exemplar in various ways that make it seem unlikely that they follow any of its nonessential features merely out of respect. For example, they systematically changed the spelling of the name of one of Malory’s minor characters in the first tale, they abbreviated the beginning of the second tale, they appear to have rewritten part of the ‘explicit’ to the ‘Tale of Sir Gareth’ into an ‘incipit’ for the ‘Book of Sir Tristram’, and throughout, when they caught themselves making omissions, they tended to repair the breach by inserting the missing material in another place, a process Malory’s newest editor, P. J. C. Field in his two-volume 2013 edition, calls invisible mending. These factors suggest the strong preference for a neat page and clean margins that others have noticed over concerns for the accuracy of the text. The scribes must have believed that these measures would be acceptable to their patron or else go unnoticed. This does not look like the work of someone with the interests of the author at heart. Rather it would appear that the unknown person who commissioned Winchester valued it for its appearance more than for the details of wording or fine points of interpretation as revealed by subtle use of layout. However, even so, one must admit the possibility that the Winchester patron may have initiated the rubrication in accordance with Malory’s wishes. Winchester and all intermediate manuscripts were produced within the 16 years between the terminus a quo of the Morte Darthur, 4 March 1469, and 31 July 1485 when Caxton printed his edition. This allows for the idea that Winchester’s patron could have known Malory. Malory presumably had some ambitions for the future of his work; for example, most of the marginalia seems to have come from the author and could almost be read as a wish list of scenes for some future illuminator. Unfortunately, our great ignorance about all such matters leaves these attractive ideas no more than speculation. For this reason, the most favourable conclusion that one can draw on Whetter’s case is the famous Scottish verdict. Whetter is astute enough to realize that readers might come to this conclusion, and he therefore makes the point that the effect of Winchester ordinatio upon the literary meaning of the story will be valid when reading from the Winchester whosoever the mastermind behind the rubrication may have been (p. 55). This will be true so long as the conclusions about the meaning are valid. The final two chapters apply the insights gained from the implications of Winchester’s ordinatio, the most prominent of which is his conclusion that Malory’s version of the Arthurian story has a far greater emphasis on secular concerns than critics generally realize. At the centre of this debate is the conflict between the traditional values of chivalry and the much more stringent standards of the Grail quest. There is usually considered to be an important difference in tone between Malory’s version and that of its major source, which insists on the inadequacy of earthly chivalric ideals compared to those of celestial chivalry, as embodied in Galahad, Perceval, and Bors. For Malory, knighthood remains a noble institution, and Lancelot is still the greatest of the earthly knights, an honour as far as it goes. The pendulum in this debate has swung back somewhat in recent years towards greater appreciation of the religious aspects of Malory, but Whetter argues that, on the contrary, the ordinatio of the Winchester is the key to a superior understanding, which shows that Malory has written a secular version of the Arthurian story. Whetter points out that names of God are not rubricated and that even the proper name ‘Jesu’ is only rubricated occasionally (p. 107 and passim). He suggests that the Grail quest was an obligatory part of the history of Arthur’s kingdom by Malory’s time, which explains why he included it (p. 134), but that Malory’s true attitude can be gleaned by the lack of rubrication of holy names, as opposed to the near ubiquity of rubrication on the names of even the most minor of characters and the secular nature of the characters and the story throughout. Whetter’s discussion is a worthy addition to one of the classical, if necessarily impressionistic, debates about Malory’s work. However, some qualifications should remain in mind. First, of course, Malory as an author, and perhaps as a person, was more focused on secular affairs than on religion. This is implicit in the very book that he wrote, a book that is focused on the life of King Arthur and his greatest knights rather than a consolation of philosophy or of theology, or a hagiography. However, this very subject includes a spiritual dimension, and Malory himself was an avowed Christian, as one would naturally expect of a fifteenth-century Englishman. He considered himself to be at all times a servant of Jesus and prayed, in evident expectation that it might be granted, for God to intervene in human history to effect his release from prison. With these facts in mind, it seems unreasonable for anyone to try to push an argument for the importance of the secular or the sacred too far at the expense of the other. As for Whetter’s suggestion that Malory may have included the Grail quest simply because it was an unavoidable part of the story, the freedom with which Malory interacted with his sources makes this seem improbable. Malory’s Grail section is the second largest