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The Prose Lancelot (also referred to as Lancelot en prose, Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail cycle) is the first of three, major Arthurian prose cycles composed during the first half of the 13th c. Depending on whether the Suite vulgate is considered as a separate text, this vast compilation is usually divided into five or six major parts, the thresholds of which are, however, not always marked paratextually in the extant manuscripts. Although the present project focuses on the core narrative (item 4 below), this introduction will provide concise information about all six parts of the cycle, the MSS of which are listed in the database. Because of the large number of extant copies, MSS which do not include the Lancelot proper have usually been described in a more succinct way. Similarly, in subsequent sections, we will give those parts of the cycle more cursory attention.
- Estoire del saint graal
- Estoire Merlin
- Suite vulgate du Merlin
- Lancelot en prose, or Lancelot proper
- Queste del saint graal
- Mort le roi Artu
It is generally believed that the core narrative (an early version of the Lancelot proper, see also: Textual tradition), relating the childhood and early exploits of Lancelot du Lac, was completed c. 1215-20, and subsequent parts were gradually added to it, starting with the ‘sequels', the Queste and Mort (usually dated to c. 1220 to 1230), and followed by the ‘prequels’, the Estoire, Merlin and Suite (usually dated to after 1230). Most scholars agree that a more or less fully developed version of the cycle was achieved c. 1235. This is confirmed by MSS Paris BnF f.fr. 747 and Paris BnF f.fr. 751 (Northern France, c. 1230-50), which are, according to Alison Stones, stylistically related and, when taken as a whole, provide all the texts of the cycle. However, recent scholarship into the MS tradition of various parts of the text has challenged this sequence of events and the dates associated with it. The decoration of Rennes BM 255 and Nottingham UL WLC/LM/7, both of which include the Estoire, may indicate that these copies were produced c. 1220 (Stones 2010) or approximately a decade before the earliest date most scholars cite for this part of the cycle. Early MSS of the Queste and Mort (Berkeley UCB 73 and Copenhagen KB Thott 1087) may as well be contemporary to the first extant copies of the Lancelot proper, also dated to c. 1220. Additionally, it has been suggested that the earliest of two extant versions of the Suite vulgate du Merlin, traditionally perceived as the final keystone of the cycle and conceived as a bridge between Merlin and the Lancelot proper, may instead have been composed as the apotheosis to the duet Estoire-Merlin (Trachsler 2001).
The authorship of the component parts remains unclear, and the same is true for the context in, and for which, they were initially written. Although scholars have argued that the cycle is the work of one single author (Lot 1918), or that the Lancelot-Queste-Mort trilogy resulted from a team-effort executed under the supervision of an 'architect' (Frappier 1961) and should therefore be considered as a unified project (Micha 1987), others believe that the Lancelot-Grail may be best described as an anonymous compilation consisting of 'at least five different works, possibly by five different authors' (Dover 2003, p. xi). This notwithstanding, recent scholarship agrees that a complex system of internal cross-referencing, looking back and projecting forward, delivers a more consistent cyclic text than was previously accepted.
An intricate web of narrative voices and authorial fictions guides the audience through the stories of Lancelot, Arthur and the Grail. In many manuscripts, large initials associated with the impersonal narrating voice, 'li contes', provide physical structure to the text. This narrative is alternatively presented as a transcription of a book handed to a hermit by Christ himself (Estoire), dictated to Blaise by Merlin (Merlin) or as eyewitness accounts of the Knights of the Round Table, scribbled down by Arthur's secretaries (Lancelot). The most enticing fiction, however, attributes (parts of) the cycle to the English cleric Walter Map (died c. 1209-10), courtier and diplomat in the service of Henry II and otherwise known as the author of the satirical De nugis curialium (Courtiers' Trifles). Berkeley UCB 73 and Copenhagen Thott 1087 demonstrate that already in the earliest extant MSS of the Queste and Mort, produced c. 1220-30, Map was associated with the authorship of both texts. The early sections of the Lancelot proper do not point directly to an author, other than Arthur's scribes. However, the explicit of Paris BnF f.fr. 771 (Northern France, c. 1240-50), one of the oldest extant witnesses, and which includes the final part of the Lancelot (also referred to as the Agravain), shows that by the middle of the 13th c., Map was also recognized as the author of the central part. The reference to Map as the author of the Lancelot proper is also in the near-contemporary Oxford Bodleian Rawlinson D 899 (Northern France, c. 1250). It is not, however, present in the potentially slightly earlier, cyclic MS London BL Royal 19 C XIII (England, 1230-50), which admittedly has a reworked version. In some other cyclic MSS, e.g. Bonn UB 526, the attribution at the end of the Mort is apparently extended to include the complete ystoire de lanselot. Obviously, this frame story, in which Map translates a presumably Latin account of Arthur into French for Henry II, is problematic, since the date of composition is at odds with the dates of Walter's life, and even more so with Henry's death. However, the fact that this particular strategy survives in the paratexts of these very early MSS of parts of the cycle may also suggest that the Plantagenet/Angevin context was relevant for book professionals and early audiences of Arthurian narratives in the northern regions of France during the 1220s and 1230s, when the cycle first started to circulate (see also: Manuscripts).
Various parts of the cycle draw on different types of sources. The Estoire and Merlin, which embed the story of the Grail into the history and Christianization of England and relate how Arthur rose to power, rewrite biblical and apocryphal material and are most heavily indebted to the prose narratives of Robert de Boron, usually dated to c. 1200-5. One important group of MSS (Paris BnF f.fr.. 770; Le Mans BM 354, St Petersburg NLR Fr.F.v.XV.5, and Chantilly Musée Condé 643; see also: this blogpost) even combines the account of the Estoire with excerpts from its source, Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie. The events of De Boron's Merlin, but also the Suite vulgate echo earlier representations of Merlin and the reign of Arthur, as found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini and his Historia regum Britanniae and its French adaptations. The Lancelot trilogy also draws on this chronicle tradition (in particular in the Mort), but is centred around a prose adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes's Chevalier de la Charette and uses episodes from the Conte du Graal and its continuations (in particular in the Queste). Thematic lines emphasized throughout the cycle include models of kingship, feudality, the making of a name, the friction between worldly love and chivalric accomplishment, between spiritual search and the weakness of the flesh and, especially in the Queste, a Cistercian doctrine of grace (Barber 2003).