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  • Minor Sources in Caxton's Roman War
  • Ralph Norris

For more than four hundred years, all editions of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur were based directly or indirectly on William Caxton's of 1485.1 In the preface to his edition, Caxton stated, "And I accordyng to my copye haue doon sette it in enprynte / . . . And for to vnderstonde bryefly the contente of thys volume / I haue devyded it in to xxi bookes / and euery book chapytred."2 Early scholars were aware of the possibility that Caxton altered Malory's work to a greater extent than this.3 However, confirmation had to await the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript in 1934, which made it clear that Caxton had made some changes to Malory's work that he did not admit in his preface, and since Eugène Vinaver's monumental edition of 1947, modern Malory scholarship has endeavored to retrieve Malory's authentic text both from Caxton's alterations and from the scribal errors in the Winchester. To this end, increasing attention has been given to clarifying the process by which Caxton produced his edition. For example, comparison of the Caxton edition to the Winchester Manuscript has shown that Caxton altered the text near the bottoms of many pages throughout the entire work, presumably to make the text fit.4 [End Page 68]

A great deal of scholarly attention has naturally focused on the section of the Morte Darthur in which the Winchester Manuscript and Caxton's edition differ most dramatically, the story of Arthur's RomanWar, which Caxton makes his fifth book and which Vinaver considered to be Malory's second tale. The Winchester version is much closer to Malory's major source for it, the alliterative Morte Arthure,5 and retains much of the archaic language and alliteration that Malory borrowed from the poem. The Caxton version is roughly half the length of that in the Winchester; its language is much less archaic, and it retains far fewer examples of alliteration. Vinaver based his edition of the second tale on the theory that all the differences between the two versions were the result of Caxton's conscious alterations.6 This theory was challenged by William Matthews, who took the words of Caxton's preface literally and argued that they implied that Caxton had merely done the things he said and nothing else and that the Caxton version, therefore, contained Malory's own revision.7 Although Matthews's theory seems to have been refuted, the debate that it invited prompted scholars to suggest that just as Malory used minor sources to supplement his version of the Arthurian story, so Caxton may have used minor sources himself, specifically the Chronicles of England and Lydgate's Fall of Princes, to fill gaps in his abridgment.8

The Morte Darthur combines parts of the three great Old French prose Arthurian cycles, the Vulgate Cycle, the cyclic version of the prose Tristan, and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. In addition, Malory used the English alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthur, and a lost source of "The Tale of Sir Gareth." He also took elements from a larger number of minor sources.9 Although fifteenth-century romance often combined [End Page 69] parts of major sources to form brief cycles, Malory's use of major and minor sources so far appears to be a unique feature of the Morte Darthur.10

Malory's method of combining major and minor sources is at least unusual. His imprisonment would have given him the time and the motive of fighting against boredom, which Caxton would not have had. Caxton was a busy entrepreneur who might not have had time for such a project even if it had occurred to him. Therefore it would be surprising to find that Caxton too used minor sources in his revision of Malory's work. Even before the suggestion was made, it had been noted that it was inherently implausible that Caxton would add material from other sources while compressing Malory's Roman War.11 However, although this would be surprising, it would not be impossible: after all, Caxton claims to have combined two sources for his Charles the Grete.12...


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