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Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library: the French tradition

Introduction The Early Versions
of the Legend
The Wider Legend Further Reading

The Prose Lancelot Grail

The entire Lancelot Grail cycle: Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294
The other manuscripts of the prose Lancelot Grail cycle in the British Library
Part I: L’Estoire del saint graal
Part II: L’Estoire de Merlin
Parts III, IV, V: Lancelot
Part VI and VII: La Queste del saint graal and La Mort le roi Artu

(Click on an image for an enlarged view and detailed description.)

The most popular French text of medieval Arthurian literature, from surviving manuscript evidence, is the prose Lancelot-Grail, which was widely copied and circulated in French-speaking Europe from the time that the texts were first composed between 1220 and 1240 until printed editions became more accessible at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The manuscripts contain various combinations of the five tales which make up the cycle. They are usually considered separately by post-medieval editors for ease of reference, but are seldom found alone in medieval manuscripts:

L’Estoire del saint graal (The Story of the Holy Grail)
L’Estoire de Merlin (The Story of Merlin)
Lancelot (The Lancelot ‘proper’)
La Queste del saint graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail)
La Mort le roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur)

These five texts recount the entire history of the Grail from its origin to the successful outcome of the quest, followed by the downfall of Arthur’s court, with the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere at the centre. They have been rewritten and reworked in so many variant traditions that it is often difficult to follow the narrative strands and establish the links between them, though eminent scholars, from Paulin Paris in the nineteenth century to Norris J. Lacy (English translation in paperback, published in 2010) have produced excellent editions, which have made the task much easier.

The British Library has one of the few surviving copies of the entire prose cycle, now in three volumes:

Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294

Bound together until the seventeenth century, these stately volumes are unique in that they contain the entire text of the Lancelot Grail cycle with 747 images, almost double the number found in any comparable manuscript. They are believed to be the work of a small group of artists in eastern Artois or western Flanders, who worked on two other Prose Lancelot manuscripts: Royal 14 E. iii (see below) and the former Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica 1, recently sold at Sotheby’s (parts of this manuscript are in Manchester and Oxford) and can be dated precisely to 1316 from an inscription on one of the images (Add. 10292, f. 55v: not shown).

The text
Written in three columns in a large, regular gothic script, the text of the Additional manuscripts was used as the base for the first published edition by H. Oskar Sommer in 1894. Add. 10292 contains the story of the Grail and the Merlin (Parts 1 and 2), Add. 10293 the Lancelot proper (Part 3) and Add.10294 the Quest and the Mort Artu (Part 4 and 5).

The dialect is Picard, the variety of Old French spoken and written in medieval Picardy and Artois (now part of Northern France and Belgium). Distinctive characteristics of the spelling are: e becomes ie, as in apries for après (after), c becomes ch before e or i : chil for cil (this) and ch becomes c before a and o: cambre for chambre (room) and cose for chose (thing). The formulaic ‘Or dist li contes.. and ‘Chi endroit….’ are characteristic markers of new episodes in the story.

The images
The dramatic illustrations closely reflect the details of the narrative and are accompanied by titles in red describing what is happening in each one. The predominant form of illustration is miniatures or small pictures on a gold background with pink, blue and white borders. Elements of the elaborate composition extend through the frame into the rubric, which must have been added by the artists (see f. 100). There are many smaller initials in gold, red and blue with decorative penwork in some cases extending the full length of the page.
Additional 10292, f. 100, detail
The sword from the stone is presented to Arthur by the Archbishop,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10292, f. 100, detail

Additional 10292, f. 163,detail
Merlin has Master Blaise write down the legend,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10292, f. 163,detail

Additional 10293, f. 199, detail
Lancelot and Guinevere,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10293, f. 199, detail

Additional 10293, f. 349, detail
Lancelot with two knights, kneels at an altar, holding a letter, while a hermit says mass,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10293, f. 349, detail

Additional 10294, f. 93, detail
The final battle on Salisbury Plain,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10294, f. 93, detail

Additional 10294, f. 94
Arthur’s sword is taken by the hand which comes out of the lake,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 400 x 290mm.

Additional 10294, f. 94

The other manuscripts of the prose Lancelot Grail cycle in the British Library:

Click on link to access the full record in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Additional 5474
Additional 17443
Additional 32125
Egerton 2515
Harley 4419
Harley 6340, 6341, 6342
Lansdowne 757
Royal 14 E. iii
Royal 15 A. xi
Royal 19 B. vii
Royal 19 C. xii
Royal 19 C. xiii
Royal 20 A. ii
Royal 20 B. viii
Royal 20 C. vi
Royal 20 D. iii
Royal 20 D. iv

The five prose romances which make up the cycle are found in different combinations in the British Library manuscripts. For ease of reference the Lancelot proper has been divided into three parts (as in Sommer’s edition), so that there are seven parts altogether. Manuscripts have been listed under the parts of the story which they best represent.

Part I: L’Estoire del saint graal (The Story of the Holy Grail) is the tale of the early history of the grail and how it was brought to England by the descendants of Joseph of Arimathea.
Royal 14 E. iii, f. 7, detail
Joseph of Arimathea collects the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 485 x 335mm.

