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Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library: the French tradition

Introduction The Early Versions
of the Legend
The Prose
Lancelot-Grail
Further Reading

The wider legend

Les Prophécies de Merlin
Le Tristan en Prose
Palamedes, Meliadus and Guiron le Courtois
The Lais of Marie de France

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

If the Lancelot-Grail is seen as the core text of Arthurian literature in French, multiple prose and poetic works evolved around it , either following the stories of individual characters, developing ‘prequels’ or elaborating key episodes. In addition to the versions and adaptations in all the major European languages including English, the French tradition is remarkably rich and varied. Arthur is portrayed variously as an archetypal tragic hero, a historical figure who unites the British, or even as a foolish husband cuckolded by his wife and his trusted courtier. Political, moral and social issues such as the relationship between kings and their subjects are explored and values like honour, courtesy and friendship are evaluated in these works.

Les Prophécies de Merlin (The Prophecies of Merlin)

Attributed to Maistre Richard d’Irlande, this work is believed to have been composed in the late thirteenth century by a Franciscan working in Venice. Beginning with Merlin’s prophecies, it follows the adventures of some of the Arthurian characters including Perceval and Morgan and invents others like Alixandre l’Orphelin, not found in the Lancelot-Grail. The prophecies are used as vehicles to comment on political events in Italy and the Holy Land and to criticise religious abuses of the period.
Harley 1629, f. 29
Cleric praying before the tomb of Merlin,
Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century , 320 x 245mm.

Harley 1629, f. 29

Le Tristan en Prose

The Tristan romance has its origins in Celtic mythology and may have passed through Brittany to France, but the earliest verse romances were composed between 1150 and 1170, probably in England as they are in Anglo-Norman French. They survive in only a few fragments and it is the prose version dating from the 1230s which integrates the story of the forbidden love of Tristan and Yseut into the world of the Arthurian legends. After the lovers’ flight to Logres (Arthur’s kingdom in Britain), where they find refuge in Lancelot’s castle, Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot and Tristan become friends. The author is keen to establish Tristan’s prowess as a knight to rival Lancelot and Galahad so that his work is seen as a courtly epic equal in stature to the Lancelot-Grail. He states:

...the Latin of the story of the Holy Grail itself says clearly that at the time of King Arthur there were only three good knights who well deserved to be esteemed for their chivalry: Galahad, Lancelot and Tristan.
The Tristan en prose, written shortly after the Lancelot-Grail cycle, may have equalled or even exceeded it in popularity, as evidenced by the number of surviving manuscripts, the numerous translations into all the major European languages and the popularity of the name Tristan at the time.
Harley 4389, 51v
Coloured drawing of the ships of Cornwall and Ireland reaching a castle on the shores of Ireland,
North-western Italy (Genoa), 1275-1324, 290 x 205mm.

Harley 4389, 51v

Additional 5474, f.  74
Tristan battling 14 knights of the round table,
Northern France (Therouanne or Cambrai), 1275-1300, 355 x 255mm.

Additional 5474, f. 74

Royal 20 D. ii, f. 25v
Initial with image of knights in battle,
Paris, France, c. 1300, 335 x 230mm.

Royal 20 D. ii, f. 25v

Palamedes, Meliadus and Guiron le Courtois

This vast prose romance attributed in the prologue to Hélie de Borron, was composed in the thirteenth century before the Tristan en prose and can be divided into two parts, which are entitled Meliadus and Guiron le Courtois in early editions and often viewed as two separate texts. The British Library has five manuscripts containing portions of the text, which exists in so many different versions that it has been difficult to classify and edit.

Palamedes himself is a Saracen knight at King Arthur’s court, rival for Yseut’s affections, but he does not feature prominently in the tales, which focus mainly on the older generation of Arthurian heroes, including the fathers of Tristan (named Meliadus), Arthur and Palamedes and Meliadus’s companion Guiron. There are numerous stories of abductions, battles and adventures, succeeding one another in a rather unconnected fashion, introducing new characters and situations to the Tristan-Arthurian legend.
Additional 36880, f. 157
Full page with miniature of knight on horseback at the gates of a city,
Italy, 2nd half of the 13th century,
280 x 195mm.

Additional 36880, f. 157

Additional 12228, ff. 214-215
Jousting,
Southern Italy (Naples), 1352-1362, 340 x 230mm.

Additional 12228, ff. 214-215

Additional 12228, f. 23
Detail of kings playing a board game,
Southern Italy (Naples), 1352-1362, 340 x 230mm.

Additional 12228, f. 23

The Lais of Marie de France

A narrative lai is a short verse of Breton origin telling of courtly love and fabulous adventures set in the past, exploring themes such as kingship, the role of the artist and the place of men and women in society. Marie de France composed twelve lais between 1160 and 1189, two of which are set in the Arthurian context: the Lai de Lanval and Chevrefoil, which tells of Tristan and Yseut. She claims to have translated her material from an English collection for her patron, King Henry II.

Female authors were rare in the twelfth century, and there has been considerable research into the true identity of the person who says of herself, Marie ai nun, si sui de France (My name is Marie and I am from France). She may have been the abbess of an English priory and was almost certainly a member of the Norman aristocracy, probably born in France but living in England.

The Lai de Lanval tells of the knight Lanval at King Arthur’s court, who is treated unjustly by the king and subsequently falls in love with a lady more beautiful than the queen. The latter, in a fit of pique, accuses him of propositioning and insulting her. Sworn to secrecy by his lady love, he is tried at length and acquitted only when she appears to save him. Arthur is portrayed in the fable as rather weak king whose judgement is not always sound. The Lai de Chevrefoil (honeysuckle) tells of a brief encounter between Tristan and Yseut in a forest and compares the lovers to plants which are so entwined that they will die if they are separated.
Harley 978, f. 44
Decorated initial at the beginning of the Lai de Lanval,
Central England, probably between 1261 and 1265, 190 x 135mm.

Harley 978, f. 44


Introduction The Early Versions
of the Legend
The Prose
Lancelot-Grail Cycle
Further Reading

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