Michael Robinson was researching books for a history class at a library in Bristol, England. While combing through the collection, he came across fragments of a medieval manuscript at the beginning and end of one of the books.
On closer inspection, he recognized names – “ chastel de trebes”, “ gauuein ”, “ artu ”, and “ merlin ”. The last three names are the Old French versions of Gawain, Arthur, and Merlin (Gawain is one of Arthur’s famous Knights of the Round Table).
Robinson reached out to Dr. Leah Tether of the International Arthurian Society. It was determined that the pages were indeed a 13th-century tale of the legendary King Arthur, and had been mistakenly bound with a book written 300 years after!
Who Was King Arthur?
King Arthur and Merlin are characters in a series of stories, commonly referred to as Arthurian legend, that originated from medieval Welsh poetry over a thousand years ago. Merlin is a wizard and many Arthurian stories depict him as an advisor to King Arthur.
You may be familiar with stories such as Arthur’s knights on their quests for the Holy Grail, or Arthur’s worthiness to be a king that allowed him to pull his sword Excalibur from a stone. King Arthur of Camelot is believed to be a British king who fought the Saxon invaders in 6th century Britain. However, historical texts do not mention a king by this name.
The first mention of King Arthur appears in “History of the Britons”, a 9th-century work by Welsh historian Nennius, that were likely taken from earlier Welsh poems. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (Normans were Viking settlers from Normandy, France), stories of King Arthur became popular in northern France.
In 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book “History of the Kings of Britain” contained the first narrative of King Arthur’s life. It portrayed Arthur as a great warrior and king, and included details of his birth, his wife Guinevere, and his many battles. Modern historians believe that most of the book came from Geoffrey’s imagination and not based on a real person. Whether fact or fiction, the book was very popular and was translated into other languages.
The legend of King Arthur spawned many medieval romance novels, as well as plays, operas, and more recently, movies. The medieval romance books were different from today’s romance novels; they have a stronger focus on adventure and chivalry, in addition to love. As an example, French poet Chretien de Troyes explored the relationship between Sir Lancelot, a knight, and Queen Guinevere. Later Arthurian authors continued this shift away from King Arthur.
What’s in the Manuscript?
Dr. Tether believes these fragments are part of the “Vulgate Cycle” (also known as “Lancelot-Grail Cycle”), a series of Arthurian romances written in Old French between 1210 and 1230. They describe Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and other knights leading a battle against the fictional King Claudas in Trebes, France.
Initial examination of the fragments have uncovered minor differences between them and the traditional Arthurian story. For example, King Claudas is wounded in the thigh in the traditional version, but the fragments do not mention where his wound was.
Scientists are looking forward to a deeper examination of the fragments to see whether they provide new information on what we already know about the history of the Arthurian legend.
Sources: LiveScience, Britannica, AtlasObscura, Wikipedia