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Article Review: Rediscovered Medieval Manuscript Offers New Twist on Arthurian Legend

As a bookbinder and book restorer, my passion lies in uncovering the hidden stories within ancient manuscripts. Recently, I stumbled upon a fascinating article by Livia Gershon on the Smithsonian Magazine website, published on September 17, 2021. The article delves into the discovery of 13th-century manuscript fragments in a Bristol library, offering a fresh perspective on the Arthurian legend, specifically focusing on the enigmatic figure of Merlin.



The Bristol Merlin, as these newly found fragments are dubbed, originates from the Vulgate Cycle, shedding light on a different facet of Merlin's character. Scholars, with meticulous handwriting analysis, dated the text to 1250-1275, positioning it shortly after the initial composition of the Vulgate Cycle. This fragment specifically hails from the second volume, chronicling Merlin's ascent as Arthur's advisor and the tumultuous early years of Arthur's reign.


Michael Richardson, a special collections librarian, serendipitously discovered the parchment pieces in 2019, intricately pasted into a 15th-century book. The journey of these fragments through time is as captivating as the tales they tell. Glued into a scrap pile by 1520, these pages served as binding material for a French philosophy text before finding their way to Bristol's public library.


Through dedicated efforts, scholars have not only translated the Bristol Merlin but also reconstructed sections that had succumbed to the ravages of time. The narrative deviates from traditional Arthurian accounts, notably in a nuanced encounter between Merlin and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. The Bristol Merlin takes a unique stance by altering the spellbinding episode, removing unchaste connotations.



The article paints a vivid picture of the painstaking work undertaken by scholars like Laura Chuhan Campbell, Leah Tether, and Benjamin Pohl. Their dedication to preserving and unraveling the mysteries of the Bristol Merlin is commendable. The narrative provides insight into the fluid nature of medieval texts, where scribes, devoid of copyright constraints, freely modified stories. The use of Raman scattering to reconstruct faded text adds a touch of technological intrigue to this literary discovery.


What captivates me most is the evolution of Merlin's character across time. From a morally ambiguous magical seer in the earliest legends to the wise advisor we recognize today, the article underscores the dynamic nature of storytelling and the enduring appeal of Arthurian legends.



In conclusion, the rediscovery of the Bristol Merlin is a testament to the resilience of medieval manuscripts and the tireless efforts of those dedicated to their preservation. This article not only unravels a new chapter in Arthurian lore but also invites us, as bookbinders, restorers, collectors, and enthusiasts, to appreciate the intricate stories woven into the very fabric of ancient texts. The Bristol Merlin stands as a beacon, beckoning us to explore the untold narratives hidden within the pages of history.


You can purchase a copy of The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment The discovery of seven manuscript fragments of the Old French Suite Vulgate du Merlin in a set of early printed books in the Bristol Central Library hit global headlines in 2019.

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