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22.04.18 Fabry-Tehranchi/Nicolas, L’iconographie du Lancelot-Graal

22.04.18 Fabry-Tehranchi/Nicolas, L’iconographie du Lancelot-Graal

The manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle are numerous (at least 150, both complete and fragmentary). The five texts that make up the corpus--in narrative order, the Estoire del saint Graal, the Estoire de Merlin and its continuation (the Suite Vulgate), the Lancelot en prose, the Queste del saint Graal and the Mort le roi Artu--are not always transmitted together, not least since they were not composed concurrently. Despite the apparent intended narrative order of the texts, the first two (the Estoire del saint Graal and the Merlin) were actually added later, prefixing the core Lancelot-Queste-Mort Artusequence. The texts were probably composed c. 1215-1230, and the manuscripts date from as early as c. 1220 to as late as 1504, and appeared in varying formats in a swathe of incunabula and early printed books. They are also found in translation in multiple medieval vernaculars. In short, the Cycle’s transmission history speaks to an enduring and geographically broad level of popularity amongst medieval and early-modern audiences. This is especially so given the often lavish nature of the manuscripts--some of them owned by the most elite members of society--which can be heavily adorned with decoration and illumination.

The co-authors of the study under review here take an art-historical approach to the Lancelot-Grail, aiming to offer an overview of the Cycle’s propensity to be illuminated iconographically, a trend seen in other vernacular narratives from the twelfth century onwards. The study places the five oldest manuscripts to contain all five Lancelot-Grail texts at its heart (Bonn, ULB, S 526; Paris, BnF, fr. 110 and fr. 344; London, BL, Add. 10292-94; the split manuscript now known as ex-Amsterdam, BPH 1, Oxford, Bodleian, Douce 215 and Manchester, Rylands, fr. 1). These were all produced between the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and the entirety of the Metz-made BnF fr. 344 (1290-1300) is the focus of a systematic commentary, which reproduces the illuminations not only in black and white in the main body text, but also as full colour plates in the back of the volume.

Introductory and contextual materials are kept necessarily brief (27 pages), for the main study is lengthy and the volume hefty as a result. These opening materials include a brief history of French Grail narratives, the content of the Lancelot-Grail texts, and the composition of cycles/romances more generally (drawing heavily on Patrick Moran’s concept of “lectures cycliques”). Moving towards the manuscript corpus at hand, the authors set out brief descriptions of the five core manuscripts, leaning on their cycles of illumination (including such matters as distribution of illuminations between the constituent texts), making comparisons between the five codices and offering the reasons for their choice of BnF fr. 344 as the subject of their systematic study. In essence, the authors contend that, despite some lacunae and its abridgement of the Suite Vulgate, the manuscript “constitute un bon point d’entrée dans la tradition iconographique du cycle...par sa position médiane en ce qui concerne le nombre d’illustrations et par les choix iconographiques effectués” (24). Furthermore, the authors state, BnF fr. 344’s use of historiated initials as well as illuminations proper places it uniquely, since this is something more typical of older manuscripts that contain only the original three texts of the Cycle. Such choices of “best manuscripts,” whether for editorial or art-historical purposes, can always be picked apart, but the authors’ justification here makes good enough sense.

The systematic study of illumination and iconography is introduced with a brief description of the content and make-up (an analyse du contenu) of BnF fr. 344, as well as an explanation of how the enumeration of illuminations will operate. In short, all illuminations present in the five core manuscripts are listed alongside one another following the order of their appearance in the narrative, each with a brief description of what is depicted. Where BnF fr. 344 contains an illumination, the image is reproduced in black and white and the authors supply a more detailed commentary. Since BnF fr. 344 contains no rubrics, the full line of text prefixed by the historiated initial is given. In footnotes, references to the relevant sections of the editions by H. Oskar Sommer and Philippe Walter are given. This is a complex enterprise, but the authors execute it well, having given time and meticulous attention to the method of presentation, enabling the reader to follow with relative ease. The volume closes with useful supplementary matter in addition to the previously mentioned plates, including a full list of manuscripts and a synoptic table.

Whilst the volume would have benefited from a formal conclusion, drawing together key findings and trends, this study is a vastly helpful contribution since it builds upon existing bodies of comparative work on Lancelot-Grail manuscripts in constructive ways. For example, Alison Stones’ online project on Lancelot-Grail illumination has long been the go-to resource for scholars with broad interests in these manuscripts. What Fabry-Tehranchi and Nicolas show, as have other studies on iconographical depictions in Lancelot-Grail manuscripts such as those by Miha Zor, is that vast database resources, such as Stones’, establish not only a bank of material, but also broad frameworks of analysis, which can be adapted--sometimes dramatically, as here--for new projects, thus leading to fascinating, more specific approaches to trends in illumination in vernacular texts. The current volume is an impressive exemplar of this and, in its turn, perhaps this volume’s most enduring achievement--insofar as influencing future scholarship goes--will be the nuanced model it offers for presenting a complex comparative analysis of illumination.