Medieval manuscripts blog

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21 July 2011

Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library: the French Tradition

A new virtual exhibition focusing on the French language manuscripts of Arthurian literature held by the British Library is now available through the online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

The British Library has the largest collection of Arthurian manuscripts in England, with more than 40 of the about 500 that survive worldwide.  The manuscripts in the collection vary in size and quality, and contain sections of the lengthy Lancelot-Grail cycle in different combinations.  Some are beautifully illuminated volumes commissioned by princes or aristocrats.

 Royal MS 20 D IV

A page from a manuscript of the romance Lancelot du Lac, showing an illustration of the knight Agravain approaching a female figure in a pavilion.

Miniature of Agravain approaching a damsel in distress in a pavilion, north-eastern France (Arras?), c. 1300-1315, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 168v

This high quality manuscript contains the latter part of the Prose Lancelot (or the Lancelot ‘proper’), the story of Lancelot’s early years, his forbidden romance with Guinevere and of the chivalric deeds of the knights of the Round Table. It is by far the longest part of the Prose and is believed to have been composed first, with the stories of Merlin and the early Grail legends added later as a ‘prequel’. The miniatures in this manuscript illustrating episodes from the text are complemented by illuminated initials in colours and gold, heraldic motifs and decorated borders with birds, animals and hybrid creatures, all designed for the entertainment of a noble patron, who may have been English. It was owned by the Bohun family, who had close connections to English royalty, as early as the fourteenth century, and later by Henry VIII.

Other Arthurian manuscripts can be found in small, plain volumes, created for lesser patrons.

Lansdowne MS 757

A text page from a medieval manuscript of the romance Lancelot du Lac.

Text page from Lancelot, with decorated initial, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Lansdowne MS 757, f. 144

This manuscript, from the collection of the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, and purchased by the British Museum in 1807, also contains part of the Prose Lancelot, telling of many of the knights' exploits, including the episode when Lancelot is first captivated by the sight of Queen Guinevere.  The red initial with blue decoration (shown in the folio above) is English in style and marks a new chapter, with the words ‘Les or se test un poi ici endroit lecontes de Sagremor revient a Hector...’ (Henceforth the story is silent for a little at this point about Sagremor and returns to Hector...). This opening line is characteristic of the style of Arthurian prose texts, which contain such complex interwoven narratives that the audience sometimes needs an indication of what to expect next.

Some of the Arthurian manuscripts in the British Library were created in England and remained here throughout the medieval era, while others were acquired by English collectors at a later date. A significant number are in the Royal collection, the manuscripts owned by the Kings of England and bequeathed to the British Library by George II in 1757.  Two of the most beautiful, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV (see above), will be on display in our upcoming exhibition in November, ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’.

The Library also has a rare copy of the complete Lancelot-Grail cycle, now separated into 3 volumes, which contains 747 images illustrating the epic tale. The manuscript, now Add MS 10292, Add MS 10293 and Add MS 10294, dates from 1316 (an inscription on one image gives the precise year) and is believed to be the work of a small group or artists in eastern Artois or western Flanders; this workshop also produced Royal MS 14 E III (see above).

A detail from a manuscript of the Prose-Vulgate Cycle, showing an illustration of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Miniature of Lancelot and Guinevere, north-eastern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 199 (detail)

Chantry Westwell


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