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Lancelot du lac
Lancelot en prose
Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT folio Case MS 21
The “Vulgate” Lancelot cycle, also called the Lancelot-Grail cycle, is a series of five interrelated Old French prose texts dealing with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the quest for the Grail, and the adventures of Lancelot. Three of the works tell of Lancelot’s adventures and his love for Guinevere (Lancelot en prose, La queste del saint Graal, and La mort le roi Artu), while the other two are “pre-histories” (Estoire del saint Graal and Le roman de Merlin en prose) recounting the story of Arthur’s kingdom before Lancelot’s birth, and the early history of the Grail.
This manuscript held by the Newberry Library contains only the Lancelot du Lac, which is a portion of the Lancelot en prose or the “Lancelot proper” that constitutes the third and largest section of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. Lancelot’s legendary love for Guinevere and his heroic exploits with the other Knights of the Round Table form the focus of the Lancelot du Lac.
The texts of the Lancelot-Grail cycle were originally composed in the first third of the 13th century. Audiences eager for tales of courtly love and chivalric adventure enthusiastically read and commissioned copies of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, making it one of the most popular vernacular texts of the later Middle Ages. Over 150 manuscripts containing all or some of the cycle survive today, most dating from the 13th through the 15th century. Some manuscript copies commissioned for royal and aristocratic owners include lavish illustrations, while many other copies contain few or no images at all and were made for patrons from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Other Arthurian texts also circulated widely among the same audiences; the Getty Museum’s Roman de Tristan (MS Ludwig XV 5) is an example of a luxury romance manuscript with an elaborate pictorial program.
This particular manuscript of 354 folios was copied around the year 1300 and contains three single-column miniatures, found on folsios 1r, 200r, and 292r. The image on the opening folio is badly worn from use, but the figures of two kings with their sisters are still discernible. Fol. 200r depicts Galaad in full armor mounted on his horse, and fol. 292r illustrates a scene in which a boat steered by the sister of Méléagant (the villain who abducts Guinevere) approaches Lancelot imprisoned in a tower. Inscriptions on the first page indicate that this manuscript once belonged to the library of Claude d’Urfé (1501-1558), an ambassador who served under Kings François I (ruled 1515-1547) and Henri II (ruled 1547-1559). Claude d’Urfé’s ownership of the Lancelot du Lac in the 16th century suggests that popular enthusiasm for Arthurian stories continued well into the Renaissance.
- Beth Woodward
-Stones, Alison. The Lancelot-Graal Project, 2010. http://www.lancelot-project.pitt.edu/lancelot-project.html.
-Kennedy, Elspeth, Michelle Szkilnik, Rupert T. Pickens, Karen Pratt, and Andrea M. L. Williams. “Lancelot with and without the Grail: ‘Lancelot do Lac’ and the Vulgate Cycle.” In The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Karen Pratt. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006, 274-324.
-Stones, Alison. “‘Mise en Page’ in the French Lancelot-Grail: The First 150 Years of the Illustrative Tradition.” In A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, edited by Carol Dover, 125–44. Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003.
-Chênerie, Marie-Luce, and Elspeth Kennedy, eds. Lancelot du Lac: roman français du XIIIe siècle. Vol. II. Lettres gothiques. Paris: Librairie générale française, 1993.
-Saenger, Paul. “Un manuscrit de Claude d’Urfé retrouvé à la Newberry Library de Chicago.” Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes, vol. 139, no. 2 (1981): 250-52.