The Once and Future Manuscript

 The intent of the manicula inscription on the Cathedral wall (see previous post) was to keep any noisy chatter away from those within the Cathedral who had a more serious, prayerful intent.  The inscription called to mind an incident when I was about six at the Catholic school I attended in Rio de Janiero.  The nuns in their imposing full habit—it was 1963—were strict, meting out a swift and severe justice.  The school, part of an urban parish with many American and international children of diplomats and businessmen, had only a concrete play area that fronted both the school and church chapel.  One day, holding hands with a little friend, I blithely skipped alongside the exterior of the chapel.  Spotted by one of the nuns, we were roundly scolded and chastised with the same seriousness and severity of the inscription on the Cathedral.  No skipping or walking near a solemn house of prayer!  We were mortified, cast out of Eden.

With that experience seared into my young heart, I now veered away from the Cathedral (though, in truth, it is a beautiful, welcoming space)and followed the pointing hands in the direction of a grassy garden area, turning left onto a quiet street that runs nearby, leading past Jane Austen’s one-time home, and coming to the heavy wooden doors of Winchester College.

Here is the story of the discovery of the manuscript of Le Morte Darthur in Winchester College:

The great story of Arthur’s birth, life and death was freshly compiled by Sir Thomas Malory from an array of French and English poems and tales, sometime in the 1460s.  Malory was imprisoned due to sectarian politics or perhaps his lawlessness—either way he wound up in prison.  From the confines of Newgate prison in London, Malory wove a tale from the threads of the French stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin.  He also drew upon English sources such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, which tells the story of Arthur’s campaign against Rome, as well as the quasi-historical Chronicles by John Hardyng.  Malory wrote his great book during the last decades before print technology came to England.  In turn, a scribe copied his massive work.

But for 500 years, no manuscript version of the work was known to exist.  All that survived the usual use, tattering, and lost pages that mark the material life of a book were two copies of the printed version, made by England’s first printer, William Caxton, in 1485. (There is a complete copy of the printed book at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City and an incomplete copy at the John Rylands Library in Mancehster.)  

In 1934, a rare discovery came to light.  In Winchester—mythic city from whence Arthur began his Roman War campaign—a manuscript was found.

In that year, the Warden of the College asked the librarian, Dr. Oakshott, to put together an exhibit of some of the manuscripts owned by the college.  To do so, Dr. Oakshott went to the Warden’s rooms where some of the rarer manuscripts were held.  There, he came upon a manuscript that was missing its first pages.  The distinctive red ink of the names and places of the Arthurian story caught his eye—and there was this name—Kynge Arthur

Oakshott realized, with a flush of discovery, that what he held in his hands might be the lost manuscript of Malory’s great tale, a find of unprecedented significance.  It was an electric event in medieval studies, and throughout the remainder of the 20th century Malory scholars poured over the manuscript in comparison to the printed book.  Eugene Vinaver, followed by  P. J. C. Field, worked with the manuscript to produce the highly respected  edition Malory: Works, and Dr. Field will be coming out with a revised edition shortly.  As to how the manuscript came to be in the college, we have only theories.  Perhaps the manuscript was originally owned by the Cathedral and, in the crisis of the War of the Roses in 1485 (which brought Henry Tudor to power) or in the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry the VIII in 1530, the large manuscript may have been placed at the College for safe-keeping.  There it remained for the next 500 years,  awaiting the right moment, in keeping with the Arthurian myth, to return.

Le Morte Darthur is, to many minds, the great national legend of England, and the manuscript discovery seemed to part the mists, perhaps for just a moment, connecting modern England, then on the brink of World War II, to its mythic past.

I have held in my hands both the manuscript and the printed book of Malory’s tale, an experience that is one of the great pleasures of scholarly life.  To turn the pages of a medieval  manuscript is an almost mystical experience —one turns pages hand-written by scribes hundreds of years ago.  Old books have, to use a term of Walter Benjamin, a kind of  aura not expressly reproducible.  The thick feel of manuscript pages, the musty smell of a very old book create an exquisite sensory moment for someone who has devoted much of his or her life to the study of books and literature, worth every exam taken or paper written in graduate school.  The act of reading brings author and reader into a moment outside the boundaries of time. 

Winchester College gate. Photo credit: Duncan Toms

Standing outside the college’s massive wooden door, I looked up to the left to see the Warden’s lodging, the place where the manuscript rested for 500 years.  Then, I stepped inside and checked in for my tour at the porter’s gate.

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