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The legend of Merlin the magician casting spells for 800 years, reveals medieval scrolls


DURHAM, England – The stories of the legendary Merlin the Magician have been told for centuries, but a new study reveals just how well the scribes wrote these famous manuscripts. Stories about King Arthur’s pal Merlin have been casting a spell for at least 800 years, researchers say.

Fragments of a medieval manuscript found in Bristol, England, telling the story of the Arthurian wizard, have been identified as some of the earliest surviving examples of their kind. Cutting-edge technology also reveals how handwritten documents ended up in Bristol to begin with. The researchers were even able to read damaged sections of the text invisible to the naked eye – and were also able to identify the actual type of ink that was used.

The seven parchment fragments were spotted by chance in early 2019 by Michael Richardson of the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Library. They were pasted into the bindings of four volumes of modern times, published between 1494 and 1502 and held in the Rare Book Collection at Bristol Central Library. The fragments contain a passage from the sequence of Old French texts known as the Vulgate cycle – or Lancelot-Grail cycle – which dates from the early 13th century.

Experts believe parts of the cycle may have been used by Sir Thomas Malory as the source for his The death of Arthur, first printed in 1485 by William Caxton, who is himself the main source text for many modern accounts of Arthurian legend. The discovery, known as the ‘Bristol Merlin’, made headlines around the world.

How researchers were able to translate iconic Merlin tales

Following the discovery, Professor Leah Tether, president of the International Arthurian Society, her husband, medieval historian and manuscript specialist, Dr Benjamin Pohl, and Dr Laura Chuhan Campbell, specialist in Old French Merlin stories of Durham University, set out to examine and analyze the fragments in detail.

Their research and findings, which includes a full transcript and English translation of the text, have been brought together in a new book titled The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment, published by ARC Humanities Press. “We were able to date the manuscript from which the fragments were extracted from 1250 to 1275 thanks to a paleographic analysis, and we located it in the north, perhaps the north-east of France thanks to a linguistic study. “Tether said in an interview with South West News. Service.

“The text itself, the Merlin’s Vulgate Suite, was written between around 1220 and 1225, which places the Bristol manuscript a generation from the original authorship of the story,” she continues. “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 writing and identify it as an English hand. Most of the manuscripts of the text known to have been in England in the Middle Ages were composed after 1275, so this is a particularly old example, both of the Vulgate Suite manuscripts generally anywhere, but especially those known to have found their way to England from France in the Middle Ages.

Tether says the incredible technology used to examine the scrolls made the translation much easier, despite some damaged parts.

“Working with Professor Andy Beeby, Chemistry Department at Durham University, was also a game-changer for our project thanks to the Raman mobile spectrometer developed by him and his team, Team Pigment, especially for studying manuscripts. “, she says. “We captured images of damaged sections and, thanks to digital processing, we were able to read parts of the text more clearly. This process also allowed us to establish, since the text appeared dark under infrared light, that the two scribes had in fact used a carbon-based ink – soot-based and called “carbon black” – rather than the more carbon-based ink. current “iron”. gall ink ‘, made from gall ink, which would appear as light under infrared lighting.

The researchers believe that the scribes’ ink choice may be related to the particular ink-making materials available near their workshop.

The story behind the stories

As well as uncovering details about the age of the manuscript, the team were also able to piece together how the fragments ended up in the books and how the books themselves found their way to Bristol. Based on the bindings of the books in which the fragments are now bound, the team was able to deduce that the fragments, had become “waste” in Oxford or Cambridge, and were then recycled, for their parchment, rather than their contained, as binding materials in the books in which they were found, circa 1520.

Based on the known provenance of other books in the Bristol collection, the likely route to Bristol for the books was via Tobias Matthew, Archbishop of York in the early 17th century. Prior to this role he had been dean and bishop of Durham and collected many books once owned by monks, many of which had bindings from Oxford in particular, as many of Durham’s monks studied at Durham College, Oxford.

Matthew, who was born in Bristol, would later co-found the Bristol Public Library in 1613, and he donated many of his books to the Library Foundation – some of which arrived posthumously. The books containing Merlin’s fragments were most likely part of his bequest, according to the research team.

Did these stories differ from other manuscripts on Merlin?

They also found that the Bristol fragments contain evidence of subtle, but significant, differences from the telling of the stories found in modern editions. There were longer and more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in some sections – especially when it comes to the combat action.

An example is where Merlin gives instructions as to who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces. The characters responsible for each division are different from the better-known version of the story. Another example is a “slightly toned down” account, compared to other versions, of Merlin’s sexual encounter with the enchantress Viviane, better known to Malory readers as the “Lady of the Lake.”

The seven leaves themselves represent a continuous sequence of the Vulgate Merlin account, according to Tether.

“The events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and an assortment of other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing to fight at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers. Merlin hatched the best plan of attack. A long description of the battle follows, ”Tether says. “At one point Arthur’s forces look under siege, but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice causes them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using the special dragon standard of Sir Kay that Merlin had given to Arthur, who breathes real fire.

“Ultimately, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, along with the other knights, are lodged at Trebes Castle,” she continues. “That night Ban and his wife , Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter seeming to foreshadow Elaine’s unborn son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice He wakes up and goes to church.

“We are told that during Arthur’s stay in Benoic’s realm for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue fighting and defeating Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to take care of business in her own lands, Claudas is triumphant again. The narrative then switches to Merlin’s partial explanation of Ban and Elaine’s dreams. Subsequently, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep – she wishes to do this to her parents. Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but refuses to sleep with her Merlin then returns to Benoic to join Arthur and his companions.

Tether continues: “Besides the exciting findings, one thing that the undertaking of this study, editing and translation of Bristol Merlin has revealed is the immeasurable value of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration, which in our case has forged a holistic and comprehensive model for the study of fragments of medieval manuscripts which we hope will inform and encourage future work in the field. It also showed us the very great potential of the local collections of manuscripts and rare books in Bristol, especially in the Central Library where many other unidentified manuscript fragments are waiting to be discovered.

Reporting by South West News Service editor Stephen Beech.

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