Malory’s Morte Darthur in Early Print

This page offers some brief details and images from the early print history of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. I have also set up a separate page that concentrates on Caxton’s printing of the Morte and the Winchester manuscript, here.

Image provided by the John Rylands Library under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Hit byfel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond/ and so regned that there was a my3ty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme.

William Caxton, England’s first printer, printed the Morte in 1485. There are two surviving copies, a perfect one at the Pierpont Morgan Museum in New York, and a copy lacking 11 leaves at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.

Caxton provided a Preface for his printing, as well as a table of contents: on the left you see the opening of the table.

The table is a kind of précis of the book: it runs to 29 pages, and gives us a good sense of what Caxton thought his readers might want to find in the book.

The first entry in the table, after the title, reads

Fyrst how Vtherpendragon sente for the duke of cornewayl & Igrayne his wyf & of their departyng sodeynly ageyn ca primo [first chapter]

Below is the opening of the first book in Caxton’s printing. The first sentence is transcribed to the left.

Image provided by the John Rylands Library under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Caxton’s edition was not illustrated. Wykyn de Worde, who had worked with Caxton and took over his print shop when Caxton died, issued an illustrated copy in 1498, basing his text on Caxton’s, but adding pictures. The John Rylands Library has digitized its copy of this printing as well, here. The wood cuts were clearly designed to match Malory’s story; often, early printers had generic wood cuts that they would use across many books, but as the images below show, many of de Worde’s illustrations for the Morte are quite particular.

Balin draws the sword
Merlin is trapped by Nimue
Tristram’s birth; all images provided by the John Rylands Library under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

There were further printings of the Morte by William Copland in 1557 and Thomas East in 1578; all of these printings ultimately depended on the text as first printed by Caxton. The last early printed edition, edited by William Stansby, appeared in 1634. It featured a frontispiece of the Round Table, with the names of all the knights. The copy below is from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Image provided by the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license