Durham University: Discovering the early records of Merlin the Magician

The fragments were first ‘re-discovered’ pasted into a book in Bristol University library in 2019 and tell part of the story of Merlin, one of the most famous characters from the legend of King Arthur.

A research team including Prof Leah Tether and Dr Benjamin Pohl from Bristol and Dr Laura Chuhan Campbell from Durham have now shown how old the fragments are and how they ended up in Bristol.

Re-tracing Merlin’s journey
Through handwriting analysis and linguistic study, they dated the manuscript to 1250-1275 in northern, possibly north-eastern, France.

The story itself, the Suite Vulgate du Merlin, was written down in about 1220-1225, meaning the Bristol manuscript was written within a generation of the original.

The team was also able to show that the manuscript was in England by 1300-1350, due to an annotation in the margin.

It is thought the fragments then became ‘waste’ in Oxford or Cambridge and were recycled into the book they are now part of, probably before 1520.

The team believe that book made its way to Bristol due to Tobias Matthew, who was Archbishop of York from 1606-28. Matthew had previously been Dean and Bishop of Durham and had collected many books formerly belonging to Durham monks, many of whom had studied at Durham College, Oxford (now Trinity College).

Matthew, who was born in Bristol, later co-founded Bristol Public Library and donated many books to it.

Team Pigment
As part of their research, the team worked with Prof Andy Beeby, from our Chemistry Department, using the mobile spectroscopy and spectral imaging instruments that Andy and his team, Team Pigment have developed.

This helped the researchers visualise and read documents more easily.

The team has now published its research and findings in a new book called The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment.

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