William Morris Archive

Yuri Cowan

The Kelmscott Press volume known to bibliographers and book-collectors as The Order of Chivalry actually contains three different texts.  The first text is William Caxton’s 1494 translation of a French manuscript of Ramon Llull’s early fourteenth-century Catalan Llibre de l’orde de cavalleria, a prose work in which an old hermit describes to a young squire the customs, obligations, and honours appertaining to knighthood.  The second text is an anonymous fourteenth-century French narrative poem, L’Ordène de Chevalerie, in which Hugues de Tabarie, a knight from the Crusader kingdom of Galilee, is captured by the Saracen ruler Saladin and made to educate an eager Saladin in the ways of chivalry, after which Hugues is released with much honour.  The third text is William Morris’ own translation of L’Ordène de Chevalerie, begun in December 1892 specifically for inclusion in the Kelmscott volume, and titled The Ordination of Knighthood.  Of these, the Caxton text was printed first, and finished on 10 November, 1892; the other two were printed afterward, and finished on 24 February, 1893.  It is thus important that we treat each work as separate and distinct; the Kelmscott Order of Chivalry volume should be viewed as an anthology rather than as a single unit.  The volume is a remarkable testament to the spontaneity of Morris as a printer, to his wide-ranging interests in medieval primary texts, and to his talents as a translator.  It is also a very representative example of the give and take in the collaboration between Morris and his friend and editor, F. S. Ellis, who did the bibliographical work of establishing the text of the Caxton work and of the Ordène, and who provided the “Memoranda Concerning the Two Pieces Here Reprinted” at the end. 

The Texts.

The Order of Chivalry is a reprint of Caxton’s 1494 edition, edited by F. S. Ellis.  Five of the fifty-three books ultimately to come out of the Press had originally been printed and translated by Caxton, and all of them were published within the first two years of the Press’s existence: The Golden Legend and The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1892), The History of Reynard the Foxe, The Order of Chivalry, and The History of Godefrey of Boloyne and of the Conquest of Iherusalem (1893).  Caxton’s own translations were used for each of the Kelmscott editions, and the transcribers relied wholly on Caxton’s own texts.  An edition of Caxton’s translation of Jerome’s Vitas Patrum, uniform with the Golden Legend was also floated, according to Sidney Cockerell: “a prospectus and specimen were issued in March 1894, but the number of subscribers did not justify its going beyond this stage” (in Sparling 174; see also Peterson, Kelmscott Press, 194).  And in the introduction to the Early English Text Society’s edition of Caxton’s translation of Le Fèvre’s History of Jason of 1913 the editor, John Munro, states that “In preparing this text for the press, I had the advantage of William Morris’ type-written copy of the Romance, a copy which, I believe, he had had prepared for his own press but never used” (vii), suggesting that there was a systematic plan to print still more Caxton works at the Press.  The Kelmscott Press was at least in part an exercise in textual recovery; many of its medieval texts, including The Order of Chivalry, existed in no editions later than the sixteenth century.  A few, like the Psalmi Penitentiales and the Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis, existed only in Morris’s own collection of manuscripts, and it would take even the Early English Text Society years to get around to editing some of the others (The Order of Chivalry, for instance, was eventually edited for the EETS in 1926 by Alfred J. P. Bayles). 

Caxton’s works were of particular interest to Morris because they were written in a transitional form of Middle English that was not too remote from the comprehension of the late-Victorian reader; because they provided translations of non-English works that gave an insight into popular medieval reading; and because, as popular works of history, religion, and literature, they shed light on the social history of the late Middle Ages.  It is easy to see, then, why Morris chose to print Caxton’s The Order of Chivalry at the Kelmscott Press: the text had not been previously reprinted; it spoke to the fascination with chivalric behaviour that formed a subcurrent of late-Victorian discourses of masculinity 1; and it was a window into an aspect of the social life of the Middle Ages. 

