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Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library: the French tradition

Introduction The Prose
Lancelot-Grail
The Wider Legend Further Reading

The early versions of the legend

Historia Brittonum
The Latin Chronicles of William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth
Le Roman de Brut
Chrétien de Troyes
Robert de Boron

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

Historia Brittonum

The earliest written source to present King Arthur as a historical figure is the Historia Brittonum, a history of the Welsh assembled from a variety of sources possibly by Nennius, a Welsh monk and scribe who lived in the first half of the ninth century or by Merfyn Frych, King of Gwynedd (reigned 825-844). Arthur is variously described as a war lord (dux bellorum), as a Christian soldier who carries either an image of the virgin or Christ’s cross on his shoulders and as a legendary figure associated with miraculous events: for example a stone in Wales that bears the footprint of his dog always returns to the same place if moved.
Harley 3859, f. 187.
Narrative text: the battles of King Arthur from Historia Brittonum,
France or England, 1st half of the 12th century, 265 x 150mm.

Harley 3859, f. 187.

Burney 310, f. 158
Title in red and puzzle initial ‘E’ in ‘Ego Nennius..’ at the beginning of the Historia Brittonum,
Finchale, N. England, 1381, 345 x 235mm.

Burney 310, f. 158

The Latin Chronicles of William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth:

Both William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth were Anglo-Norman clerics who wrote historical chronicles in Latin in the first half of the twelfth century. William’s account, Gesta Regum Anglorum, begins in 449 with the Anglo-Saxon invasions and tells of Arthur’s single-handed defeat of 900 invaders. Geoffrey, in his Historia Regum Britanniae and his later Vita Merlini gives the first detailed account of Arthur’s education by Merlin, the sword in the stone, his death on Salisbury plain and his final resting place at Avalon. The latter establishes Arthur’s historical and literary reputation as a powerful Christian monarch who embodies the qualities of generosity and culture and whose court provides a point of departure for knights on chivalric exploits. It was an extremely popular work: over 200 manuscripts survive, of which almost one-fifth are in the British Library collections.
Royal 13 D. v, f. 1
Puzzle initials and beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae with ownership inscriptions,
St Alban’s, England, between 1206 and 1225, 380 x 275mm.

Royal 13 D. v, f. 1

Royal 13 D. ii, f. 25
Decorated initials at the beginning of Book 2 of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: the prologue and first chapter,
W. England, 2nd half of the 12th century, 380 x 260mm.

Royal 13 D. ii, f. 25

Harley 1808, f. 30v
Arrival of Brutus,
N. England (York?), 1st half of the 15th century, 235 x 175mm.

Harley 1808, f. 30v

Le Roman de Brut

Wace, a cleric from Jersey but living in Normandy, completed a translation of Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae into French verse in 1155. His patrons were none other than Henry II, who was keen to establish his legitimacy on the English throne as a worthy successor to King Arthur, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife and heiress to vast territories in southern France. Wace carefully combines different versions of Geoffrey’s text with his own considerable knowledge of events to give historical context to the Arthurian story, adding dates and placing more emphasis on certain aspects of the narrative such as the round table, which first appears here. Wace’s use of French verse for a literary genre which combines the historic, the epic and the courtly spawned a whole series of historiographic chronicles in French and English verse and prose, collectively known as Brut chronicles, named for Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain. In them Arthur is portrayed as one of a long line of kings and his story is given varying degrees of prominence.
Egerton 3028, f.30
Merlin building Stonehenge,
England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, 200 x 120mm.

Egerton 3028, f.30

Egerton 3028, f.53
Arthur is slain in combat,
England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, 200 x 120mm.

Egerton 3028, f.53

Royal 13 A. xxi, f. 40v
Opening section of Wace’s Brut with puzzle initial,
England, 1275-1325, 255 x 190mm.

Royal 13 A. xxi, f. 40v

Chrétien de Troyes:

Chrétien de Troyes, clerk at the court of Henry I and Marie de Champagne, composed five Arthurian verse romances in octosyllabic couplets during the second half of the twelfth century. His contribution to the genre was substantial and highly original, in that he introduced two important themes: the grail quest in Perceval or the Conte du Graal and the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere in Lancelot or Le Chevalier de la Charrette. He gave his characters psychological depth and the legend religious significance, while portraying the chivalric ideals of his patrons and providing entertainment for the court. The final romance, Perceval, is the most enigmatic, combining chivalry and Christian symbolism, humour and allegory through the interlacing tales of two very different knights: Perceval and Gawain. Though unfinished, this text survives in more copies than the other four romances (there are 18 known).
Additional 36614, f. 62
Initial ‘P’ with pen-flourishing in abbreviation of ‘Perceval’ as Perc’,
Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century, 305 x 215mm.

Additional 36614, f. 62

Robert de Boron:

The verse romances, Joseph d’Arimathie and the Merlin, believed to have been composed between 1190 and 1205 by Robert de Boron, probably from the village of Boron in the Franche-Comté, survive in only one manuscript (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS française 20047). Here for the first time the Grail is portrayed as a chalice used to collect the blood of Christ and its coming to Britain is linked to the story of Merlin, the devil’s son who uses his dark arts as a force for good in Arthur’s kingdom. A unique, beautifully-illuminated copy of the prose text based on these verse romances is in the British library collections: the Huth Manuscript.
Additional 38117, f. 73v detail
The Huth manuscript,
Initial with image of Arthur taking the sword from the stone,
Northern France (Arras?), 1310, 300 x 220mm.

Additional 38117, f. 73v detail

Additional 38117, f. 97v
The Huth manuscript,
Full page with initial with image of King Arthur setting infants adrift in a boat,
Northern France (Arras?), 1310, 300 x 220mm.

Additional 38117, f. 97v


Introduction The Prose
Lancelot-Grail
The Wider Legend Further Reading

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