13th-Century Tale of Merlin and Arthur, Found Reused as Bookbinding
Arthurian Literature, Books, Bristol Central Library, King Arthur, Medieval Manuscripts, Merlin
Merlinâ€™s name appears in recently discovered MSS. text.
Medieval fragments of Arthurian legend have been sitting in the Bristol Central Library for hundreds of years and no one noticedâ€”until now. The newly discovered textâ€”hidden in a later bookâ€”tells of a battle in which Merlin leads a charge using a dragon banner that actually breathes fire.
The 13th-century manuscript pages were tucked away in the binding of a later, printed book, a four-volume set of the works of Jean Gerson, a French scholar and theologian. The Gerson text was printed in Strasbourg, on the French-German border, sometime between 1494 and 1502, before making its way to England. â€The [Gerson] text would have come to England unbound, without coversâ€”itâ€™s lighter and easier to travel that way,â€ explains Leah Tether, a librarian and president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society. â€œIn England, whoever ordered them would then have taken them to a local bookbinder, and he would have added the covers.â€ Thatâ€™s where the much earlier Arthurian pages came into play.
Paper-making and bookbinding werenâ€™t yet codified crafts in 16th-century England, and piecing together fragments of old manuscripts to hide unsightly binding features of new books was a trick of the bookbinding trade. Vellum pages like those of the Arthurian fragments were written on painstakingly prepared calfskin. Too precious to be thrown out, vellum, regardless of what was already on it, would have been kept in a workshop to be used again in a pinch. In this case, they had been repurposed as pastedowns, or the endpapers covering the boards of the Gerson bookâ€™s inside cover.
Then, sometime in the 19th century, a Bristol book conservator carefully lifted these pages off the hard inside cover of the book and rebound them as flyleaves, those extra blank pages at the beginnings and ends of books. â€œSometimes things that donâ€™t have value to one person might have some value to someone else,â€ says Tether. â€œMaybe they thought, â€˜Letâ€™s turn them into flyleaves so someone who wants to can read them one day.â€™â€ …
The Arthurian manuscript is written in Old French, the first language in which the tales were recorded. â€œWe can tell immediately by the handwriting style that itâ€™s from the 13th century,â€ says Tether. While library scientists are still working to pinpoint its age, they believe it dates from some time between 1250 and 1270. The earliest known Arthurian texts are from 1220, so this is a remarkably early version. Tales of King Arthur were passed along orally long before they were written down. It would still be at least a hundred years from this French textâ€™s time before they were written down in English.
The librarians have determined that the newly discovered pages tell the story of the Battle of TrÃ¨bes, in which Merlin, King Arthurâ€™s advisor, exhorts Arthur and his worn-out troops to persist in their fight against King Claudas, after which he leads the charge with the fire-breathing magical banner. There are some minor differences between how the battle is described in these pages and the version commonly accepted today. For instance, the story usually states that King Claudas suffered a thigh wound in this battle, considered a metaphor for castration or impotence. In the newly discovered version, the type of wound isnâ€™t specified. These early details may change our understanding of the familiar tale, and tell us more about how the story changed as it went from oral renderings to French to Englishâ€”and to modern versions.