William Caxton, Preface to Morte Darthur

[Click on image to enlarge] William Caxton brought the new technology of printing, which he had learned on the Continent, to Westminster in 1476. Among his first publications was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, of which he printed two editions (1478, 1484). In 1485 he printed Sir Thomas Malory's works under the title of Morte Darthur, dividing them, as he tells us, into books and chapters. The book became immensely popular, and only two copies of this first edition have survived. Caxton gave to the Arthurian saga the canonical form, on which most later Arthurian literature, art, and film have been based.

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Caxton was both a highly literate author, translator, and editor and a shrewd businessman, qualities evident in his Preface to Morte Darthur. Clearly by Caxton's day skepticism about the historicity of King Arthur had grown, a skepticism that the printer shared. In the Preface he represents himself as having been approached by "many noble and divers gentlemen" who charge him with lack of patriotism because he has printed other histories, such as that of Troy, while neglecting England's greatest hero. Thus Caxton pretends to be persuaded to publish a work that he knew would be highly profitable while disclaiming reponsibility for any untruthfulness or immorality that it could and would be accused of. "Open manslaughter and bold bawdry" was the verdict on the book of the humanist Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth's tutor (see NAEL 8, 1.641). Caxton closes his Preface with the conventional apologia of the medieval author also used by Chaucer at the end of the Nun's Priest's Tale (see NAEL 8, 1.312, lines 620–23): "But all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice ne sin, but t'exercise and follow virtue."


After that I had accomplished and finished divers histories as well of contemplation as of other historical and worldly acts of great conquerors and princes, and also certain books of ensamples >> note 1 and doctrine, many noble and divers gentlemen of the royalme of England came and demanded me many and ofttimes wherefore that I have not do >> note 2 made and imprint the noble history of the Saint Grail and of the most renommed >> note 3 Christian king, first and chief of the three best Christian, and worthy, king Arthur, >> note 4 which ought most to be remembered among us Englishmen tofore all other Christian kings.

For it is notoirly >> note 5 known through the universal world that there been nine worthy and the best that ever were, that is to wit, three Paynims, >> note 6 three Jews, and three Christian men. As for the Paynims, they were tofore the Incarnation of Christ, which were named, the first Hector of Troy, of whom th'istory is common both in ballad and in prose, the second Alexander the Great, and the third Julius Caesare, Emperor of Rome, of whom th'istories been well known and had. >> note 7 And as for the three which also were tofore th'Incarnation of our Lord, of whom the first was Duke Joshua which brought the children of Israel into the land of behest, >> note 8 the second David, king of Jerusalem, and the third Judas Maccabeus, of these three the Bible rehearseth all their noble histories and acts. And sith >> note 9 the said Incarnation have been three noble Christian men stalled >> note 10 and admitted through the universal world into the number of the nine best and worthy, of whom was first the noble Arthur, whose noble acts I purpose to write in this present book here following. The second was Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, of whom th'istory is had in many places, both in French and English; and the third and last was Godefroy of Bouillon, of whose acts and life I made a book unto th'excellent prince and king of noble memory, King Edward the Fourth.

The said noble gentlemen instantly required >> note 11 me t'imprint th'istory of the said noble king and conqueror king Arthur and of his knights, with th'istory of the Saint Grail and of the death and ending of the said Arthur, affirming that I ought rather t'imprint his acts and noble feats than of Godefroy of Bouillon or any of the other eight, considering that he was a man born within this royalme and king and emperor of the same, and that there been in French divers and many noble volumes of his acts, and also of his knights.

To whom I answered that divers men hold opinion that there was no such Arthur and that all such books as been made of him been but feigned and fables, because that some chronicles make of him no mention ne remember him nothing, ne of his knights.

Whereto they answered, and one in special said, that in him that should say or think that there was never such a king called Arthur might well be aretted >> note 12 great folly and blindness, for he said that there were many evidences of the contrary. First, ye may see his sepulture >> note 13 in the monastery of Glastonbury; and also in Polychronicon, >> note 14 in the fifth book, the sixth chapter, and in the seventh book, the twenty-third chapter, where his body was buried, and after founden and translated >> note 15 into the said monastery. Ye shall see also in th'istory of Bochas, in his book De Casu Principum, >> note 16 part of his noble acts, and also of his fall. Also Galfridus, in his British book, >> note 17 recounteth his life. And in divers places of England many remembrances been yet of him and shall remain perpetually, and also of his knights: first, in the abbey of Westminster, at Saint Edward's shrine, remaineth the print of his seal in red wax closed in beryl, in which is written PATRICIUS ARTHURUS BRITANNIE GALLIE GERMANIE DACIE IMPERATOR; >> note 18 item, in the castle of Dover ye may see Gawain's skull and Cradok's mantle; at Winchester, the Round Table; in other places Lancelot's sword and many other things.

Then, all these things considered, there can no man reasonably gainsay but there was a king of this land named Arthur. For in all places, Christian and heathen, he is reputed and taken for one of the nine worthy, and the first of the three Christian men. And also he is more spoken of beyond the sea, mo >> note 19 books made of his noble acts, than there be in England; as well in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Greekish, as in French. And yet of record remain in witness of him in Wales, in the town of Camelot, the great stones and marvellous works of iron lying under the ground, and royal vaults, which divers now living hath seen. Wherefore it is a marvel why he is not more renommed in his own country, save only it accordeth to the word of God, which saith that no man is accept for a prophet in his own country.

Then, all these things foresaid alleged, >> note 20 I could not well deny but that there was such a noble king named Arthur, and reputed one of the nine worthy, and first and chief of the Christian men. And many noble volumes be made of him and of his noble knights in French, which I have seen and read beyond the sea, which been not had in our maternal tongue. But in Welsh been many, and also in French, and some in English, but nowhere nigh all. Wherefore, such as have late been drawn out briefly into English, I have, after the simple cunning God hath sent to me, under the favor and correction of all noble lords and gentlemen, emprised >> note 21 to imprint a book of the noble histories of the said king Arthur and of certain of his knights, after a copy unto me delivered, which copy sir Thomas Malory did take out of certain books of French and reduced it into English.

And I, according to my copy, have done set it >> note 22 in imprint to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in tho >> note 23 days, by which they came to honor, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies with all other estates, >> note 24 of what estate or degree they been of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance, and to follow the same; wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories and noble and renommed acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalries. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee.

And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in, but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty. But all is written for our doctrine, and for to beware that we fall not to vice ne sin, but t'exercise and follow virtue, by which we may come and attain to good fame and renommee in this life, and after this short and transitory life to come unto everlasting bliss in heaven; the which He grant us that reigneth in heaven, the Blessed Trinity. AMEN.

Then, to proceed forth in this said book, which I direct unto all noble princes, lords and ladies, gentlemen or gentlewomen, that desire to read or hear read of the noble and joyous history of the great conqueror and excellent king, king Arthur, sometime king of this noble royalme then called Britain, I, William Caxton, simple person, present this book following which I have emprised t'imprint: and treateth of the noble acts, feats of arms of chivalry, prowess, hardiness, humanity, love, courtesy, and very >> note 25 gentleness, with many wonderful histories and adventures.

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