Engraving from Idylls of the King poems by Lord Tennyson from 1889

1137235664

Engraving from Idylls of the King poems by Lord Tennyson from 1889

Photo by: THEPALMER

THEPALMER

We Just Found One of the Earliest Fragments of the Merlin Legend, with a New Take

In a library in the UK, research librarians stumbled upon one of the oldest known manuscripts detailing the legend of Merlin. Translated from Old French, the accidentally discovered text offers a slightly augmented take on a typically risqué Arthurian legend.

November 05, 2021

In 2019, a librarian in Bristol was examining a 15th-century French philosophy book when he found handwriting within the book’s binding. This isn’t particularly odd, given that ancient books were often recycled into new ones. But most of those had been prayer books in Latin. This was in Old French, and the librarian could distinctly make out the words “Merlin” and “Arthur.”

These fragments have become known as the “Bristol Merlin,” which literary scholars have determined is one of the oldest examples of Arthurian legend committed to parchment. These are the classic stories that tell the tale of King Arthur and his Wizard advisor, Merlin. They’re a bit like the Marvel Universe, as one scholar put it: they take place in a fictional world with a set of well-known characters who appeared and interacted in different stories.

This particular text contains a story from a series of legends scholars called the “Vulgate Cycle,” which was originally written sometime around 1220. Based on a careful analysis of the handwriting and language used, the fragment seems to have been written somewhere in Northern France not long after the original.

Photo taken in à tretat, France

1208852588

Northern France

Photo by: Sergei Vesnin / EyeEm

Sergei Vesnin / EyeEm

Northern France

The Bristol Merlin is different from known versions of the Vulgate cycle in one big way: it’s the most kid-friendly take on the story discovered so far. These fragments tell the tale of Merlin’s encounter with the enchantress Viviane — also known as Lady of the Lake — who casts a spell that engraves three words on a ring that prevents men from speaking to her. The known versions found in other texts are much saucier. That is, instead of engravings, they’re tattoos, and instead of a ring, they’re on...well, you get the picture.

This is just one of more than 200 known medieval texts containing the Vulgate cycle, and each one offers a slightly different take on the stories. That’s because in an age before printing presses, books were reproduced by handwriting. Because of this, it’s common to have slight variations introduced by the scribe making a particular copy. In this case, the scribe may have just wanted the story to be a little more PG.

Considering that most of us got our first Arthurian legend from Disney? Well, things sure have changed.

For more on this topic, listen to the Curiosity Daily Podcast

Discovery's award-winning Curiosity Daily podcast will help you get smarter about the world around you — every day. In less than 10 minutes, you’ll get a unique mix of research-based life hacks, the latest science and technology news, and more.

Next Up

Women May Have Been Powerful Rulers of the Ancient World

A discovery in Spain has experts wondering whether women were once powerful rulers in ancient Europe.

The Hunt for Outlaw Jesse James’ Treasure

For decades, a story had circulated amongst locals in the Ozarks that Jesse James and his gang had hidden treasure from a bank robbery they’d carried out in 1874.

What's Inside the Secret Chambers in the Pyramids of Giza

A powerful new cosmic ray scan of the Great Pyramid of Giza could finally reveal what’s inside two voids in the structure that have baffled scientists for years.

A Canadian Teen Once Discovered an Ancient Temple – Using Google Maps

Most teenagers while away hours playing video games, scrolling TikTok, or texting friends. Not William Gadoury, a 14-year-old from Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec. Back in 2016, Gadoury was holed up in his bedroom, plotting ancient Mayan constellations against modern satellite images and coordinates.

A Majestic City Carved into Rock, Thousands of Years Ago

Carved into soft stone cliffs, the ancient sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans. These people were a nomadic Arab tribe–Bedouins–who roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds.

The Romantic, Heartbreaking Love Story Behind the Taj Mahal

Ivory white columns rise from the earth, framing the central masterpiece: an intricately carved marble domed structure stood on a square plinth, resplendent with arched doorways, and topped by a bronze moon that reaches for the sky.

We May Finally Know How the Pyramids Were Built

Scientists have discovered new evidence that may explain how these iconic structures were built.

Take Off with the Tipple Family on the All-New Series NATURE IS FLY

On the all-new series, NATURE IS FLY, go on adventures to experience nature and science with the Tipple family. They travel the country and meet the people who are the best in their fields of conservation and more.

4 Wonders of the Philippines

The Philippines is an island country in Southeast Asia, consisting of over 7,000 islands and islets. From rolling chocolate hills to caves and beaches for exploration, the Philippines has many places to explore and learn about!

A Spanish Sunken Galleon Has a $17B Bounty Onboard - and Now You Can See It

Way back in 1708, when the War of Spanish Succession was waging across Europe and Latin America to decide who should be the next King of Spain, three Spanish galleons set sail from Panama. They were loaded to the brim with gold, silver, emeralds, and other jewels that had been extracted from the mines of Bolivia – and were vital in financing Spain’s costly war against its enemies.