L’Ordène de Chevalerie was first published by the French antiquarian Étienne Barbazan in 1759 in a volume entitled Fabliaux et contes français des XI, XII, XIII, XIV, et XVe siècles (Ellis explains that the 1808 edition, which is the one I will refer to here, was used to provide the text for the Kelmscott edition).  In his “Avertissement” to the volume, Barbazan introduces the character of “Hugues, Chastelain de St. Omer [qui] suivit Godefroy de Bouillon dans l’entreprise qu’il fit de conquérir la Terre Sainte” (Hugues, Chastelain of St. Omer, [who] followed Godefroy de Bouillon [in the year 1099] in his undertaking to conquer the Holy Land,” viij).  Barbazan goes on to describe the historical Hugues’ ascension to the rule of the “Princée de Galilee et Seignurie de Tibériade” – that is, of the the crusader principality of Galilee and Tiberias – and comments that “it is by this lordship that he came to be surnamed, by a corruption [of the latter name], as being ‘of Tabarie’” (ix).  It is also striking that Barbazan attributes the work to Hugues himself (“par Hue de Tabarie,” viij), an attribution followed by later editors even though the chronology is suspect, since Hugues died in 1106 and the poem is said by Ellis to belong to the thirteenth century.  In accordance with Morris’ interest in the social life and customs of the Middle Ages, the French poem is, as Barbazan and Ellis agree, full of “détail fort exact et fort circonstancié de toute les ceremonies qui se faisoient lorsque l’on recevoit un nouveau Chevalier” (“very exact and particular detail regarding all the ceremonies attendant upon the reception of a new-made knight,” viij).  The poem’s association with the story of Godefroy de Bouillon (Morris had already published Caxton’s redaction of the story of Godefroy) gives it a continuity with another work in the Kelmscott canon, while the poem’s revelation of an episode in the life of an obscure, named personage of medieval history speaks to Morris’ interest in recovering the lives of medieval men and women, an interest which goes back at least as far as the Guenevere volume. 

These associations do not wholly account for Morris’ motives for appending L’Ordène de Chevalerie and his translation of the French poem to the Caxton work.  William Blades, in his landmark Biography and Typography of William Caxton, had already seen fit to point out that the works were not connected in more than their theme: “The ‘Order of Chivalry’ has no connection with ‘L’ordene de chevalerie.’  Dibdin, in the Typ. Ant., and Moule in Bib Herald, both err in this matter” (288).  F. S. Ellis, in the “Memoranda Concerning the Two Pieces Here Reprinted,” suggests that he and Morris have juxtaposed the two texts in order “to enable those who are interested in the matter to judge how far there is reason to suppose that the one work is drawn from the other.”  It is also significant that Ellis emphasises a “strange confusion” on the part of “writers and bibliographers,” suggesting not only that he has no doubt that the two are not connected, but that part of the purpose of printing them together is at least in part to clear up that bibliographical confusion.  The Kelmscott Press was at least in part an exercise in bibliography and textual recovery: in the apparatus, often partial and incomplete, provided by Ellis to volumes such as The Golden Legend and The Order of Chivalry we can see the traces of a negotiation between Ellis and Morris as to how much in the way of apparatus and textual scholarship the Kelmscott books should provide.  But it is certainly ironic that the fact of Morris’ and Ellis’s having printed these two texts alongside each other seems to have linked them even more strongly in the mind of subsequent readers.  

The Book.

In a way, the Order of Chivalry volume is a collection or anthology – a Sammelband – like the Gawain manuscript or any number of other medieval manuscripts that have been bound together according to a recoverable internal logic.  The Kelmscott Order of Chivalry volume was printed in two parts, as attested by the separate colophons for the two parts: on page 102, the colophon to The Order of Chivalry states that it was “finished on the 10th day of November, 1892,” while on page 151, the other two poems are given as “finished on the 24th day of February, 1893.”  There is anecdotal and material evidence that this printing in two parts was not planned from the outset but was a spontaneous choice on the part of the printer and editor.  The only traditionary evidence we have for this is Henry Halliday Sparling, who calls the inclusion of the Ordène and Ordination an “afterthought” (153).  There is plenty of material evidence, however.  Not only do the colophons give separate dates of printing, but the two parts were also printed on different paper and even folded in different formats, although Morris make the signatures continuous, starting with “i” for the Ordène.  According to William Peterson, “the second half of the volume, L’Ordene de Chevalerie [and The Ordination of Knighthood], was printed on the larger Flower paper; hence the first part of the book is a quarto and the second half an octavo” (Kelmscott Press 96).  Eugene LeMire recognizes the two kinds of paper but suggests that it is a quarto in eights (173); I am inclined to agree with Peterson.  Either way, the discontinuous formatting over the two parts of the book suggests a pragmatic readjustment on the part of Morris the printer that is in keeping with the Kelmscott Press as an experiment in printing, and as a press with a very medieval sense of how texts – sometimes related thematically, and sometimes not – might be thrown together in a Sammelband to conserve space and binding time as well as to create a single volume of a fitting size. 

