Death in the Margins: Dying and Scribal Performance in the Winchester Manuscript

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Previous contributors to this collection have explored the death and dying themes in a variety of ways: death as wielded by kings and as recorded in the lexical text of Historia regum Britannie, death as a thematic concern of characters, authors or audiences, and the death and dying of sundry Arthurian characters. Often, of course, these approaches and topics overlap. I wish to continue this interconnection and variety of death by combining these approaches with two new subjects: the problem of knights who die but do not stay dead in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur; and the manner in which the bibliographic or manuscript text of the Morte announces those deaths. Certain innovations in the Morte Darthur can be traced to Sir Thomas Malory's inclination away from the romance-world of his sources. What he inclines toward is less easy to name; ‘tragedy’ – if generic taxonomy is required – comes closest. Malory's book is much more preoccupied with death and ‘unhappe’ than its sources. Several of the Morte's innovations, both in its adaption generally and in the Winchester manuscript particularly, combine to alter radically the way of chivalric death. I will concentrate here on three such features. One is the consistent naming of knights who are anonymous in the source texts, a technique that increases the official population of the book. While this practice invests the book with new personages, it also invests it with new deaths; and there is a profound difference – as will be discussed below – between the death of an unnamed knight and that of a named one.