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  • The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur: Rubrication, Commemoration, Memorialization by K.S. Whetter
  • Karen Cherewatuk
k.s. whetter, The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur: Rubrication, Commemoration, Memorialization. Arthurian Studies LXXXIV. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. Pp. xii, 242. isbn: 1843844532. $99.

K.S. Whetter's central claim in The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur is that the Winchester manuscript's design—its rubrication of names and marginalia—correlates with theme. At the base of this project is P.J.C. Field's argument that the manuscript's marginalia derive from Malory. In the first part of this book, Whetter builds on his mentor's suggestion, making a strong case that the rubrication and marginalia are in fact Malory's. In the second part, Whetter fashions an expansive argument: that Winchester's mise-en-page points to Malory championing martial, over spiritual, chivalry; to his celebration of two heroes, not just Launcelot but also Arthur; and to his focus on human emotion and character. In Manuscript and Meaning, Whetter demonstrates how the Winchester's visual text enacts Malory's meaning.

The Winchester's rubrication of every name—requiring the scribe to change pen and ink on each occurrence, rather than leaving the space blank and filling in later or tracing over dark ink in red—coupled with a lack of decoration—no vines or scrolls, and few decorated initials—makes for a highly unusual manuscript. Indeed, every page of the Winchester manuscript shows wide margins and names that stand out in the text. Through a long survey of comparables, Whetter proves that no manuscript uses rubrication as the Winchester does: not Biblical texts, English romances (contra Meale), Brut Chronicles, Chaucer, Malory's sources, Hardyng's Chronicle, the Lancelot-Graal or Vulgate cycle, or the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin (contra Parasso). The Winchester's unique design leads Whetter to conclude that the rubrication of names derives from Malory himself (p. 53); its scheme in effect memorializes character.

Whetter then moves from the lexical text to those wide margins, examining the eighty-eight red-ink notes added in the two scribes' hands. For Whetter, these marginalia are not traditional glosses explaining sources, meaning, or titles, but summaries of plot points connected to Malory's chivalric exemplars: Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram, and Balin. Whetter moves through many issues—the scribes, patronage, the role of Anthony Wydville, and Malory's library—to conclude that, like the rubrication, the marginalia are authorial. Whetter also demonstrates how Winchester's decorated capitals cue Caxton's book and chapter divisions, and he makes an interesting case for the abbreviation 'M'—for 'Merlin'—also being Malory's way of signing his work.

The detailed analysis of the Winchester Malory is the strongest part of Manuscript and Meaning. The second part of the monograph treats with the narrative and [End Page 80] thematic significance of the Winchester's layout. Here Whetter interprets the 'Tale of the Sankgreal' as a continuation (rather than a contradiction or denial) of Le Morte Darthur's emphasis on earthly chivalry. I will never be fully convinced by Whetter's tendency to dismiss sin and penance; such claims are based on a modern dichotomy of the sacred and the secular which did not exist in the Middle Ages. Moreover, both the lexical and extra-textual evidence Whetter uses to uphold secular chivalry—for example, knightly effigies in churches—can be used to argue the opposite case, for chivalry's religious impulse. Nonetheless, Whetter is fair to critics who have argued that Launcelot is sinful, and he provides the best case possible by showing how scribes A and B do not rubricate divine names but always rubricate the names of Lancelot and the other characters. Ultimately, Whetter recasts Lancelot's repentance in the monastery as a 'final adventure' undertaken for Guenevere (p. 157).

Whetter links the 'human emotion' evident in 'The "Sankgreal"' to the episodes of the Fair Maid, Guenevere's and Lancelot's parting, and the mourning fellowship gathered around Arthur's grave. Whetter beautifully applies the metaphor of a 'tomb of elegy and commemoration' to the Winchester manuscript itself (p. 168), with his proof texts...


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