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  • Chapter 9:Gender and the Script/Print Continuum: Caxton's Morte Darthur
  • Dorsey Armstrong

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur is a remarkable and conflicted work. It is a text that celebrates chivalry, yet was written by a nobleman while he was in prison for allegedly having committed some very unchivalric acts.1 Its depiction of a hierarchical social order from which peasants, merchants, and other commoners are notably absent stands in stark contrast to the realities of the time in which it was composed: the latter part of the fifteenth century, when the Wars of the Roses and the rise of an increasingly wealthy and literate bourgeois merchant class each pressured English society in different ways. On the one hand, the Morte Darthur seems to posit chivalric ideals as the best means of social control, but on the other, the text reveals the inadequacies of chivalry as an effective means of ordering a community. The manuscript version of the text was completed by Malory just a few years before William Caxton set up the first printing press in England.2 Some fifteen years after Malory finished his massive opus, Caxton would print the Morte Darthur, offering the story of a golden age of chivalry to a reading public whose most recent and memorable experience with kings, princes and knights had been Richard III's assumption of the throne after the disappearance of the princes in the tower.3 Despite—or perhaps because of—the unchivalric behavior of the various players in the Wars of the Roses and the decline of the practical function of knighthood at the end of the fifteenth century, Caxton's printed edition of Malory's text seems to have been enthusiastically received.4

The composition and circulation of the Morte Darthur occurs right at the intersection of manuscript and print culture, and significantly, the text exists today in two different forms: the Winchester manuscript, which is itself a copy at least one step removed from Malory's autograph text, and the Caxton printed edition of 1485, which used Winchester as one of its sources, if not the primary one.5 The debate over which Morte is the "right" one has raged for years—almost since the [End Page 133] moment the Winchester manuscript was discovered in 1934—and continues to this day. Caxton's version of the Morte Darthur has significant differences from the Winchester manuscript and much of the quarrel surrounding which text is "better" has centered on the attempt to account for these changes. There are many dimensions to this debate, and I do not intend here to join in the argument over which text is closer to Malory's original, which text is the right one.6 Rather, I would like to look at how Caxton's version of the Morte both reflects and constructs a particular late medieval reading public that is dramatically different from that which Malory, just some fifteen years earlier, seems to imagine. Somewhere between the composition of the original manuscript and Caxton's print edition, several significant changes were made to the text of the Morte Darthur, changes that reflect a new conception of the reading public.

Scholars have argued variously that these changes should be attributed to Caxton, to an unknown scribe or scribes who produced a manuscript version of the Morte (now lost) which Caxton used as his primary copytext, or to Malory himself, for whom the version represented by Winchester was merely a rough draft.7 Who made the changes that cause Caxton's Morte to diverge from the Winchester manuscript is less important than the fact that the changes are made. Such alterations are more important for what they say about late medieval English literary culture than for what they might tell us about Caxton's taste in literature, or Malory's second thoughts on his massive opus. Thus, when I refer to "Caxton" throughout this article, I am not so much arguing that Caxton himself made the changes I am discussing, but rather, I am using his name as a placeholder to stand in for the person(s) behind the differences we see between the Winchester manuscript and the printed Morte Darthur...