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The Chapter Headings of the Morte Darthur : Caxton and de Worde

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Wade, James 


Since the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript in 1934, perhaps the most enduring question in Malory criticism has been one of form. Before then, our earliest source for Malory’s “hoole book of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table” was William Caxton’s print of 1485, but with new access to an earlier and apparently independent manuscript, the “hoole book” began to look very different. The major critical fault line in the wake of this find is perhaps best captured by the title of Eugène Vinaver’s influential 1947 edition: Works. By calling into question the unity of Malory’s massive collection of Arthurian tales, Vinaver opened the debate as to what Malory actually wrote and how Caxton and successive editors represented that original text. What we know from Caxton, and what we knew before 1934, is that Caxton “deuyded” his volume into “xxj books and euery book chapytred,” but it is only by looking to the surviving manuscript that we can think about just what sort of inventiveness went into that restructuring. Indeed, there has been substantial attention to the placement of Caxton’s book and chapter divisions themselves—where they do or do not correlate with the various levels of division in W—and these inquiries have suggested much about both Caxton’s editorial processes and habits, and how form creates meaning in the Morte Darthur. There has not, however, been a thorough or sustained consideration of the descriptive rubrics or headings Caxton gave to each of his 506 chapters, which Wynkyn de Worde also used in his edition thirteen years later. Here I want to consider what the headings can tell us about the working practices of these two early editors and how their very different use of these headings has a significant effect on the reading experience.



43 History, Heritage and Archaeology, 47 Language, Communication and Culture, 4303 Historical Studies, 4705 Literary Studies

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Modern Philology

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University of Chicago Press