Manuscripts and periods of production

The earliest extant MSS with portions of the Lancelot proper have been tentatively dated to c. 1220, and located in the Champagne region or to the (north-) east of the Île-de-France (Lancelot-Graal; Stirnemann 1993, 207). Most of these copies have been sparsely decorated and/or illustrated. Nonetheless, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts known to date, Rennes BM 255, has been luxuriously decorated with an extensive programme of historiated initials (Stones 2010).

During the second quarter of the 13th c., the centre of production appears to have shifted slightly more to the north, with workshops possibly located in Soissons, Laon and the bishopric of Thérouanne (Dutch: Terwaan). For over a century, highly productive networks of book professionals based in the North of France and the Southern Low Countries were among the chief suppliers of Lancelot MSS. At first, their copies were modestly executed, but as of the last quarter of the 13th c., the illustrative programmes of exceptionally large formatted and lavishly decorated MSS became much more extensive. The heraldry in some of these luxury copies suggests that they were connected to the patronage of the Flemish comital Dampierre family (Paris BnF 95 and New Haven Beinecke 229; Meuwese 2005) .

A relatively well-studied, but nonetheless still fascinating example of this Northern production, is a co-operative of scribes and painters, probably based in Flanders, who, at the turn of the 14th c., collaborated on the manufacturing of no less than three MSS with Lancelot-Grail material: the famous Rochefoucauld Grail (olim Amsterdam BPH 1; Manchester John Rylands Fr. 1, vol. 1 and vol. 2, Oxford Bodleian Douce 215) and London BL Add. 10292, 10293, 10294 and London BL Royal 14 E III; see Lancelot-Graal; Meuwese 1999). Textual variation suggests that for the production of these extravagantly illustrated copies, these artisans must have had at their disposal at least two different exemplars of the Estoire and Agravain (the final part of the Lancelot proper; see also: Segmentation). Additionally, their involvement in the decoration of MSS in French and Latin, but also Hebrew and Dutch (Stones 2013, 65-6), further illustrates the multilingual nature of book production in the 14th-c. Low Countries.

The second half of the 13th c. witnessed the first significant manufacturing of Lancelot MSS in Paris and England, at least to judge from the extant material. Most of these insular copies appear not to have been illustrated. One exception is Paris BnF 123, copied by a (Jewish?) scribe named Abraham, working in London, and potentially commissioned by a continental princess, Blanche of Artois, and her English spouse, Edmund Crouchback. Not taking into account the hastily copied abridgments of the Queste and Mort added to London BL Royal 20 A II, a composite MS comprising a range of (largely historiographic) material, the English production of Lancelot copies appears to have come to a halt c. 1320. That only a few copies produced in the Southern Netherlands c. 1350 (primarily in Tournai) have survived may suggest a concurrent decline in the manufacturing of Lancelot-Grail MSS. In the course of the 14th c., Paris had taken over the leading role of Northern France and the Southern Low Countries, with the same artists (e.g. the so-called Sub-Fauvel Master) working on multiple MSS. The culmination point of this Parisian production is probably found in two monuments of the Lancelot tradition, Paris BnF 117-120 and Paris Arsenal 3479-80, brokered c. 1405 by Jacques Rapondi for the illustrious Valois patrons, John of Berry and John the Fearless (or potentially his father Philip the Bold).

As for the Italian peninsula, the manufacturing of Lancelot copies  seems to have rocketed during the third quarter of the 13th c. and the beginning of the 14th c. An exceptionally industrious center was located in Genoa. The same provenance has been attributed to a fair number of contemporary Tristan and Histoire ancienne MSS, with similar, distinctive and relatively crude, bas-de-page illustration. The remainder of the Italian production, dated to approximately the same period, appears to have been dispersed over centres tentatively identified as located in Bologna, Modena, Venice, Tuscany and Naples. The interest in prose romance also becomes apparent from the later aristocratic libraries, which also comprised copies of Arthurian texts produced in the North. Examples of Northern MSS travelling to Italy include the aforementioned BnF 95, originally produced in Flanders but by the 15th c. in the Sforza library, and the Turin fragments of the Suite Merlin, potentially manufactured for Amadeus V of Savoy (Meuwese 2005) and possibly brought to Italy by his granddaughter, Blanche.

Although the manufacturing of Lancelot copies continued in Paris, Central France and Flanders throughout the 15th c., the numbers of extant MSS pale in contrast to the ever-blossoming production of earlier centuries. Nonetheless, the explanation for this decrease, though it would seem to suggest a declined interest in the Arthurian prose romances, is not definitive. A fair number of these later MSS, e.g. those made for Jacques d'Armagnac, were still brilliantly illuminated works of art, and other older copies were refurbished at the time to conform to modern fashion. Famous collectors of MSS were still anxious to acquire Lancelot MSS; some of these, however, were cheaply produced, sparsely decorated paper copies in sloppy handwriting. This is the case for the Arthurian manuscripts of Engelbert II of Nassau, who was probably not only the owner of Brussels KBR 9086-7 (prose Tristan) but also of the very similar set  BL Harley 6341-43. Otherwise, such patrons bought MSS on the second-hand market, for instance the composite sets of Louis de Bruges, consisting of a single, newly produced Flemish MS, a 14th-c. copy manufactured in Tournai, and the aforementioned BnF f. fr. 123 from England, which was probably acquired during one of his diplomatic missions overseas.

The mobility of Lancelot MSS as suggested by the extant MS evidence is noteworthy. The aforementioned trajectory between Italy and the North, may be further evidenced by BnF 768 (Kennedy's base MS for her edition of the non-cyclic Lancelot). This MS combines an early 13th-c. northern part (produced in the Champagne region, or otherwise Burgundy) with a partial 14th-c. copy of the Queste that has marked Southern characteristics, possibly indicating production in Italy. Based on later additions to other early MSS produced in the Champagne region (e.g. London BL Lansdowne 757) and Northern France (e.g. Nottingham UL WLC/LM/7), lines can be drawn between the northern continental regions and England. Other extant copies, for instance the aforementioned BL Royal 14 E III, demonstrate that Lancelot MSS produced in Flanders at the turn of the 14th c. continued to cross the Channel. Bonn ULB S 526, finished in Amiens in 1286 and in the 15th c. owned by the German count Wirich von Daun-Oberstein, draws yet another route from the North of France to more Eastern, German-speaking regions.

The remarkable number of extant (fragments of) MSS produced in England, the Low Countries, France, Italy, and possibly also Acre, over a period of 300 years, together with their mobility, testifies to the immense popularity of the cycle. This succes is further underlined by translations in most of the major European vernaculars (Dutch, Italian, English, German, Hebrew) produced during the medieval period, which further facilitated the distribution of Lancelot's biography across various (socio-)linguistic borders.

To: Textual tradition.