Bernadette Smelik

title.none: Besamusca, The Book of Lancelot (Bernadette Smelik)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.024 04.01.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bernadette Smelik, Katholicke Universiteit Nijmegen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Besamusca, Bart. Summerfield, Thea, trans. The Book of Lancelot: The Middle Dutch Lancelot Compilation and the Medieval Tradition of Narrative Cycles. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 53. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. ix, 210. $70.00 0-8599-1769-x. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.24

Besamusca, Bart. Summerfield, Thea, trans. The Book of Lancelot: The Middle Dutch Lancelot Compilation and the Medieval Tradition of Narrative Cycles. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 53. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. ix, 210. $70.00 0-8599-1769-x. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Bernadette Smelik
Katholicke Universiteit Nijmegen

One of the most famous vernacular manuscripts preserved in the Royal Library in The Hague, having the shelf mark 129 A 10, contains the largest collection of Middle Dutch Arthurian tales that have survived until the present day. This hoard consists of a verse-translation of the originally French prose Lancelot trilogy (Lancelot Proper, Queste del Saint Graal, le Mort le Roi Artu), supplemented by seven Arthurian romances of diverse provenance. The name given to this manuscript is the Lancelot Compilation and the book under review here is an attempt by Bart Besamusca to make 129 A 10 as famous among non-Dutch Arthurian scholars as some of its more important Middle French counterparts, such as Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, fr. 112. or fr. 1450. The book "aims to demonstrate the value of the Middle Dutch Lancelot Compilation in a general sense for medieval studies in an international context, and in a narrower sense for the study of narrative cycles" (5). The tales are not just collected and written down at random in this manuscript, but they comply with most criteria formulated for cycles by Povl Skarup, [[1]] as Besamusca shows in this book (139-146). The criteria are that there are at least two texts, that the texts are identifiable as discrete chapters within a single long manuscript and adhering to a chronological order of the events told in the stories, that there are cyclic signals between texts and within texts (for example, cross-references to forge links and adaptations to remove discrepancies between texts). The only criterion which is only partly met by the Lancelot Compilation is the one which says that "a cycle is a cycle only when the protagonists in the collection of texts are either identical or related" (141). As it is, in The Hague, Royal Library, 129 A 10 not only Lanceleot, but also Walewein (which is the Middle Dutch name for Gauvain) functions as a the main protagonist, and on a somewhat lesser scale we meet Artur, Genevre and Keye as protagonists. But as Wim Gerritsen has suggested forty years ago it may have been the intention of the compiler of this manuscript to present Lanceloet and Walewein in leading roles alternately. [[2]]

The manuscript was compiled around 1320, probably in the province of Brabant (north of Flanders). It starts with a verse-translation of the last part of the Lancelot Proper (the so-called Preparation a la Queste), after which two romances are inserted, the Perchevael (based on the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes and the first Continuation) and the Moriaen, an indigenous Dutch romance. After the Moriaen the Lancelot-trilogy is resumed with a translation of the Queste and between the Queste and the last part of the trilogy, the Mort Artu, five other romances are inserted, viz. the Wrake van Ragisel (translation of the Vengeance Raguidel), the Ridder metter mouwen (an indigenous Dutch romance possibly related to Richars li Biaus), the Walewein ende Keye (an indigenous Dutch romance), Lanceloet en het hert met de witte voet (adaptation of the second part of the Lai de Tyolet) and Torec (based on a now lost French source). Since fragments of other (longer) versions of some of these inserted romances have survived elsewhere, we are able to conclude that the compiler used existing Middle Dutch Arthurian texts which were for the most part written or translated in Flanders. A comparison between these fragments and the existing Lancelot Compilation has revealed that the compiler abridged the tales focusing intensely on the story-line. Scenes and descriptions which were not directly relevant to the development of the story were cut out or paraphrased. Where appropriate (and sometimes even where not) the compiler has introduced an interlace structure, thus continuing a very characteristic treat of the Lancelot Proper. In the inserted romances a quest-structure is used, which gives a unified look to the cycle as a whole. But the interpolation of the seven romances did not go without problems. The Perchevael for example, was originally placed within the Lanceloet, not at the end of it, where it stands now. This has been concluded from a displacement of a leaf in the manuscript. But a gross internal discrepancy probably caused the compiler to rethink this plan. The discrepancy is that in the original layout the Lanceloet was interrupted by the Perchevael at the very moment when the main protagonist, Lanceloet, was insane, whereas in the Perchevael he appears on the scene healthy, to succumb to his madness in the last part of the Lanceloet. Since this inconsistency was rather obvious, the compiler positioned the Perchevael at the end of the Lanceloet, so Perchevael experiences his adventures after Lanceloet has come to his senses. In this story the emphasis is on the adventures and especially the successes of Walewein, thus improving the image of this character, since in the adventures at the end of the Lanceloet negative aspects of his character predominate. In the following inserted romance, the Moriaen, this tendency to highlight Walewein's positive character treats is continued. During the Queeste vanden Grale Walewein is portrayed negatively, and again in the romances inserted after the Queeste, he is getting a more positive treatment, as he is portrayed as the typical courtly lover (Wrake van Ragisel) and the courtly and modest model deserving to be followed (Walewein ende Keye). The inserted romances were meant "to rehabilitate Arthur's nephew, at least to some extent" (169). In this the compiler overlooked a more serious problem, i.e. that of the consistency of the cycle. For, with the Quest for the Grail, all adventures have ended. That is the reason why Arthur, at the beginning of the Mort Artu (and of the Dutch translation) organizes a tournament. He wants his knights to keep practicing their skills. But notwithstanding this, the compiler let the knights experience a lot of adventures after the Queste. That these adventures should have taken place within the space of one month (the month between the end of the Queste and the beginning of the Mort Artu) is, in my view, a less serious inconsistency. Such inconsistencies will be found in other compilations and cycles, as one can see from the short discussion of other cycles in this study. And I agree wholeheartedly with Besamusca when he writes that the compilers of the cycles he has studied "did not attach much value to the avoidance of inconsistencies, least of all when they were not immediately obvious" and that from "the point of view of the contemporaneous reader, inconsistencies are simply a characteristic of compilations, not the result of a lack of creativity" (175).