Royal 14 E. iii, f. 7, detail

Royal 14 E. iii, f. 86, detail
Joseph on his deathbed gives the grail to his nephew Alan, its keeper,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 485 x 335mm.

Royal 14 E. iii, f. 86, detail

Royal 19 C. xii, f. 37
Full page with puzzle initial,
England or France, 1275-1350, 340 x 240mm.
Royal 19 C. xii, f. 37

Part II: L’Estoire de Merlin (The Story of Merlin) tells of the prophecies of the soothsayer/magician and of his role in Arthur’s early life and rise to power.
Additional 32125, f. 26
Text page from Additional 32125,
France, early 14th century, 250 x 170mm.

Additional 32125, f. 26

Parts III, IV, V: Lancelot (The Lancelot ‘proper’) is the story of Lancelot’s early years, his forbidden romance with Guinevere and of the chivalric deeds of the knights of the round table. It is by far the longest part, making up about half of the entire cycle and is believed to have been composed first, with the stories of Merlin and the early Grail legends added later as a ‘prequel’. In Sommer’s edition it is divided into three volumes:

III Lancelot’s birth, education, and arrival at Camelot; the deeds of Arthur’s knights, beginning ‘En la marche de gaule et de la petite bertaigne.. ’ (On the border of Gaul and little Brittany..). The library has two manuscripts which contain this part of the Prose Lancelot only: Lansdowne 757 and Additional 5474.

IV The journey to Sorelois with adventures along the way and the Conte de la Charrete which retells the Chrétien de Troyes’ story of Lancelot’s rescue of Guinevere from the evil fairy Meleagant, beginning ‘En cheste partie dist li contes que Galehot se partie de la cort…’ (In this part the story says that Galahad left the court...).

V The adventures of Agravain and the other knights, and the early life of Galahad, beginning ‘Chi endroit dist li contes que quant Agrevains se fu parties de sez compaignons…’ (In this place the story says that when Agravain had left his companions...).
Lansdowne 757 f. 144
Text page from Lancelot III, with decorated initial,
England, 2nd half of the 13th century, 225 x 160mm.

Lansdowne 757 f. 144

Additional 5474, f. 144
Full page with miniature of Lancelot rescuing a lady from a tub,
Northern France (Therouanne or Cambrai), 1275-1300, 355 x 255mm.

Additional 5474, f. 144

Harley 4419, f. 1
Historiated initial with King seated on a throne at the beginning of the Lancelot,
Northern Italy, 2nd half of the 14th century, 330 x 230mm.

Harley 4419, f. 1

Royal 20 D. iv, f. 168v
Agravain approaches a damsel in distress in a pavilion,
North-eastern France (Arras?), c. 1300-1315, 340 x 240mm.

Royal 20 D. iv, f. 168v

Royal 20 D. iv f. 207 detail
Arthur and Guinevere hear news of Lancelot from a maiden,
North-eastern France (Arras?), c.1300-1315, 340 x 240mm.

Royal 20 D. iv f. 207 detail

Royal 19 B. vii, f. 142
Puzzle initial with text,
England, 1st quarter of the 14th century, 300 x 230mm.
Royal 19 B. vii, f. 142

Royal 19 C. xiii, f. 1
Lancelot as a baby,
England or Northern France, 1230-1250, 295 x 210mm.

Royal 19 C. xiii, f. 1

Egerton 2515, f. 70v
Initial with picture of a King, seated and holding a sword,
England, 2nd half of the 14th century, 265 x 175mm.

Egerton 2515, f. 70v

Parts VI and VII: La Queste del saint graal and La Mort le roi Artu

La Queste del saint graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail) continues the story of Arthur’s knights in their grail quest, the key figure being Galahad, Lancelot’s son.

La Mort le roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur) tells of the final tragic events leading up the King’s death in battle on Salisbury plain and the destruction of his kingdom.

These two texts are found together in most manuscripts, often preceded by parts of the Lancelot, though Royal 20 A. ii, has part of the Lancelot and part of the Queste alone.
Royal 20 C. vi f. 150
Image of Lancelot rescuing Guinevere from the fire,
Southern England, between 1282 and 1300, 380 x 255mm.

Royal 20 C. vi f. 150

Royal 20 A. ii, f. 3v
Full page image of Uther Pendragon and Merlin watched by a lady in a tower,
England, 14th century, 230 x 150mm.

Royal 20 A. ii, f. 3v

Royal 20 A. ii, f. 4
Full page image of King Arthur holding a shield emblazoned with the Virgin Mary and child,
England, 1st half of the 14th century, 230 x 150mm.

Royal 20 A. ii, f. 4

Royal 14 E. iii f. 93v
Arthur bids farewell to his knights setting off on their quest for the Holy Grail,
North-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-1325, 485 x 335mm.

Royal 14 E. iii f. 93v


Introduction The Early Versions
of the Legend
The Wider Legend Further Reading

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