In 2019, Michael Richardson from the University of Bristol Special Collections Library, he found seven parchment fragments by pure chance. These pages seemed to be related to the legend of King Arthur; since they narrate part of the history related to the Arthurian cycle. But now, thanks to science and study at the Universities of Brisstol and Durham, we know more about the origin of these pieces. And they are among the oldest manuscripts related to Arthurian legends of this type. But How have they managed to date them? What is the origin of these texts?
We must start from the fact that the seven fragments were quite a surprise when they were found several years ago. “They were pasted into the early modern four-volume bindings, published between 1494-1502 “, indicate the University of Bristol in the press release.
They were kept in the rare book collection of this library for years without anyone paying enough attention to them. And yes now have turned out to be a treasure for researchers.
Fragments of the manuscript, related to the legend of King Arthur
Fragments of the manuscript they are written in old french and they seem to belong to a work dated from the beginning of the thirteenth century known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail Cycle; in these stories appear both the story of the magician Merlin and the adventures of the search for the Holy Grail by Lancelot, among others. Theories suggest that possibly “Sir Thomas Malory (1415-1471) used parts of this cycle as the source for his work Le Morte Darthur (first printed in 1485 by William Caxton), which in turn is the main source text for many modern versions of the Arthurian legend in English, “the researchers say.
These fragments of the manuscript soon caught the attention of the whole world. He was even dubbed the Bristol Merlin. And it passed into the hands of the teacher Leah Tether, President of the International Arthurian Society (British branch) of the Bristol English Department; her husband, the medieval historian and text specialist Dr. Benjamin Pohl, of the Department of History of the University; and the doctor Laura chuhan campbell, specialist in the Merlin stories in Old French from Durham University. Between the three of them they examined and analyzed the pieces of the manuscript related to the legend of King Arthur and they discovered they were very old.
This has been the dating of the manuscript
The ‘Cycle of the Vulgate’ was written between 1220 and 1225 while the ‘Merlin of Bristol’ dates from between 1250 and 1275; so it is situated “within a generation of the original authorship of the narrative”
The task of dating the text fragments has not been easy. But they have also managed to know the possible place of origin thanks to the study of the French in which it is written. “We have been able to date the manuscript from which the fragments were extracted between 1250 and 1275 by means of a palaeographic analysis (of writing), and we have located it in the north, possibly in the northeast, from France through a linguistic study, “Professor Tether comments in the statement.” The text itself (Vulgate Cycle) was written around 1220-1225, so this places the Bristol manuscript within a generation of the original authorship of the narrative, “he adds.
On the other hand, thanks to an annotation in a margin; They have also been able to know that it arrived in England between 1300 and 1350. “We were able to date the writing and identify it as an English hand,” says the teacher. “Most of the manuscripts of the text that are known to have been in England in the Middle Ages were composed after 1275, so this is an especially early example; both of the texts of the Vulgate Cycle in general and of those known to have arrived in England from France in the Middle Ages “, he indicates.
The science behind dating
But not all the work has been done from the language of the text. Because to understand what the fragments were saying, they first had to be able to see them well. And this is where the Durham University Chemistry Department. The work of the Professor Andy Beeby’s team It consisted of digitally processing the text from the capture of images of the damaged sections. Thanks to her work, “we were able to read some parts of the text more clearly,” says Professor Tether.
Durham University’s Chemistry department helped to digitally process text fragments related to the King Arthur legend; but it also helped to know that the ink used, known as ‘lampblack’ was not the most common of the time
Moreover, this process also helped to know more about the manuscript. In this case, it was possible to find out what the type of ink was. The most common at the time was iron gall ink, which can be seen under infrared light in a darker way; but in this case it is a soot-based ink (charcoal), which is known as lampblack and appears lighter in this type of light. “The reason for the scribes’ choice of ink may have to do with the ink making materials who were available near your workshop“, they point out in the statement.
The three researchers have published both the transcription and the translation Complete English of the text in the book The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment (2021, ARC Humanities Press). In the edition you can see full color images of the fragments of the text related to the legends of King Arthur made by the photographer Don Hooper.
Science and letters have always been closer than it might seem at first. Without one or the other, the human being would not be complete. And the example of the Bristol Merlin is just one more in which it is shown that without science, letters are lost. But the other way around also happens. Let’s not forget that knowledge is very complex, even as far as the legend of King Arthur is concerned.