Malory's Contemporary Audience: The Social Reading of Romance in Late Medieval England

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THOMAS H. CROFTS, Malory's Contemporary Audience: The Social Reading of Romance in Late Medieval England. Arthurian Studies 66. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. xiv, 176, 3 colour plates. isbn: 1-84384-085-5. $75. £40.

'The end of Malory's book,' says Thomas Crofts in his own epilogue, 'is an occasion to think about the contingencies of translation itself.' This is precisely what Crofts does in Malory's Contemporary Audience: he examines fifteenth-century attitudes to romance, translation, compilation, and history, particularly in Morte Darthur, but also in Malory's sources, contemporaries, and first printer. Crofts focuses on late medieval writing and reading-manuscript and print, fiction and history-as well as on the political utility of the Morte in its manuscript and incunabulum guises. The 'shape of Malory's book,' he argues, is dictated as much by the social practice of romance reading as by Malory's sources. Crofts thus offers a valuable addition to such recent contextualizing studies as those of Kim, Radulescu, and Moll. (Readers of this review may wish to qualify that and the following assessments with the knowledge that this reviewer is mentioned in Crofts' acknowledgements.)

Chapter One is a textual study. Crofts begins by observing that the standard Malory edition is a hodgepodge of Malorian, Caxtonian, and Vinaverian texts and intentions, and that critics regularly invoke the textual idea of Morte Darthur without fully admitting or realizing the pluralities involved. Crofts then briefly reviews the authorship question, interrogating (and corroborating) Field's hypothesis that Malory was both knight and prisoner in 1469-70. Crofts adds that Matthews' own evidence against the Warwickshire Malory reveals a non-Malorian precedent for one-volume Arthurian compilation, and suggests that Malory may have had access to such a source. Even if Malory did not, and even if Anthony Woodville was not Malory's or Caxton's patron, the Morte would have benefited from the social precedent of Woodville's own literary and social chivalric enterprises.

Chapter Two establishes a proper 'historical understanding of Caxton' as a necessary aspect of understanding the Morte. Crofts' reading of Caxton's preface to the Morte reveals Caxton to be a learned participant in a fifteenth-century literary culture that included historical, exemplary, and fictional interests. This Caxton is a sophisticated reader and editor rather than a mere follower of commercialism. Crofts suggests that Caxton likely did have a patron for the Morte's printing but, more importantly, that Caxton's audience would have been drawn to Malory's celebration 'of history, of monarchy, and of England's relationship to its own soil. …