The Legend of Arthur in a Pastedown
Lovers of the Camelot legend – and devotees of the BBC series Merlin – may be interested in a new find at the Fisher Library.
The back pastedown (see image above - click on it for a larger view) of a 16th-century collection of Canon Law commentaries (call number: F-11 00121) is actually a medieval parchment bifolium on which is written a portion of the Arthurian romance. Alternating decorated initials of red and blue introduce short vignettes, written in a fine late 13th- or early 14th-century French book hand - relics, it would seem, of an Old French Arthurian Vulgate tradition.
The stories reach back into literary pre-history, where legend and fact intermingle, revealing some of the most fascinating characters of British folklore. Uther Pendragon, Igraine, Gawain, King Lot: all of these names leap out from the discarded page. One of the longest passages, at the bottom of the second column (see image below), describes the articles of settlement that followed Uther’s marriage to the widow, Igraine. Igraine’s daughter Margawse is married off to King Lot "Dorcanie" (i.e. "of Orkney"), and a list of their children then follows: Mordred (who eventually fatally wounds Arthur at the Battle of Camlann), Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravain. Then follows the enigmatic story of Morgana, Igraine’s youngest daughter, who is committed to a convent where "ele fut mervueilles du art q’on apele astronomie" - or, as Sir Thomas Malory puts it in his Morte d’Arthur, "she was a great clerk of necromancy". Either way, the pastedown goes on to tell us, it was because of her fascination with this art that she was given the name by which she is better known today, Morgan le Fay. Immediately following this brief excursus into the lives of two of Igraine’s daughters, the writer introduces us to the magical (and rather sordid) details behind her pregnancy with her most famous child, Arthur. If this remnant of parchment does anything, it reminds us that Arthur’s story, together with its related genealogical data, is a tangled mess, and can differ markedly from source to source.
It is not unusual to find medieval manuscript waste used like this in books bound in the early modern period. Besides pastedowns, they can also be found as sewing guards and spine reinforcements, and the Fisher has many examples of all of these types of historical recycling. What sets this particular leaf apart, however, is that it is complete, unlike most others which have been cut into strips with extensive loss of text. It is clear that, at one time, there was a matching bifolium used as the pastedown at the front of this book as well, but it was removed at some point in the volume’s history, and all that remains is the ghost of the medieval text (see image below). Where we would least expect it, a medieval, Old French vernacular text reaches out to us from the mists of time and draws us back to Camelot. Sometimes, a pastedown isn’t just a pastedown.