Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (1485)

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  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (London: William Caxton, 1485).


Book 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21      Characters  Seminar  Text

Note on the text

For almost 450 years editors of Le Morte Darthur could not hope to get far beyond the text William Caxton had first presented in 1485. It was clear that the early printer had adapted a lost source to his own purposes – he stated this in his introduction. Succeeding editions adapted his text to their own various purposes. Good editions went back to the 1485 edition to get as close to the lost original as possible.

A new era of scholarship began in 1934 with the discovery of the “Winchester Manuscript”. The hand written volume proved to be slightly older than Caxton’s printed copies. Traces of ink found on its pages allowed the assumption that the publisher had actually had this manuscript in his shop while working on his edition. Textual criticism could on the other hand establish that he followed a lost source, and that neither, the lost copy text nor the Winchester Manuscript gave the text the author had provided. Most of the editions that have appeared since the 1930s have preferred the Winchester Manuscript as their textual source. Its slightly more complex text can better claim to lead us back to the lost original. Caxton’s text remained important as it could provide passages the Winchester volume had lost. Mixed editions were the result.

The present edition has returned to Caxton’s book. Malory might have written a text that came closer to the Winchester Manuscript’s. Yet it was Caxton’s text through which the compilation survived and became what it is today: a classic of English literature. The present text is based on a corrected scan of Oskar Sommer’s edition published in three volumes from 1889 to 1891. The text-only edition is meant to make the standard text available to students – it should at the same moment keep a good distance from the modernised alternative Caxton version provided by the popular Penguin edition. The text is a litteral transcript, yet it is not a text Caxton would have produced had he used antiqua letters – his edition employed a 15th-century blackletter alphabet with its own choice of special characters, and our edition has respected Caxton’s very choice of letters.

  • A “კ” appears in Caxton’s edition both as the Latin z and the English “yogh” – in 1485 not more than a shorter spelling of the alternative gh. The present edition introduces the “კ” in both functions.
  • Caxton’s m- and n-abbreviations have been preserved thoughout: A dash over a, e, o, or u indicates an omitted next letter m or n. “Laūcelot” has thus to be expanded to “Launcelot”.
  • An ħ appears twice in conventional abbreviations of “Jhesus”: “on whos soule Iħu haue mercy” (sig.ee1v) and “A Iħu mercy sayd the bysshop” (sig.ee5r).
  • þ is a th variant; its use is in Caxton’s text restricted to the conventional spellings þe for “the” and þt for “that”. Occasionally a “ye” was also used to represent the “þe”.
  • v and u were used as grapheme variants: v at the beginning u within words.
  • Capital I and J were used indiscriminately – our edition offers capital I throughout the text; j appears – as in Caxton’s text – at the end of words (as in the roman number “viij”).
  • The present edition offers the old ſ as the regular lower case s at the beginning and within words.

Sheet signatures and pagination

Caxton’s edition appeared without a title page (the imprint concluded the book), and it did not offer any pagination beyond the printer’s sheet signatures. The present edition gives these signatures and an auxiliary pagination of the Caxton edition. The printed volume consisted of:

  • a front matter of 34 pages on 3 sheets (incoherently labeled),
  • a body of 52 sheets of which
  • 24 sheets are signed with small letters from a to z plus &;
  • 23 sheets with capital letters from A to Z;
  • 5 sheets with double small letters from aa to ee.

Each sheet (with the exception of the last sheets both of the front matter and the text) gave 8 leafs (i.e. 16 pages), each with a recto and a verso side to refer to: a1r, a1v, a2r, a2v, a3r, a3v … a8r, a8v, b1r etc. The reference to sheet signatures is of convenience wherever the present edition is used alongside reproductions of the original edition (as available on the web in the EEBO-collection).

Paragraph setting

Caxton’s paragraph setting has been preserved with his punctuation. This includes his use of “virgules” (slashes), even though antiqua letters, as used in the present edition, would have demanded commas instead of virgules even in the 1480s. Caxton’s virgule proves to be a far more flexible punctuation mark than a modern comma would be.

A number of pages ended with headlines which were then repeated on the succeeding pages (Q1v, R1v, X3r, Z7r) – the present edition has eliminated these duplicates.


The system of English consonants has not changed very much since the 15th century, except:

  • kn was still pronounced with a distinct k.
  • gh was pronounced as the German “ch” in “ich” and “ach”, i.e. /x/ after the “dark” vowels a and o and u and /ç/ after i and e.

The English vowel system changed, by contrast, considerably in what came to be called the “great vowel shift”. The following table gives the historical steps. Caxton’s spelling regularly gives the best hints how a vowel was supposed to be pronounced.

When reading Caxton as spelled, one has, however, to keep in mind that v and u, and i, j and y had their own patterns of distribution. One has to read u and i as vowels where one would do so in modern spelling, they have to be read as v and j where consonants would appear today.

A special problem is the final e in many of Caxton's words (“kynge” etc.). It is likely that these final vowels where no longer pronounced on a regular basis. It is at the same time possible that one could pronounce them to stress words.

The present edition is an attempt to make this text freely available. Contact me if you detect mistakes or if you can improve the present edition otherwise – corrections might help others using the text.

Oldenburg, October 2007 Olaf Simons