major section of his book, an odd outcome for an obligatory rendition. Malory also knew an alternative, less mystical version of the Grail story that might be thought to have better suited Malory’s purpose as Whetter divines it, the Perlesvaus. In this work, goodness and virtue are expressed by prowess in battle, and, although Lancelot is denied even the partial vision of the Grail that Malory gives him, he is not humiliated nor is earthy chivalry condemned in contrast to a celestial chivalry. How different Malory’s book would have seemed if he had taken his Grail quest from this source. Instead he chose to tell the version of the story that he considered to be ‘one of the treweyst and of the holyest that ys in this worlde’ (p. 789.16). Whetter also argues for a secular interpretation of the episode of the healing of Sir Urry. This episode has no known source and is therefore thought to be original to Malory. If so it is probably his single most important addition to the story. It is set just before the beginning of the downfall of Arthur’s court and immediately after the episode in which Malory’s readers see Launcelot and Guinevere together, finally confirming the rumour that has run throughout the entire book. Sir Urry is mortally wounded and can be healed only by the best knight in the world. Malory uses the occasion to create what amounts to an honour roll of the names of Arthur’s knights at this penultimate moment, all beautifully rubricated, of course, in the Winchester. Launcelot, however, holds himself back as all other knights try and fail. When he is finally unable to avoid the attempt any longer, he prays, ‘Now, Blessed Fadir and Son and Holy Goste, I beseche The of Thy mercy that my simple worship and honesté be saved, and Thou Blyssed Trynyté, Thou mayste yeff me power to hele thys syke knight by the grete vertu and grace of The, but, Good Lorde, never of myself’ (p. 867.22-26). He succeeds and in response, ‘wept, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn’ (p. 868.1-2). (Field’s edition follows the normal modern practice of capitalizing nouns and pronouns that refer to God. As Whetter notes, this is not the case in the Winchester, in which no names are capitalized and the references to God are not rubricated.) Malory never elaborates, and a century of great literary critics has been unable to agree exactly why Launcelot behaves this way. However, none denies that Launcelot’s actions and feelings make intuitive sense in the context of the larger story. It therefore seems to be forcing a point to argue, as Whetter does, that Malory wished his readers to understand this in secular rather than religious terms. The very tone of the incident argues against Whetter’s interpretation. If Malory had wished to make it explicit within strictly secular terms that Launcelot is the greatest knight, in spite of any character flaws, he could easily have devised an episode to reflect that. If imagination had failed him utterly, he could have recycled the motif of a sword that only the greatest knight can draw, or he could simply have had the Lady of the Lake, Nynive, who has assumed the voice of authority since the loss of Merlin, simply declare that it is so. In any case, it does not seem that a knowledge of the Winchester’s ordinatio will bring anyone closer to a definitive answer on this issue. Whetter’s analysis has other insights to offer. He devotes his final chapter to the idea that Winchester’s mise en page also suggests that the manuscript is a memorial artefact for Arthur and his knights, a kind of literary equivalent for the inscribed tombs to be found in Malory and other Arthurian romance (pp. 159–98). One can easily see Whetter’s point here, since the red ink certainly draws attention to itself and marks out the names as apart from the rest of the text. However, seeing the Winchester Manuscript as playing the role of a cemetery seems a somewhat unapt metaphor, since it is in the pages of books that literary characters come to life. The idea seems connected to Whetter’s earlier arguments for the Morte Darthur as an extended tragedy, and those who found that argument persuasive will want to read this one as well. If Whetter’s book does not, then, achieve its ambitious promises, it is still based upon a foundation of solid scholarship that advances our understanding of just how unusual several features of the Winchester Manuscript are. The discussion on how much the mise en page of a particular witness of a medieval text affects its literary meaning is thought-provoking, and critics will wish to consider the chapters debating the secular nature of the Morte Darthur whether they are interested in textual matters. By considering the aesthetic implications of a single major manuscript in a book-length study, Whetter suggests an avenue for literary criticism not yet very well explored. As high-quality images of literary manuscripts from the Middle Ages become more accessible over the World Wide Web, critics may increasingly wish to analyse notable major manuscripts in their own terms as collaborative works of art, in which the author of the text will have played an important role but not the only one, as in the performance of a piece of drama or music. Those future critics may well remember Whetter as an early explorer in this field. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 2, 2017
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