A Rare, Early Version of the King Arthur Legend Found & Translated

The sto­ries of King Arthur and his court took shape over a peri­od of a few hun­dred years; like most ancient leg­ends, they evolved through many iter­a­tions — not a lit­tle like the sto­ries in mod­ern-day com­ic books. “The medieval Arthuri­an leg­ends were a bit like the Mar­vel Uni­verse,” explains Lau­ra Camp­bell, a medieval lan­guage schol­ar at Durham Uni­ver­si­ty. “They con­sti­tut­ed a coher­ent fic­tion­al world that had cer­tain rules and a set of well-known char­ac­ters who appeared and inter­act­ed with each oth­er in mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent sto­ries.”

The first account of Arthur comes from a text in Latin called the His­to­ria Brit­ton­um, a com­pi­la­tion of sources assem­bled some­time in 829 or 830. Here, Arthur is men­tioned as a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, “var­i­ous­ly described,” notes the British Library, “as a war lord (dux bel­lo­rum), as a Chris­t­ian sol­dier who car­ries either an image of the vir­gin or Christ’s cross, and as a leg­endary fig­ure asso­ci­at­ed with mirac­u­lous events.”

Mer­lin the magi­cian — the fig­ure we most asso­ciate with mirac­u­lous events in the Arthuri­an leg­ends — doesn’t show up for anoth­er two hun­dred years or so, in Geof­frey of Monmouth’s His­to­ry of the Kings of Britain. “After Geof­frey,” writes Kathryn Wal­ton at Medievalists.net, “Mer­lin becomes a fix­ture of the Arthuri­an leg­end and appears in all kinds of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the sto­ry across the Mid­dle Ages.” One Mer­lin sto­ry that appears in many ver­sions involves a fig­ure called Nimue, Viviane, and oth­er names in French, Eng­lish, and Welsh. (She is some­times iden­ti­fied with the Lady of the Lake).

The Mer­lin and Vivien sto­ries have “sur­vived through­out the ages in a way that not many oth­er sto­ries have,” the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester’s Robyn Pol­lack writes, “because writ­ers have found remark­able ways to trans­form the char­ac­ters and the nar­ra­tive over the cen­turies.” Now, schol­ars at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bris­tol have announced, two years after its dis­cov­ery, the authen­ti­ca­tion of a frag­ment con­tain­ing yet anoth­er ver­sion of the sto­ry.

Found glued into the bind­ing of a late 15th cen­tu­ry book at the Bris­tol pub­lic library (one of the world’s old­est libraries), the sev­en frag­ments in Old French, dat­ed between 1250 and 1275, con­tain the “most chaste ver­sion” of the Mer­lin and Viviane leg­end, says Leah Teth­er, co-author of the new Eng­lish trans­la­tion and com­men­tary, The Bris­tol Mer­lin: Reveal­ing the Secrets of a Medieval Frag­ment. “The most sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to be found in this par­tic­u­lar set of frag­ments is where Viviane, the enchantress, casts a spell.”

In oth­er ver­sions, her mag­ic inscribes three names on her groin, a spell that keeps Mer­lin away from the same area. In the re-dis­cov­ered frag­ment, which shows evi­dence of two scrib­al hands, Viviane engraves the three names on a ring, there­by pre­vent­ing Mer­lin from speak­ing to her. “With medieval texts there was no such thing as copy­right,” says Camp­bell, one of the pro­jec­t’s trans­la­tors and authors. “So, if you were a scribe copy­ing a man­u­script, there was noth­ing to stop you from just chang­ing things a bit.”

Part of a col­lec­tion of Arthuri­an sto­ries known as the Vul­gate Cycle, the frag­ment pro­vides fur­ther evi­dence of the Mer­lin char­ac­ter’s evo­lu­tion, and con­sid­er­able soft­en­ing, over time. At his first intro­duc­tion, Mer­lin was the lit­er­al son of Satan, a kind of antichrist sent to earth to wreak hav­oc. Over the cen­turies, he became much less sin­is­ter, trans­form­ing into the wise advi­sor of the ide­al Eng­lish king, Arthur, a char­ac­ter who did a fair bit of trans­form­ing him­self as his leg­end grew and changed.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

King Arthur in Film: Our Most Endur­ing Pop­u­lar Enter­tain­ment Fran­chise? Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #104

160,000 Pages of Glo­ri­ous Medieval Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized: Vis­it the Bib­lio­the­ca Philadel­phien­sis

Medieval Scribes Dis­cour­aged Theft of Man­u­scripts by Adding Curs­es Threat­en­ing Death & Damna­tion to Their Pages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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