History | September 17, 2021 6:16 pm

Newly Uncovered Manuscript Offers a Different Take on Merlin

Stories about stories can be fascinating in their own right

Merlin et al.
George Melville Baker illustration from "Ballads of Bravery."
Internet Archive Book Images

If you’re an enthusiast for all things King Arthur, you might have noticed something — namely, that this is a time when an abundance of Arthuriana, historical and revisionist, is out and about. (We’re partial to Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s Once & Future and Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, among other works.) And when you’re reading about King Arthur, the wizard Merlin is rarely far behind. All of which makes news of a recent discovery in a British literary archive that much more fascinating.

At Atlas Obscura, Sarah Durn has more information on the find and what it represents. At the heart of the discovery was the public library in Bristol, which was established over 400 years ago — and consequently has a substantial trove of historical books and manuscripts in its collection.

As Durn points out, medieval bookmakers often used pieces of older books to make newer ones. That’s how University of Bristol special collections librarian Michael Richardson ended up finding what Durn describes as “several medieval fragments written in Old French” as part of the binding of a book dating back to the 15th century.

The fragments appear to be part of the Vulgate Cycle, a retelling of the Arthurian legend — in this case, one hailing from northern France and put to paper in the second half of the 13th century. A new book, The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment, offers a look inside this manuscript and the narrative it contains.

As Leah Tether, one of the collaborators on the new study, phrased it, this version features the “most chaste version” of a scene between Merlin and Vivienne, also known as the Lady of the Lake in some retellings. (The Arthur legend gets complicated when you explore multiple versions.) For those fascinated by stories — and the stories of stories — this article makes for fascinating reading.