Rare, Early Version of the King Arthur Legend Translated by Researchers

Rare, Early Version of the King Arthur Legend Translated by Researchers
The book with the fragments getting multi-spectral scanning to enhance the faded ink. (Photo: Leah Tether)

A team of researchers has published a full English translation of an 800-year-old passage from the story of King Arthur. They also analysed the handwriting and linguistic style of the manuscript, nicknamed the “Bristol Merlin,” to glean information on its origin and history, using an imaging technique called Raman spectroscopy to better make out faded parts of the text.

Tucked away in the bindings of four books from the turn of the 15th century, the Bristol Merlin is made up of seven parchment fragments that comprise a passage from the Arthur legend. Dated to between 1250 and 1275, the manuscript was likely penned in northern France, the researchers said, based on the writing style and its language (Old French). Though about an English king, the Arthur myth was told and retold in different ways throughout France. The manuscript is not the first document to contain its particular story, which is called the Suite Vulgate du Merlin. Researchers believe the text was initially written around 1225, which means the Bristol Merlin was a fairly contemporary retelling of the story.

One of the manuscript fragments showing faded ink and an inscription. (Photo: Don Hooper) One of the manuscript fragments showing faded ink and an inscription. (Photo: Don Hooper)

Laura Chuhan Campbell, a scholar in medieval literature with a specialty in Old French Merlin texts at Durham University, told Gizmodo that “the medieval Arthurian legends were a bit like the Marvel Universe, in that 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 … This fragment comes from the second volume, which documents the rise of Merlin as Arthur’s advisor, and Arthur’s turbulent early years as king.”

The fragments of the Bristol Merlin were evidently written by two people, based on differences in the handwriting — perhaps an apprentice and a more learned colleague, Campbell explained in an email. But the team was also able to see previously invisible details in the tale itself by using a spectroscopic technique called Raman scattering to enhance the ink that had faded away with time. Such methods are helping historians and other experts recover knowledge previously inaccessible in degraded documents.

Leah Tether, a scholar of medieval French and English literature at the University of Bristol, president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society, and a researcher involved in the recent analysis, said that while a version of Arthur dates back to the 9th century, he doesn’t appear as the regal character you’re more familiar with until the 12th century. “By the time the text in our fragments was composed, the narrative of Arthur had developed considerably in both length and complexity from its predecessors, and the slight changes of detail found in our fragments show how dynamic manuscript transmission was,” Tether told Gizmodo in an email.

This fragment shows two different handwriting styles, belonging to two different scribes. (Photo: Don Hooper) This fragment shows two different handwriting styles, belonging to two different scribes. (Photo: Don Hooper)

The Bristol Merlin manuscript has some narrative differences from later versions of the Arthur myth, revealing what one of the earliest renditions of the tale was like. The Holy Grail, for example, a staple of the Arthur myth you might know, wasn’t introduced until the version of the myth written by Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet.

As for how the passages got to Bristol? The team found an annotation in the manuscript’s margin that was written by an English person and dated to the first half of the 14th century. “My god” was scrawled in the margins, perhaps by someone truly wowed by the prose. Because the passages were pasted in the bindings of another book, the team figured they were recycled as waste in either Oxford or Cambridge, according to a University of Bristol press release. It may have been discarded because that version of the Arthur legend was old hat by that time. “What was fashionable to someone in the 13th century had, quite naturally, become less so 150 to 200 years later,” Tether said.

Though the story was treated as scrap, perhaps we should be grateful. It was that reuse that allowed the fragments to survive until now.