Fragments of 13th-century manuscripts accidentally discovered in a library in Bristol, England, have revealed an alternate version of the story of Merlin, the famous wizard of Arthurian legend. A team of researchers translated the writings, known as Bristol Merlin, from Old French to English and traced the pages to medieval origins, reports Alison Flood for the Guardian.
The manuscript is part of a group of texts called the Vulgate Cycle, or the Lancelot-Graal Cycle. Using a handwriting analysis, the researchers determined that someone in the north or northeast of France wrote the text between 1250 and 1275. This means that it was consecrated parchment shortly after the first composition of the Vulgate cycle, between 1220 and 1225.
“Medieval Arthurian legends were a lot like the Marvel Universe, in that they were a cohesive fictional world that had certain rules and a well-known set of characters that appeared and interacted with each other in several different stories.” Laura Chuhan Campbell, a specialist in medieval languages ââat Durham University, recounts Gizmodoby Isaac Schultz. “This fragment is from the second volume, which documents Merlin’s rise as Arthur’s advisor and Arthur’s turbulent first years as king.”
King Arthur first appeared in a History of Britain written in 829 or 830, notes the British Library. This text describes him as a warlord or a Christian soldier. Later 12th-century accounts added new elements to the legend, such as Merlin’s mentoring of Arthur. English writer Thomas Malory has compiled one of the best-known collections of stories, The death of Arthur, in the 15th century.
Michael Richardson, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Bristol, found the pieces of parchment stuck in a 15th-century book in 2019, Sarah Durn reports for Dark Atlas. Since then, Campbell and his colleagues Leah Tether and Benjamin Pohl, both medieval historians in Bristol, have concluded that the pages were sent to England some 80 years after they were written.
“We know it was in England at the time [because] someone wrote ‘my god’ in the English margins, âsays Campbell Dark Atlas. âFrom handwriting, we have dated it to the beginning of the 14th century. “
By 1520 the pages had ended up in a scrap pile in a British bookstore, where they were used as binding documents for a French philosophical text. This book found its way to the Bristol Public Library some time after the collection was established in 1613. As the scholars explain in a statement, the book’s “likely route to Bristol” was Archbishop of York Tobias Matthew, who co-founded the library and collected numerous books in Oxford. Matthew left his collection in the library after his death in 1628.
The text likely remained in the library until Richardson discovered the pages in 2019. Now the researchers have published the translation, along with their study of the manuscript fragments, in a book titled The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment.
The team found that the narrative differed from other versions of the story in several key ways. A sexual encounter between Merlin and Viviane, also known as Lady of the Lake, is “slightly toned down,” Tether told the Guardian.
In most of the best-known manuscripts [version], Viviane casts a spell with three names written on her groin that prevent Merlin from sleeping with her. In several manuscripts of the lesser-known version, these names are written on a ring instead. In our fragments, it goes a little further: the names are written on a ring, but they also prevent anyone from speaking to it. So the Bristol Merlin gets rid of the shameless connotations by removing the reference to both Viviane’s groin and the idea of ââMerlin sleeping with her.
Based on an analysis of the handwriting, the handwriting fragments appear to have been written by two people. It could mean that an apprentice was working with an experienced scholar to record the legend. Using a spectroscopic technique called Raman scattering, the team reconstructed parts of the text that had worn away.
In total, around 200 versions of the Vulgate cycle exist, with various scribes revising the text accidentally or on purpose.
“With medieval texts, copyright did not exist,” says Campbell Dark Atlas. âSo if you were a scribe copying a manuscript, there was nothing stopping you from changing things up a bit. “
Merlin’s image has changed dramatically over the centuries. In more modern versions of the legends of King Arthur, he is a wise adviser to the king. In the early iterations of the story, however, Campbell says he was a “morally dubious” magical seer or even a “scary little boy.” [whose] the father is a devil.