Sir Thomas Malory
Article abstract: Combining French prose, Arthurian romances, and some English materials with stories of his own invention, Malory set the Arthurian legend in its enduring form in Le Morte d’Arthur.
The problem in writing the biography of the most famous author of Arthurian stories is that it is not known with any certainty who he was. At one time or another, scholars have championed no fewer than nine Thomas Malorys, but perhaps only three of those men deserve serious attention.
The primary conditions for establishing the author’s identity come from the text of Le Morte d’Arthur itself. Modern scholars have available to them the first printed edition, produced in 1485 by William Caxton, and also in the late fifteenth century manuscript version, found in the library of Winchester College in 1934 by Walter F. Oakeshott. “Syr Thomas Maleoré, Knyght” tells his readers that he has completed the work in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (that is, March 4, 1469, to March 3, 1470) and asks them to pray for his “good delyuerance” from prison. In the “explicit,” the formal statement ending the first of the eight tales that make up the whole book in the Winchester manuscript, Malory again suggests that he is a knight prisoner. Thus, one knows that the author was a knight, was of an age to write the work in 1469-1470, and was a prisoner of some sort. That the printer Caxton knew so little about Malory suggests further that Malory had died by the time the book was printed, or before July, 1485.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, the man who was thought to have best met these qualifications was a Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. George L. Kittredge had made this identification most forcefully in his influential article “Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?” written in 1896. As Kittredge and other scholars supported this choice of the Warwickshire Malory with further evidence in later publications, the link appeared to become increasingly sound. Some scholars began to treat it as established fact; Sir Thomas Malory was the author and a man by that name and rank could be identified who seemed to meet the qualifications; therefore, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had written Le Morte d’Arthur. In many ways, he fit the part. This Malory was a member of an old Warwickshire family; he had served for a quarter of a century in the wars in France, following Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a mirror of chivalry to his contemporaries; and he had been a Member of Parliament for Warwickshire in 1445-1446.
Yet there were troublesome aspects to this identification, for the Warwickshire Malory was at least accused of committing a remarkable series of crimes between 1450 and 1460. The list of charges included attempted murder, rape (twice, against the same victim), cattle raiding, extortion, and raids on an abbey. He was imprisoned eight times and twice escaped dramatically. Could this man actually have written the great chivalric tale of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table? Could a man who seemed so immoral have produced what many readers considered a moral book? Some scholars tried to excuse Malory, arguing that he had been simply indicted, not convicted. Others merely shrugged off the charges as evidence of the vigorous acts of a man living in a violent age. Eugène Vinaver, the editor of the standard edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, frankly stated that the morality of the author was not the same issue as the morality of his artistic work.
Until 1966, those scholars troubled by the “morality issue” or, more generally, by the identification of the Warwickshire knight with the author had no strong opposition candidate. In that year, however, William Matthews criticized the case for the leading candidate and advanced a previously unknown Thomas Malory who came from Hutton Conyers in Yorkshire. He supported this Malory from the north of England by pointing to northern elements in the Winchester text—in vocabulary and usage, in a preference for northern geographical locations, and in a frequent use of northern romances as sources. That this Thomas Malory could not be proved either a knight or a prisoner presented obstacles, but Matthews argued that “knight prisoner” might mean “prisoner of war.” Some scholars found these arguments appealing; few found them convincing. Specialists, for example, have cast doubts on the validity of the linguistic evidence. Yet the question of identity, formerly more or less considered settled on the Warwickshire knight, once again seemed to be a matter for debate.
The likelihood of further debate increased in 1981, when Richard R. Griffith reopened a case for a candidate from Papworth St. Agnes, a tiny village in Cambridgeshire on the border with Huntingdonshire. This Thomas Malory had been considered as long ago as 1897 but had been dismissed ever since. Griffith thinks the dialect, age, and political affiliations of the Cambridgeshire Malory fit the author perfectly. He argues that his...
(The entire section is 2082 words.)