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23.03.11 Tether et al., The Bristol Merlin

23.03.11 Tether et al., The Bristol Merlin

This brief volume is packed with a wealth of information and scholarship that will be of value to a range of researchers and students. Its genesis was the discovery in 2019 of seven fragments of a medieval manuscript used as bindings in four books held by the Bristol (UK) Central Library. Fortuitously, these seven fragments preserve a continuous text, an extract from the Continuation of the Estoire de Merlin, also known as the Suite Vulgate du Merlin. They have been given the toponymic title of the Bristol Merlin.

While the discovery of hitherto lost medieval manuscript fragments is newsworthy, the Bristol Merlin is all the more significant because its contents are unique from other extant texts. Paleographical analysis of the scribal hands led the researchers to date the fragments to 1250-1275, while linguistic analysis located their composition to northeast France. A subsequent marginal annotation indicates that the manuscript was in England by the early fourteenth century.

The book is comprised of two parts: an in-depth contextual analysis of the fragments, followed by a transcription of the text with a facing translation. The context portion is divided into four sub-areas. First is a consideration of the fragments’ paleography and codicology. The two scribal hands are compared at length, with illustrations of both letter forms and passages of the fragments included as visual support of the findings. An impressively painstaking analysis of the locations of the fragments where they were used as pastedowns in their respective books situates them clearly, and is again supported by illustrations and photographic plates. This leads to a discussion of the books and their possible provenances, and thence to a linguistic analysis of the text itself.

The text and accompanying translation are the focus of the second part of the volume. Given the role the fragments played as pastedowns, it is no surprise that they are damaged. A brief but detailed description of the spectral imaging techniques used to decipher portions of the text that were not readable to the unaided eye opens this section, followed by explanations of editorial protocols and translation practices. The facing edition and translation take up the following 56 pages of the volume. Footnotes are included for both the Old French, explaining scribal errata and corrections as well as questions of language, and for the translation, detailing translator choices and explicating certain nebulous or otherwise significant passages. Having these annotations as footnotes rather than endnotes allows readers to consult them easily, without having to turn pages and lose focus on the narrative. The translation is literal, with some concessions made in sentence lengths and syntax to aid in readability for modern audiences.

Following these two main sections, an appendix in chart form shows the collation of the seven fragments’ contents with other editions of the Suite Vulgate du Merlin; this will be of value to those wishing to delve deeper into comparisons of content. High resolution color photos of all seven fragments, recto and verso, follow, helping to bring the manuscript to life for readers. A detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources is included, and the index focuses on the first, contextual portion of the study.

The forensic work required to bring this volume to fruition entailed an interdisciplinary, teamwork approach which the authors envision as “an attractive model for the future study of manuscript fragments and similar finds” (3). They have succeeded admirably in this aim, assembling a book that can be used in a multiplicity of ways. Those readers wishing to concentrate on the text can do so, either in Old French or in modern English, while those who wish to delve deeper into the reconstruction of the original through the seven surviving fragments are provided with ample evidence to appreciate the careful and deliberative work that went into it.

This slim volume is a tour de force in fragmentology, achieving its authors’ aims to model a method for collaborative work in the future. It is also affordable and can be purchased in both physical and digital copies. The researchers and press should be commended for this exemplar.