Fragments of medieval Merlin manuscript found in Bristol library reveal ‘chaster’ story

Fragments of a medieval manuscript telling the story of Merlin, which were discovered two years ago in a Bristol archive, contain “subtle but significant” variations on the Arthurian legend, academics have found.

Die seven parchment fragments were found by chance in 2019 pasted into the bindings of four volumes from between 1494 en 1502 that are held in Bristol central library’s rare books collection. Academics have now established how they came to Bristol, how they differ from other versions of the story, en, using multispectral imaging, even what type of ink was used to write them.

Containing a passage from the Old French sequence of texts known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail Cycle, which was written circa 1220-1225, the fragments themselves have been dated to 1250-1275 through palaeographic handwriting analysis, and located to northern, possibly north-eastern, Frankryk.

Digital processing enabled Bristol’s Professor Leah Tether, medieval historian and manuscript specialist Dr Benjamin Pohl and medievalist Dr Laura Chuhan Campbell to read some parts of the text more clearly, and they discovered differences to other versions of the Merlin legend – for example, the Bristol fragments show a “slightly toned-down” account of Merlin’s sexual encounter with the enchantress Viviane, also known as the Lady of the Lake.

“In most manuscripts of the better known [version], Viviane casts a spell whereby three names are 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,” said Tether. “In our fragments, this is taken one step further: the names are written on a ring, but they also prevent anyone speaking to her. So the Bristol Merlin gets rid of unchaste connotations by removing reference to both Viviane’s groin and the idea of Merlin sleeping with her.”

“And the girl [Viviane] made Merlin lie down in her lap, and she started to ask him questions. She moved around him, and seduced him again and again until he was sick with love for her,” runs the passage. “And then she asked him to teach her how to put a man to sleep. And he knew very well what she was planning, but nevertheless, he could not prevent himself from teaching her this skill, and many others as well, because Our Lord God wanted it this way. And he taught her three names, which she inscribed on a ring every time that she had to speak to him. These words were so powerful that when they were imprinted on her, they prevented anyone from speaking to her. She put all of this down in writing, and from then on, she manipulated Merlin every time that he came to talk to her, so that he had no power over her. And that is why the proverbs say that women have one more trick than the devil.”

Looking at the bindings of the books, the academics worked out that the manuscript from which they had come had been designated as waste in either Oxford or Cambridge, and recycled as binding materials, probably before 1520. They believe the manuscript could have been seen as disposable because English versions of the Arthurian legend, such as Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, had become available.

“We were also able to place the manuscript in England as early as 1300-1350 thanks to an annotation in a margin – again, we were able to date the handwriting, and identify it as an English hand,” said Tether. “Most manuscripts of the text known to have been in England in the middle ages were composed after 1275, so this is an especially early example, both of Suite Vulgate manuscripts in general anywhere, but especially of ones known to have found their way to England from France in the middle ages.”

The volumes are likely to have ended up in Bristol’s collection, the academics believe, through Tobias Matthew, who collected many books while he was dean and bishop of Durham at the turn of the 17th century, later donating many to Bristol public library, which he co-founded in 1613.

The passages in the fragments begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and other knights preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas, ending with Merlin’s stay with Viviane for a week, and his return to Arthur. Other variations include the names of the characters who lead the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, and the location of a wound given to King Claudas, Arthur and Merlin’s enemy. He is wounded through the thighs in other versions, but the fragment does not specify the nature of the wound; the academics said this “may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration”.

Digital processing also helped the academics discover what type of ink the scribes used. '[Dit] helped us to establish, since the text appeared dark under infra-red light, that the two scribes had in fact used a carbon-based ink – made from soot and called ‘lampblack’ – rather than the more common ‘iron-gall ink’, made from gallnuts, which would appear light under infra-red illumination. The reason for the scribes’ ink choice may have to do with what particular ink-making materials were available near their workshop,” said Tether.

The findings have now been brought together in The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment. “Besides the exciting conclusions, one thing that … the Bristol Merlin has revealed is the immeasurable value of interdisciplinary and trans-institutional collaboration, which in our case has forged a holistic, comprehensive model for studying medieval manuscript fragments that we hope will inform and encourage future work in the field,” said Tether. “It has also shown us the very great potential of local manuscript and rare book collections in Bristol, particularly in the central library where there are many more unidentified manuscript fragments awaiting discovery.”

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