The Press, then, had completely finished printing The Order of Chivalry before Morris and his editor decided to complement it with L’Ordène de Chevalerie and The Ordination of Knighthood; indeed, Morris did not even begin the process of translating the Ordène until after the Caxton text had been printed.  J. W. Mackail explains that “The translation had first been made in prose by Ellis.  But Morris one day suddenly remembered the fact that the Press, like the firm of thirty years back, ‘kept a poet of its own,’ and turned him on for the purpose” (II.280 – see also Kelvin, Letters III.479) 2.  In this Morris showed his usual facility.  May Morris, in her Introductions to the Collected Works of William Morris, recounts how “Mr. Cockerell’s diary for 1892 has the following entry: ‘Sat: Dec. 3.  W. M. began the translation of an old French poem from which Caxton seems to have derived the idea of the Order of Chivalry.  It was wonderful to watch the words slipping into their places’” (2.502).  He must have finished the 510 lines in very good time for the printing to have begun in January. 

It is characteristic of Morris’ workmanlike poetic practice that this translation was carried out so rapidly.  The manuscript of the translation (now Huntington MS HM 6436) shows relatively few signs of revision, although Morris does show some discomfort regarding the title: at first, he calls it literally “The Ordination of Chivalry,” and in the manuscript’s colophon, he even forgets himself so far as to write “The end of the Order of Chivalry.”  The ultimate choice of The Ordination of Knighthood for a title is certainly intended to distinguish the work from its companion texts.  It is also characteristic of Morris’s writing practice at this period to include notes in the manuscript for his compositor regarding the printing of the text.  On the first page, for instance, he calls for a “small big bloomer”– that is, one of his floriated initials or “blooming letters” – to mark the opening “T” in “That” and further down draws a box around the “B” in “But” to mark the placement of a small initial.  This manuscript may be compared to the manuscript that was printer’s copy for The Tale of Beowulf, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, which has similar instructions regarding the layout of the page (see Needham 130).  Although the Ordination of Knighthood manuscript is not written out as finely, and is probably the only draft of the work, both manuscripts speak to Morris’ method when printing his translations at the Press.  In each case the working manuscript copy is visible like a palimpsest under the Kelmscott printed version – sometimes in several palimpsestic layers, as is the case with Beowulf, which exists as, first, the literal translation which A. J. Wyatt wrote out for Morris, then as Morris’ working version, then as the printer’s copy. 

Morris’ first instinct to provide only a “small” initial for the opening of the Ordination is probably a slip of the pen; but it also underlines the rather understated nature of the ornamentation in the second half of the Order of Chivalry volume.  The frontispiece to the Order of Chivalry is an inimitable Burne-Jones rendering of the arming of a knight, while the facing page has the text of the first page of the Caxton text, with a full border of white-vine decoration surrounding the solid block of prose.  By way of contrast, the first page of the Ordination has a much more understated white-vine ornament that marks the left and top margins – close in spirit to the “S” of the beginning of Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus, printed by Johann Zainer at Ulm in 1473 3. That white-vine decoration, intermingled with the figures of the serpent, Eve, and Adam, and medallions of the seven deadly sins, is nowhere near so dizzying in its detail as any given ornamented page of the Kelmscott Chaucer with its multiple frames and swirls of acanthus in two or more directions, and yet Morris claimed Zainer’s S to be “one of the very best printers’ ornaments ever made, one which would not disgrace a thirteenth-century MS.” While he praises the decoration’s “admirable invention,” Morris ends by commenting on the Zainer decoration’s “full sense of decorative necessities,” by which he seems to be referring to the manner in which the ornament, filling the upper left third of the page, embraces the full body of text without overshadowing it.  Morris’ approbation of the simplicity of Zainer’s S is most evident in the understated white vines that sometimes ornament the margins of works such as the Psalmi Penitentiales (1894)and The Ordination of Knighthood.  This white-vine decoration is more effective here on the opening of The Ordination of Knighthood than it is on that of the front page of The Order of Chivalry. In the latter, the white vines tightly wrap all four borders of the text like a cluttered picture frame; here, the asymmetry of the left-marginal decoration complements the large and small floriated initials and the lines of poetry with their irregular lengths. The varying length of poetic lines was always a challenge to Morris’ yearning for a solid block of type; this is one of his successes (the Psalmi Penitentiales is another such success in printing the poetic line, but it has the advantage over The Ordination of Knighthood of having already been broken up into very short stanzas, each with a title).  By way of contrast, the opening of The Tale of Beowulf (1895) is a justified unit framed by a full border, with only the Kelmscott leaf device spottily marking what are in the rest of the text the ends of poetic lines.  This arrangement gives Morris his vaunted solid block of text, but it does not have nearly the elegance of the opening of the Ordination and Psalmi Penitentiales

