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The Occasion of the Morte Arthure: Textual History and Marginal Decoration in the Thornton MS

The Occasion of the Morte Arthure: Textual History and Marginal Decoration in the Thornton MS

Crofts, Thomas Howard

Arthuriana 20.2 (2010)

Abstract

The physical make-up of the Morte Arthure section of Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 is rich in information about Robert Thornton’s copying, and understanding, of the alliterative poem. The illustrations that accompany the Morte—including an amateur ‘frontispiece’ added much later—form an attentive and evolving response to the poem.

The full-page illustration that serves as the frontispiece of the Alliterative Morte Arthure in the Thornton manuscript, when mentioned at all, is classified by critics as more or less a defacement, however benign (Illustration 1). The Lincoln Cathedral Chapter Library catalogue refersto it as ‘rather crude pen-and-ink sketches of knights and a charger.’ As the work not of a scribe or artist but, as A.E.B. Owen calls him, a ‘scribbler,’ they are easily abstracted from historical discussions of the manuscript. Valerie Krishna indicates simply that ‘the Thornton Manuscript contains no illustrations.’ The relationship of this illustration (if we may call it so) to the text of the Morte is also suspect. Thompson (when it was thought that Thornton himself had drawn them) guessed that they ‘were possibly, but not certainly, inspired by the general chivalric content of the neighboring item.’ These comments are all unexceptionable. It is not until we read John Finlayson’s description that we might conceive rising to the defense.

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