King Arthur breakthrough as Bristol manuscript fragments detail famous Merlin legend

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The breakthrough comes three years after the chance discovery of seven medieval parchment fragments in a Bristol library. A team of academics from the Universities of Bristol and Durham have now used cutting-edge techniques to reveal sections of the text that were seemingly lost to time. With the aid of multi-spectral imaging technology, the researchers have been able to read through previously unseen sections and even determine what sort of ink was used.

The manuscript fragments contain a passage from an early 13th-century Old French text known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.

Parts of this text were likely the base for Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Le Morte Darthur, first published in 1485 – the main source of the modern Arthurian legend.

But there are key differences in this newly uncovered account that describes the character of Merlin – the court wizard of King Arthur.

Following their discovery in 2019, the manuscripts were analysed by Bristol’s Professor Leah Tether of the International Arthurian Society and her husband, medieval historian Dr Benjamin Pohl, with help from Old French expert Dr Laura Chuhan Campbell at Durham.

The results of their study, including a full transcript and translation of the texts, have been published in their book, The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment.

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Merlin and 13th century medieval manuscript

A 13th century manuscript detailing the legend of the wizard Merlin (Image: GETTY/Don Hooper)

Fragments of the Merlin manuscripts

The fragments were analysed using multi-spectral imaging technology (Image: Professor Leah Tether/Dr Ben Pohl)

Professor Tether said: “We were able to date the manuscript from which the fragments were taken to 1250 to 1275 through a palaeographic (handwriting) analysis, and located it to northern, possibly north-eastern, France through a linguistic study.

“The text itself (the Suite Vulgate du Merlin) was written in about 1220 to 1225, so this puts the Bristol manuscript within a generation of the narrative’s original authorship.”

“We were also able to place the manuscript in England as early as 1300 to 1350 thanks to an annotation in a margin – again, we were able to date the handwriting, and identify it as an English hand.”

Most of the known manuscripts of this text composed in medieval England, appear to have been written after 1275, making this an “especially early example”.

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Working with Professor Andy Beeby of Durham University, the researchers also determined the texts were penned by two scribes using a carbon-based ink called “lampblack”.

At the time, it would have been more common to use an “iron-gall ink” made from gallnuts, rather than soot.

Professor Tether added: “The reason for the scribes’ ink choice may have to do with what particular ink-making materials were available near their workshop.”

The fragments were discovered at the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Library, pasted into the bindings of late 15th to early 16th century volumes.

The original manuscripts were likely deemed “wastes” in either Oxford or Cambridge and their parchment was recycled into the books in which the fragments were found 500 years later.

Up-close look at the 13th century manuscripts

An up-close look at the 13th century manuscript fragment (Image: Don Hooper)

King Arthur and Merlin in Camelot

A depiction of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin in Camelot (Image: GETTY)

The fragments then most likely travelled to Bristol via Tobias Matthew, the Archbishop of York (1606 to 16028).

In 1613, the Archbishop co-founded the Bristol Public Library and donated a number of his books to the library’s foundation.

The Merlin fragments were likely bequeathed to the library after the Archbishop’s death.

So how do these manuscript fragments differ from the Merlin legend?

The fragments introduce some differences, such as a less raunchy encounter between Merlin and the enchantress Viviane, also known as the Lady of the Lake.

In another instance, Merlin is tasked with naming the leaders of King Arthur’s forces and the figures he names are different to the popular narrative.

Another section of the text omits the wound sustained by Arthur’s rival, King Claudas, who according to the known legend was wounded in the thighs.

Professor Tether added: “Besides the exciting conclusions, one thing that undertaking this study, edition, and translation of 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.

“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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