The Order of Chivalry volume is thus an example of the collaborative, experimental, and occasionally even messy methods of the Kelmscott Press.  As a piece of printing, it brings together two parts on different-sized paper in different formats, and experiments with a different approach to white-vine decoration on each title page.  Comprising a medievalist Sammelband of the fifteenth-century Caxton text, the fourteenth-century French text, and the nineteenth-century translation by Morris, it brings together works which are thematically related but very different with regard to their form, their historical particularity, and their national origin.  Indeed, it is a very representative example of what I have called the Kelmscott canon, which was broad and inclusive, and capable equally of drawing upon modern and ancient texts in verse and in prose that dealt with fiction and poetry, legend and social history, narrative and anthropology, homily and romance.  The flexibility of the Kelmscott canon is as important to the legacy of the Press as is its experimental ethos with regard to typography, illustration, and page design. 


The publication of this book by the Kelmscott Press elevated its three texts to the status of medievalist classics, and linked the three indelibly in the minds of many readers.  I have already suggested some of the instances in which bibliographers have misunderstood the contents of this book 4.  May Morris herself had to be reminded of the existence of Morris’ translation by Sidney Cockerell so that it could be included in volume XVII of the Collected Works, while N. F. Blake in his bibliographical guide to Caxton carelessly lists the Kelmscott Order of Chivalry as “edited by F. S. Ellis with verse translation by William Morris” (42).  It would not be surprising if even some owners who have prized the volume as a genuine Kelmscott artefact have never inquired into the relationship between the three texts it contains.   

But perhaps the most striking instance of the afterlife of this volume is a little book published by The Chivalry Bookshelf in 2001, entitled Ramon Lull’s Book of Knighthood and Chivalry and the anonymous Ordene [sic] de Chevalerie (“translated by William Caxton  / Rendered into modern English by Brian R. Price”).  This book is avowedly a work of enthusiasm by Price, who writes in his introduction that “with the growing convergence between students of chivalric lore, reenactors, Western martial artists, and medievalists – the time seems right to release this new version.  I hope it brings much pleasurable contemplation and provokes thought along [sic] what it meant – and what it means – to be a knight” (iii).  There is no reason why Price should have included both works together, except that William Morris had once done so in his Kelmscott edition of 1892-3.  In fact, a close look at Price’s edition reveals that he has stolen Morris’ translation verbatim for the entire text of the Ordène, and gives Morris no credit whatsoever.  Indeed, he does not mention Morris even once throughout his entire introduction, nor anywhere in the book 5.  Although Morris’ work is certainly in the public domain, Price’s appropriation of it without attribution is a decidedly unchivalrous piece of plagiarism.  And yet this lately-pirated edition, too, is an example of the long reach of Morris’ influence in unexpected places – as a translator, as a medievalist, and as a shaper of the canon. 


1  The classic discussion of the Victorian cult of chivalry is Mark Girouard’s The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman

2  I have not traced Ellis’s prose translation.  But Ellis had certainly made a verse translation of the work, entitled The Ordering of Chivalry, which was in fact published by him before the Kelmscott edition in a facing-page translation with the French text in a run of 50 copies at the Chiswick Press in 1892 (the Huntington’s copy of it is signed by Ellis on Christmas Day, 1892).  I wonder that Mackail doesn’t mention Ellis’s verse translation; in this lacuna, too, Mackail’s description of the process seems to downplay Ellis’s abilities and contribution to the Press.

3  Morris calls this book “a very old friend of mine” (AWS 1: 351); it was one of the books that belonged to the early period of his collecting, and he had repurchased it by the time of his work on the Press.

4  Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin in Arthurian Writers describe the book as “Hugues de Tabarie, ‘The Ordination of Knighthood,’ trans Morris from William Caxton’s Order of Chivalry, 2 parts.  London: Reeves & Turner, 1892-1893.”  There is no mention of a Reeves and Turner edition in the British Library catalogue, or in May Morris’s bibliographical note to the Collected Works volume.  Since Reeves and Turner were Morris’ publishers for the volume, the confusion is understandable, but Lambdin and Lambdin’s suggestion that Morris translated the text from Caxton is a giveaway that they did not inquire too closely into the book. 

5  In his introduction, Price repeatedly emphasises the “anonymity” of the Ordène.It is possible that, owing to Morris’s rather medieval humility in not appending his own authorial name to the translation of the Ordène, Price understood the translation of the Ordène in the Kelmscott volume to be Caxton’s – suggesting at least that Morris’s medievalising idiom was convincing!