Evidence Grid for Scholarly Opinions About the Unity of a Medieval Text
Sometime between 1460 and 1470, Sir Thomas Malory created a manuscript that William Caxton printed as a single book he called Le Morte Darthur ("The Death of Arthur," 1485). Because the author's manuscript copy did not survive, critics accepted Caxton's assertion that the sequence of Arthurian tales of knights and ladies and England's wars was a single, unified, novel-like work of literature. However, medieval and modern ideas of the book seem to have been significantly different, and manuscript books produced before printing often were used to store a wide variety of texts in one place, like recipes, prayers, lyrics, romances, sermons, household records, and philosophical or historical works copied from previous eras. Some collections composed entirely of separate romances also survived, like the Auchinleck manuscript's tales, each of which has a different hero and a plot that does not seem connected to the rest. However, in the absence of other evidence, and on the strength of Caxton's assertion that Malory's work was a complete work, critics read it that way.
This posed problems, however, because some loose ends were noticed. Knights killed in early episodes turn up alive in tournaments many leaves later in the manuscript. Lancelot denies loving Guinevere many times in an early sequence of episodes in which he is the protagonist, but in episodes found nearer the end of the manuscript the two are said to love each other and seem to demonstrate that by kissing, sleeping in the same bed together, declaring their love to each other, and quarreling. Gawain is praised as a great knight in episodes found at the front of the manuscript, and his deeds are honorable, but by the middle of the manuscript his own brother accuses him of being a murderer and his actions in the quest of the Holy Grail cause him to be condemned by a priest who appears to speak for God and for the author's opinion. Ingenious explanations were evolved to explain these problems and to defend Malory as the author of the first great prose work in English, often called a precursor to the modern novel.
Then, in 1934, a manuscript of Malory's work was discovered, a text written by two scribes, not by Malory, himself, but obviously much closer to the author's version than Caxton's, which quickly was discovered to have been heavily edited in several long sequences. Most damaging to Caxton's claim was the discovery that he had omitted a sequence of "explicits," ending statements written by Malory, in which he usually names himself and appears (to some readers) to declare he was done writing that narrative piece. The editor of this manuscript, Eugene Vinaver, announced to the world that Malory had written not one, but eight romances, all on Arthurian themes, but none connected to the others. The adulterous Lancelot was simply a different version of the character, distinct from the loyal Lancelot, not a later stage of a character who falls into catastrophic sin. The murderous Gawain was similarly just a different imagination of the character from the noble and self-sacrificing Gawain of what Vinaver called Malory's "other tales." This led to a famous quarrel among medievalists. The grid below summarizes their positions.
|Critic||Text Unified?||If so, how? If not, why?||What do the loose ends mean?||What do the explicits mean?|
|R.M. Lumiansky, 1963||Yes, perfectly, as 1 book.||Theme of Arthur's Kingdom's rise and fall||Charater development (round) and trivial error||They are pauses in a continuous process|
|Eugene Vinaver, 1947||No, 8 separate tales||Explicits and plot inconsistencies||No character development (flat) and no "inconsistencies"||They end tales.|
|C.S. Lewis, 1963||Yes, but imperfectly, by TM's composing process and attitude.||Linked by TM's consistent attitude to his task and material||Character development, but imperfect, though still an impressive work.||Not sure, but probably TM thought he was done when he wrote them.|
|Laurence de Looze,1997||Writes on other medieval authors who name themselves and refer to their work within the text ("signatures")||Doesn't discuss Malory||Doesn't discuss Malory||Medieval authorial "signatures" serve various functions adjusting author-reader relations, and don't just signal the ends of texts|
|What kind of source do I need next?|
Do you see how de Looze's study on authorial self-reference, including those in "explicits," may tip the balance of evidence toward a new way of seeing the manuscript and of reading Malory's text? That's not necessarily conclusive evidence, but it's a building block, a new place for a thesis to stand amid all the previous arguments.