Medieval Parchment Shows Merlin in a New Light
Updated: Sep 29
Academics recently translated a few fragments from a long-lost manuscript about King Arthur’s wizard and mentor Merlin. What they found may surprise you.
A librarian at a public library in Bristol, England in 2019, found by chance seven parchment fragments used as part of a binding of a much later book. Upon closer inspection, he found that the fragments were from a version of the Arthurian Vulgate Cycle, a group of stories written in France around 1225 that describes the life of King Arthur and his court. Since only 200 versions of these stories still survive, any manuscripts from the life of King Arthur are quite rare.
Using multi-spectral imaging, a team of multi-disciplinary historians were able to decipher sections of the manuscript that had been damaged and unreadable. The technology also helped them identify what type of ink was used to write the manuscript (lamp black), and that the manuscript was originally written by at least two different scribes.
From their analysis, they believe the parchment fragments were written in France, around 25-50 years after the original Vulgate Cycle was penned. About 80 years later, the parchment made its way to Britain.
“We know [the fragments were] in England by that point [as] someone has written ‘my god’ in the margins in English,” says medieval language scholar Laura Campbell. She also says that from analysis of the handwriting, they believe that the notation was made sometime in the early 14th century.
By 1520, however, the parchment/book had deteriorated to such a degree that it was scrapped and reused to bind a book on French philosophy. This book was eventually purchased by the Archbishop of York, for his personal collection in Oxford. Upon his death in 1628, he left his entire collection to the Bristol library, which is most likely how the book ended up at the library.
The fragments differ in their description of Merlin, the wizard who mentored and advised King Arthur. Other surviving versions of the story describe how Merlin falls in love with Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. To prevent him having sex with her, she casts a spell and then tattoos three names on her pubic area. In this fragment, however, the names instead are carved onto a ring, which keeps him from speaking to her.
“These changes could’ve been accidental or purposeful,” says Campbell. “The patron in this case may have wanted something a little less raunchy.”
Moreover, in other existing Arthurian stories, King Claudas is wounded in the thigh, which scholars believe may have been a metaphor for castration or impotence. But in the newly discovered fragments, the location of the wound is not described.
Also different in this version of the story are the names of those who lead King Arthur’s forces into battle.
Learn more about the discovery and read the full translation here.