Reading Researchers: A new look at Merlin and King Arthur

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. In recent months we’ve heard from Professor Catherine Leglu about the International  Medieval Congress, from Dr Melani Schröter about “Language and Silence”, from Dr. Ute Wölfel about “Figures of Transgression”, and from Professor Andrew Knapp about the destruction and liberation of Le Havre.

mles-Irene_FTToday’s update comes from Dr Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, a lecturer in French, who teaches French language, literature and culture in Reading’s Department of Modern Languagess and European Studies, as well as in the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on French Medieval Literature and she specialises on romances and chronicles related to the story of King Arthur, especially the Lancelot-Grail romance cycle, written in the 13th century, and the French translations and adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th c. Historia Regum Britanniae, up to the 15th century. She is particularly interested in the manuscript circulation of medieval texts and in the relation between text and image in illuminated copies of medieval works. In the Middle Ages, Old French (langue oïl) in its many dialects was the most influential vernacular language, it was an international language of power and culture which from the 11th c. onwards was spoken from England to Italy and to the Holy Land.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has just published an important monograph, Texte et images des manuscrits du Merlin et de la Suite Vulgate (XIIIe-XVe siècle), and in light of this noteworthy achievement we’ve invited her to update us  on her work.

My monograph examines text and image relations in the manuscripts of Merlin and its Vulgate Sequel. Dating from the first half of the 13th century, they tell the infancy and life of Merlin as well as the origins of King Arthur and his heroic youth. The writing of a Sequel to Merlin shows the great success enjoyed by Arthurian prose narratives at the time, and the literary dynamics created by the construction of romance cycles. Merlin and its Sequel are part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle which tells the story of the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood at the Crucifixion), and its transfer from the Holy Land to Britain until the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d'Adélaïde de Savoie)

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d’Adélaïde de Savoie)

My book is the first comprehensive study of Merlin manuscripts and their iconography (there are more than 50 surviving copies of this text, produced between the 13th and the 15th century, and more than 30 are illuminated). I examine their compilation with other literary works, their mise en page and their illustration. Illuminated manuscripts were costly works only available to the aristocracy and the elites, who had a particular taste for chivalric literature. My work sheds light on the production and reception of a literary work which endured a lasting success until the end of the Middle Ages.

Merlin and its Sequel tell us about the origins of Merlin and Arthur and about their youth. Merlin was an ambiguous character, the son of a woman and of a devil, and although he early on decided to do God’s work, he remained black and hairy like his father, and inherited from him supernatural powers including prophecy and shape shifting. Arthur himself had doubtful origins, because he was conceived in adultery. Helped by Merlin, King Utherpendragon took the appearance of the duke of Tintagel in order to seduce his wife Ygerne, and Arthur is the fruit of this union. Arthur, accused of illegitimacy, had to fight for the crown of England after his father’s death, and he demonstrates his prowess in a series of military campaigns, expelling the invading Saxons who threaten the land. Merlin becomes the counsellor of King Arthur until he is imprisoned by his lover and pupil, the fairy Viviane, in an air castle.

Merlin and its Sequel are mostly included in manuscript collections focused on the story of the Holy Grail (Joseph d’Arimathie and l’Estoire del saint Graal), in the wider frame of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, which includes the adventures of the knights of the Round Table and ends with the death of King Arthur and the destruction of his kingdom. The Lancelot-Grail mixes spiritual and religious concerns surrounding the Grail mythology with an interest in the earthly adventures of Arthurian knights (especially Lancelot, the lover of Queen Guinevere, but also his son Galaad, the knight who achieves the quest for the Grail).

 Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin was very popular in the Middle Ages as a prophet: he was believed to be a historical figure (like Arthur), capable of foreseeing the future, and his mysterious words and figurative discourses were both held in great authority and used as political tools. Merlin and its Sequel also circulated in didactic compilations, along with biblical and pastoral works. They could be considered as historical, telling the mythical story of Britain, along with that of Troy for example. These texts and their illustration show a military and historical focus which questions their generic identity and contrasts with the religious or courtly dimension of the other parts of the Arthurian Vulgate cycle.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has published a number of commentaries on the Arthurian manuscripts for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. These are available to read or listen to online (in French), and focus on illuminated pages of different parts of the Lancelot-Grail cyclel’Estoire del saint GraalMerlin, Lancelot and the Death of King Arthur.

To learn more about Dr Fabry-Tehranchi’s research, as well as for information about undergraduate and post-graduate study at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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