Seven fragments of parchment written in Old French have been discovered inside an unrelated 15th century work, in the archives of the Bristol Central Library in the UK. The fragments seem to be from a version of the Estoire de Merlin, one that is slightly different from the standard text. The fragments are from a section about the Battle of Trèbes, and include Merlin addressing Arthur’s troops with a stirring speech and, oddly, leading the attack carrying Sir Kay’s dragon standard, which includes a dragon that breathes actual fire.
If Sara Zettle sent you, I’m especially pleased that I can tell you there’s more news about the medieval Cornish mystery play fragment rediscovered in 2000. Thanks to Alan Hawke, I can tell you that the National Library of Wales has added high quality digital images of both the Beunans Ke manuscript NLW MS 23849D and the Beunans Meriasek manuscript Peniarth 105B, to their Digital Mirror collection. Andrew Hawke adds that Michael Polkinhorn has provided a collaborative translation online here.
Two years ago I posted about a newly discovered medieval Cornish Saint’s Play. Dr. O. J. Padel of Cambridge University has kindly made available a .pdf file of his transcript of National Library of Wales MS.
Dr. Padel points out that initial assumptions that the manuscript contained fragments of two plays, one about Saint Ke, and one on an Arthurian subject, was inaccurate; it is a single play about St. Ke which contains a section referring to Arthur, present now only as a fragment. Scholars have adopted the name Bewnans Ke for the play, much as the only other extant medieval Cornish saint’s play, Bewnans Meriasek, the Life of Saint Meriasek, which exists in a single copy in MS. Peniarth 105, also in the National Library of Wales. Dr. Padel’s transcription is provided as a way of tiding us over until the edition by Graham Thomas and Nicholas Williams is available.
Thanks to a newly discovered medieval Cornish manuscript fragment Beunans Ke (The Life Of St Ke)
the amount of Medieval Cornish literature has increased by about twenty percent. The fragment was discovered among the papers of the recently deceased Celticist, J. E. Caerwyn Williams, whose papers were donated to the National Library of Wales.
The manuscript, NLW MS 23849D, consists of ten pairs of leaves (20 folios), foliated, 7, [8, 9], 10-13, 16-19, 22-9.
As you can see, there are a number of missing pages. It is written in a secretary hand of the mid sixteenth century, by a professional scribe, copying an earlier manuscript which he refers to as containing five torn leaves. It contains two previously unknown Middle Cornish play fragments. The first play, Beunans Ke (The Life Of St Ke) is about the life of Saint Kea, a Celtic saint favored in Cornwall and in Brittany, and whose life is described in medieval Breton texts.
The second play is possibly even more important, since it is Arthurian in nature, derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannice (Books ix.15; x.1-13; xi.1-2). It refers to King Arthur’s quarrel with the fictive Roman emperor, Lucius Hiberius, about British tribute to Rome. It ends with Arthur’s victory and the emperor’s death in battle, and it also alludes to the clandestine relationship of Arthur’s nephew, Modred, with Queen Guenevere (yes, that is one of the Arthurian variants).
I am not aware of any other extant medieval play about Arthur; this discovery is a Big Deal. Neither text is complete, and both are currently being edited by Graham C. G. Thomas and published by the National Library of Wales where he is a Senior Assistant Archivist in the Department of Manuscripts.
Even if you aren’t a medievalist or Celticist, this really is a piece of good news. There isn’t a lot of medieval Cornish literature left; much of it was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. The last native speaker of Cornish died in the late eighteenth century. There are currently several different forms of Cornish that have been carefully reconstructed as part of a language revival, but no native speakers in the usual sense. Of the extant medieval literature, there are two short pieces, one of them a poem on the Passion, the Pascon Agan Arluth, another a fragment on the back of a charter, offers a somewhat sardonic view of marriage and is the earliest known extant Cornish. The bulk of extant medieval Cornish literature is in the form of miracle and mystery plays from the fifteenth century, specifically a play about the Cornish saint, Saint Meriasek in Peniarth MS. 105. L 430, and parts of a mystery cycle, the Cornish Ordinalia, MS. Bodleian 791. The manuscript contains plays on the Creation, Passion of Christ and Resurrection, in Cornish verse, with Latin stage directions and diagrams. There are also bits of Middle English in the plays, typically in the lines of the devils and other villains.