This study consists of five chapters, an introductory one which deals with the study of cyclicity, the literary context of the Lancelot Compilation, and the manuscript tradition. The next three chapters are devoted to the ten Arthurian tales. Of each tale a relatively long summary is given first [[3]] after which Besamusca discusses the source(s) and the interventions of the compiler. These chapters are for the most part a large summary and state of the art of the research into the Lancelot Compilation. This is very useful for non-Dutch readers, since most of the studies on which Besamusca relies have been published in Dutch. But even for someone with a thorough knowledge of this field, these chapters contain some new insights, although I must admit that I am not always convinced by Besamusca, for example, when he argues that the Lanseloet - Queeste - Arturs Doet translation in the Compilation is based on a verse translation made by one single Flemish poet (44-47). In the last chapter Besamusca explains why the Lancelot Compilation can be characterized as a narrative cycle, after which he compares the Lancelot Compilation with other narrative cycles. This chapter builds on previous work by Besamusca.[[4]] Although this comparison is of necessity very brief, it does give the reader not only more insight in narrative cycles in general, but also an urge to delve deeper into this matter. Besamusca ends the book with an attempt to describe the essence of the Lancelot Compilation, with its characteristics of both coherence (interlacing technique; protagonists; quest-structure) and ambivalence (internal inconsistencies and the portrayal of Walewein). He has written a very useful and very much needed introduction to the most important manuscript containing Dutch Arthurian literature. But I end this review with a quotation from the last paragraph of this book, in order to warn the interested reader who wants to study narrative cycles, since this paragraph is valid for all of them:

"The compiler's drive to achieve both external and internal coherence has created the deceptive impression that it is a simple matter to interpret the Lancelot Compilation. Nothing is further from the truth: the ambivalent nature of the work complicates an unequivocal interpretation of the cycle. This explains why critics have found that the Lancelot Compilation eludes them, even after a century and a half of analysis and research. It also explains why it is fair to say that the last word about the compilation will never be written" (189).


[[1]] "Un cycle de traductions: Karlamagnus Saga," in Bart Besamusca et al. (eds), Cyclification: The Development of Narrative Cycles in the Chansons de Geste and the Arthurian Romances. KNAW Verhandelingen, Afd. Lett., Nieuwe Reeks 159. Amsterdam, 1994. pp. 74-81.

[[2]] W.P. Gerritsen, Die Wrake van Ragisel in Onderzoekingen over de Middelnederlandse bewerkingen van de Vengeance Raguidel, gevolgd door een uitgave van de Wrake-teksten. 2 vols. Neerlandica Traiectina 13. Assen, 1963. pp. 252, 259-60.

[[3]] Of course, large summaries of these texts, and all other Dutch Arthurian romances, have appeared already in King Arthur in the Medieval Low Countries, edited by Geert H.M. Claassens and David F. Johnson, Leuven: University Press, 2000. Mediaevalia Lovaniensia, Series I, Studia XXVIII.

[[4]] For example, "Cyclification in Middle Dutch Literature: The Case of the Lancelot Compilation," in Besamusca et al. (eds), Cyclification, pp. 82-91.