Curator's Choice: The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts at Cambridge University

| 22 January 2014

Curator's Choice: Bill Burgwinkle on a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library revealing the cultural and historic impact of the French language upon life in Europe, the Middle East and beyond



"French may have been brought to England by the Normans in 1066 but it was already here well before then as a language of knowledge and commerce.

It served as the mother tongue of every English king for almost 400 years, from William the Conqueror to Richard II, and it was still in use as a language of royalty, politics and literature until the Tudor period, when we see Henry VIII writing love letters in French to Anne Boleyn.

Cambridge University is home to one of the world’s finest collections of medieval manuscripts of this kind.

This exhibition not only gives us a chance to display the Library’s treasures, but also reminds us how the French language has enriched our cultural past and left us with a legacy that continues to be felt in 21st century Britain.

Medieval texts like the ones we have on display became the basis of European literature. The idea that post-classical Western literature really begins with the Renaissance is completely false.

It begins right here, among the very manuscripts and fragments in this exhibition.

People may not realise it, but many of the earliest and most beautiful versions of the legends of Arthur, Lancelot and the Round Table were written in French.

The Moving Word is a celebration of a period sometimes unfairly written out of literary history.”


Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la rose. Paris (circa 1330–40)

An image of an illustration from a medieval book showing two figures gesticulating
© Cambridge University
The Romance of the rose was undoubtedly one of the best known, most admired and most imitated texts of the French Middle Ages.

This image shows a miniature for a typical Parisian Roman de la rose manuscript of the fourteenth century, by Richard de Montbaston, who, together with his wife Jeanne, illustrated more than 20 copies of the Rose.

In this image, the characters named False Seeming and Constrained Abstinence are disguised as pilgrims, complete with tonsures, Dominican friars’ habits, and pilgrim staffs.

Their pious demeanour is a ruse to deceive Foul Mouth, seated on the right. They are about to strangle him and rip out his tongue.


Miscellany. England (West Midlands?) or Ireland? (first half of the 14th century (after 1307))

An image of an ancient illustration showing circles and characters and text in black ink
© Cambridge University
Detail of a page from a multilingual compendium of knowledge, containing more than 50 texts of historical, geographical, cosmographical, literary and devotional interest.

It is a heavily decorated volume, unusual for its thickness. The image is one of several dealing with the roundness of the Earth and the force of gravity.

It is part of the Image du monde – one of the many important treatises copied in this volume.


Thomas d’Angleterre, Roman de Tristan. France (first half of the 14th century)

An image of lines of black ink on an ancient book made of yellowed parchment
© Cambridge University
Thomas of Britain’s Tristan romance is perhaps the oldest surviving version of the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseut.

Thomas’s work formed the basis for Gottfried von Strassburg’s German Tristan romance (early 13th century), which in turn provided the chief source for Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

Thomas’s work – of which an estimated 25% survives – comes down to us only in five fragmentary witnesses.

In the fragment shown here, King Marc discovers his wife (Iseut) and his nephew (Tristan), sleeping together in a wood. It is the sole copy of this scene to survive into the present.


Lancelot-Grail (first half of the cycle) (circa 1215-1235). France

An image of an ancient medieval text showing black ink text
© Cambridge University
This massive codex, with its 15th century binding (whittawed leather on wooden boards), was found in an old trunk together with documents dating back to the 12th century relating to the property of Ribston Hall (Wetherby, Yorkshire) – formerly a Templar priory.

This is an important witness of the Lancelot-Grail, containing the first half of the cycle: a long sequence of four narratives centered on the history of the Grail and on the early years of King Arthur’s reign.

It has long been debated how the Lancelot-Grail was conceived and written, and scholars do not completely agree about the order in which its different parts were composed.

The last text copied in this manuscript, known as the Suite Merlin since it follows in the manuscript tradition the Merlin en Prose, is a relatively late text which takes a rather pessimistic view of the Arthurian world, in that the protagonists seem to be driven by blind force and doomed to crime and punishment.


Lancelot-Grail (first half of the cycle) (first half of the 14th century; additions: England, 15th century). England or Northern France

An image of an ancient medieval text showing black ink text
© Cambridge University
The folio shown offers evidence of a 15th century restoration that replaced ff. 269–273, 276 and 335–342, which had either become excessively worn or had simply been removed.

The new folios have a different mise en page (different justification, different number of lines, different spacing) and are written in a darker ink and by a later hand.

The numbering of folios and quires on the top right corner and at the bottom right corner of the recto ensured that the additions were bound in the correct place. This manuscript entered the University Library’s collection in 1945.


Indenture referring to books in the common chest. Cambridge (1363)

An image of an ancient medieval text showing black ink text
© Cambridge University
This listing of the contents of the common chest (cista communis Universitatis Cantabrigensis) was compiled on the Wednesday after the feast of St Denis by the incoming and outgoing University proctors.

Before the creation of specific spaces for book collections, it was common practice to store books with other valuables.

In some instances the entries provide precise information concerning the name of the donor and the material condition of the manuscript.


Breviary of Marie de Saint-Pol. Paris (1330–1340)

An image of an ancient medieval text showing dark brown ink scrolling around illustrations
© Cambridge University
Marie de Saint-Pol was born around 1303 to Gui de Châtillon and Marie de Bretagne, grand-daughter of King Henry III.

She founded the Hall of Valence (1347), which later became Pembroke College, Cambridge.

The second of a two-volume breviary, this is one of the most popular items in the Cambridge collections. It was manufactured in Paris and illustrated by Mahiet, a miniaturist who trained in the workshop of Jean Pucelle.

Mahaut, one of Marie’s sisters, also owned a Franciscan breviary from this workshop. Pucelle is known to have received commissions from several young women from aristocratic families and to have produced manuscripts that indulged in the depiction of playful subjects.

  • The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge is at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge until April 17 2014.

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