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Newly discovered Arthurian manuscripts may change historical interpretation

| Monday, October 4, 2021

Doug Abell

In 2019, researchers at the University of Bristol found seven handwritten fragments of the “Estoire de Merlin” (The Merlin Story) hidden within their library’s archives. Following the publication of the new book, readers can better understand what makes this discovery so important. This rare work — which was lurking inside an unrelated book from the 15th century, making its discovery even more of a surprise — contains details of the Arthurian legend that were both previously unheard and different from the conventional story.

“We are all very excited to discover more,” Leah Tether of the International Arthurian Society told the BBC. According to The Guardian, the texts were written in Old French and tell the story of a battle at Trebes, during which Merlin is said to have inspired and motivated King Arthur’s troops.

King Arthur was a British leader who, according to medieval stories and chivalric romances, led the defense of Great Britain against Saxon invaders in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The details of Arthurian stories are mostly composed of literary legends, and their proximity to historical reality is a matter of academic debate among contemporary historians.

There are subtle but significant differences between this new version of the legend and those already known. Among them is the fact that in this copy, Merlin gives instructions to those who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, and the people responsible for each division are different than in the original version of the narrative. Some characters, too, are greatly altered.

Additionally, Arthur’s enemy King Claudas is wounded in the thigh during the battle in most versions of the story; the new manuscripts do not explain the origin of the wound in detail. According to The Guardian, we may be facing a different interpretation of this excerpt, because injuries in areas above the knee are often used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

Furthermore, the romantic encounter between Merlin and Viviane, also known as the Lady of the Lake, is “slightly toned-down” in this version, Tether told the Guardian.

The “new” fragments are somewhat damaged, which is part of the reason why their analysis has taken two years. But this lengthy process seems to have been worth it, as experts have finally revealed the significance of this achievement.

In July 2021, a British team of researchers from Bristol University and Durham University published the book “The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment,” which addresses the findings of their intriguing study.

The team analyzed the documents with the help of multispectral imaging technology, which takes photographs using different electromagnetic wavelengths.

The fragments were determined to be a part of a significant collection of manuscripts titled the Vulgate Cycle (also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle). Individuals in northern or northeastern France penned the text between 1250 and 1275 — this means it was transcribed to parchment shortly after the Vulgate Cycle emerged.

Two scribes wrote the legend using carbon-based ink and soot rather than the most common dye of the period, one made from a grain of the species terminalia chebula. Infrared light captured this by making the second type of pigment lighter.

From the margin note in English stating “my God” and an analysis of the author’s handwriting, medieval historians at Bristol concluded that the pages were brought to England about 80 years after they were written. By 1520, it seems, the pages were scrapped in a bookshop, and so they became binding materials for a French philosophy text.

Most of the Arthurian manuscripts “were composed after 1275, so this is an especially early example,” Tether explained. “These fragments of the story of Merlin are a wonderfully exciting find, which may have implications for the study not just of this text but also of other related and later texts that have shaped our modern understanding of the Arthurian legend.”

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About Marcelle Couto

Marcelle Couto is a freshman coursing the joint Philosophy/Theology major as well as Music. She is from São Paulo, Brazil, and was born in Rochester MN. Marcelle currently resides in Cavanaugh Hall.

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