The stories are all familiar by now, but early in 2019, Bristol city library revealed that they had discovered what is apparently a new tale in the library’s archives, featuring the enchanter Merlin. It’s in seven handwritten fragments, which would fill about 20 pages of a modern paperback, and which were written in the 13th century.
The pieces are slightly damaged, and will need to be restored. Written in French, these pieces were found in the (non-Arthurian) work of a 15th century scholar, Jean Gerson, which would have been printed in Strasbourg between 1494 and 1502. This would probably have been bound in England in the 16th century and the fragments incorporated into it as part of the binding as a cost saving measure – being perceived merely as old scraps of paper lying around the binder’s workshop. Parchment was expensive and re-using paper in this way was commonplace. It seems likely that the fragments were pasted onto the inside of the covers, but later were peeled off and used as part of the flyleaf.
The story itself tells the tale of the Battle of Trèbes, in which Arthur and his knights are pitched against King Claudas. Merlin gives a stirring speech to inspire Arthur’s troops and actually leads a charge himself with the aid of Sir Kay’s fire breathing battle standard, which features a dragon.
The story is probably part of the ‘Estoire de Merlin,’ written in Old French and from a series of texts known as the Vulgate, or Lancelot-Grail, cycle, which Sir Thomas Malory used as a basis for his famous work Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory was a knight himself, though perhaps not the ‘parfait gentil knight’ of legend: it’s said that he turned to a life of crime during the Wars of the Roses, and wrote part of his tale when he was imprisoned. The Vulgate Cycle itself is, scholars believe, an attempt to match the Matter of Britain to the Christian tone of the Matter of France, and to de-emphasise the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Michael Richardson, a special collections librarian at Bristol, found the fragments by accident when searching for material to give Medieval studies postgrads. He says that one word jumped out at him: Merlin. He immediately showed the fragments to Dr. Leah Tether, an academic based at Bristol University and the president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society.
“As soon as I opened them, I could immediately see that the fragments were early, in terms of Arthurian narrative,” she says. “Bearing in mind that most of the Old French versions of the legend were written in the early 13th century, this manuscript is quite close in time to those original compositions.”
It’s not the first time that this particular story has come to light – there are different versions of it throughout the Vulgate cycle itself, but this one has some variations. Different people lead the charges during the battle, for example, in these newly-discovered pieces. Tether says
“These fragments are a wonderfully exciting find, which may have implications for the study not just of this text but also of other related and later texts that have shaped our modern understanding of the Arthurian legend.
“There is a small chance that this could be connected to a version that Malory had access to but we are a long way from proving that.” She adds “We know he used a version of this French text as a source for his version of the legend, but nobody has yet identified which version. No known [version] that exists is what he used—[they’re] not identical with what he wrote about.”
But even if Malory did not use this story, it’s still a fascinating find.
“Time and research will reveal what further secrets about the legends of Arthur, Merlin and the Holy Grail these fragments might hold. The south-west of England and Wales are, of course, closely bound up with the many locations made famous by the Arthurian legend, so it is all the more special to find an early fragment of the legend – one pre-dating any version written in English – here in Bristol.” And Tether adds, “To me it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime find. You just don’t get quite that many of these popping up.”
Tether’s comments about place will be of interest to many UK Pagans, particularly those in the south west, since Glastonbury – not far from Bristol – is, as Tether says, held to be the seat of many Arthurian tales. Arthur and his Queen Guinevere’s alleged tomb is at Glastonbury Abbey and can be visited, and the nearby hill fort of Cadbury Castle is one of the contenders for the site of Camelot. Attempts to ‘place’ the action in the Arthurian tales is a perennial exercise for both amateur and professional historians, but the discovery of this fragmentary tale will add new fuel to the imaginations and research of those who are interested in the Matter of Britain.