Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy

The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy

Prophecy, Paradox, and Translatio

by Laura Chuhan Campbell

LAURA CHUHAN CAMPBELL is Assistant Professor of French at Durham University.

Dr Campbell, thank you for joining this issue of the Medieval Herald. May we assume you’re an avid reader?
Yes, although I wish I had the time to read as avidly as I’d like! That doesn’t stop me having zero self-restraint in bookshops, though, so I have a substantial pile of unread books awaiting my attention. My tastes are fairly eclectic; I’ve recently been enjoying some non-fiction by Naomi Klein and Grayson Perry, as well as novels by Ben Myers, Neil Gaiman, and Hillary Mantel.

Can you tell us something of your work at Durham?
I spend most of my time at Durham teaching French in various guises. Although medieval literature is my specialism, I also teach literature from other periods, as well as language classes on translation and grammar. Outside of the classroom, I co-run a research cluster on Ecologies and the Arts, act as secretary for the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society, and organise academic talks for the senior common room at the College of St Hild and St Bede.

When did you first choose medieval studies? Was there one particular event, text or subject that hooked you?
I think it was reading Guigemar by Marie de France in the first year of my degree in Modern Languages. I’d briefly come across texts in Middle English at school, but I’d never really tried to read a medieval text before, and I just loved trying to puzzle out the language. It was the perfect intersection of my interests as a language nerd and a history nerd.

Merlin, as he appears in French and Italian Arthurian literature, is the focus of your new book. What drew you to him?
I was actually initially drawn to studying translations from French to Italian in the Middle Ages, rather than to any specific figure or text. I was interested in literary interactions between different linguistic communities, and I found the way in which texts written in Italian vernaculars dialogued with and responded to French courtly narratives to be a particularly fruitful area of research. While there was an established body of scholarship on the various Italian vernacular iterations of the Tristan romances, the Italian Merlin texts had received very little critical attention.

The reason for this seems to be that they don’t really correspond, in format or tone, to what we nowadays consider to be a “typical” Arthurian romance; a significant proportion of the romances centre around Merlin delivering prophecies in obscure symbolic language, either dictating them to his scribes in his room or prophesying from within his tomb after having been trapped in there by the Lady of the Lake. On the other hand, they don’t count as straightforward prophetic compilations either, because the prophecies are still very much embedded within an Arthurian narrative. This fact of being “neither one thing nor the other” perhaps explains the neglect suffered by the Italian-vernacular Merlin texts in modern scholarship, but at the same time, it is also what makes these Merlin texts so productive for a study of medieval translation.

Merlin as a character is fascinating in this respect because he is also “neither one thing nor the other”: he is half-devil, half-human, neither wholly good not wholly bad, a divinely-inspired prophet and advisor to Arthur, and as well as a shape-shifter and notorious prankster. As such, he embodies the intersections between different languages, genres, cultures, and literary traditions that come into contact when a Tuscan or Venetian writer decides to offer their own interpretation of a text written in England or northern France.

Does the figure of Merlin differ greatly between the two literatures? What are the main reasons?
The Italian Merlin is heavily influenced by the way Merlin is presented in French romance, but there are some differences in his character and role in the narrative. For a start, Merlin is much more morally ambiguous in the Italian versions: he’s a notorious womanizer (much to the disappointment of his rather uptight scribe, Maistre Antoine), and some versions suggest that his death at the hands of the Lady of the Lake is punishment for sleeping with the female students who come to him to learn magic. On the other hand, the Italian Merlin also has something of a social conscience. While Merlin tends to be a bit of a free spirit in the French romances, dropping into and out of courtly culture at will and often spending long periods of time away from society, the Italian Merlin is very much a part of an urban community (that is, until he is magically trapped in an inaccessible tomb). His prophecies are interspersed with episodes that show him intervening in court cases to bring villains to justice, or using his supernatural knowledge to expose the hypocrisy of corrupt priests and ecclesiastical officials.

The distinction that is most relevant for my study, however, is the fact that the scope of Merlin’s knowledge differs from text to text. In the early thirteenth-century Arthurian prose romances (the Vulgate Cycle and the Suite du Merlin), Merlin’s omniscience covers the entire history of the narrative—that is, the beginnings of the holy grail story in Biblical times, to the death of Arthur in the Mort d’Arthus branch of the Vulgate Cycle. Because the Merlin text was written after the stories of Lancelot, the grail quest, and the fall of Arthur’s kingdom, but set before it in the chronological sequence of the narrative, Merlin is able to accurately prophesy later events before they happen. In the Italian texts, however, Merlin acquires an additional layer of knowledge; he is not only able to predict events from Arthurian stories, but also fairly recent events in actual history. The Venetian author of the Prophecies de Merlin (ca 1279) incorporated prophecies of events that took place in Venice, the holy land, France, and other parts of Europe from chronicles of the twelfth and thirteenth century, as well as predictions of the (apparently) forthcoming apocalypse. The Merlin of the first Italian versions, then, starts to prophesy about events that would have been of interest to Venetian readers; nevertheless, the fact that the text was written in French meant that it was easily transported back into Francophone areas, where it circulated alongside the earlier French Arthurian prose romances.

This demonstrates that, although Italian readings of the Merlin story prioritised his role as a political prophet—which draws ultimately on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini—the differences between the French and Italian Merlin were relatively fluid; the French Merlin romances were being read and circulated in northern Italy, just as the Italian Prophecies de Merlin became popular in France.

How significant to his role is Merlin’s omniscience?
In my opinion, Merlin’s omniscience is central to uncovering the dynamics of translation within the text. As I mentioned, each successive version of the Merlin story expands his knowledge, from the future of the Arthurian universe, to real events in the medieval Italy, to predictions of the Antichrist and the Apocalypse. Merlin, however, does not forget his prophecies from previous texts as he is rewritten into a new text. Each Merlin story adds new predictions about different events that may interest a new audience, but at the same time, Merlin also continues to talk about events from the Vulgate Cycle and Tristan romances, even if these episodes are only referred to through prophecy. As a result, Merlin’s omniscient mind is the space in which different texts, discourses, languages, and literatures interact and converge; the scope of his knowledge gets broader as each text (or manuscript version) adapts and adds to his prophecies.

Merlin is thus able to break out of the conventions of fiction and cross the boundaries by which literary characters are normally confined: his omniscience transcends not only the borders between texts and dialects, but also between fiction and reality—the world of Arthurian romance and the readers’ own history. The way in which these different types of text, and the romance vernaculars that convey them, blend seamlessly in Merlin’s omniscience demonstrates the fluidity of vernacular translation between French and Italian. Italian versions of French texts don’t seek to supplant the original from a linguistic or cultural perspective, but they instead open up additional dimensions of the narrative that are not incompatible with the original.

You argue that Merlin himself is a kind of translator. What do you mean by that?
While the accumulation of knowledge from text to text in Merlin’s omniscience tells us about the dynamics of French-Italian vernacular translation, Merlin’s role as a prophet also illuminates the way in which translation was figured in the Middle Ages.

The medieval term translatio encompassed linguistic translation as we think of it today, but it was a much broader term that signified some sort of “displacement”—whether a physical displacement from one place to the next (as in the “translation” of saints’ relics to different locations), or the linguistic displacement of literal meanings through symbolism and metaphor. When Merlin prophesies, he does so in obscure terms, disguising identities and occurrences with symbolic language. This counts as translatio in the sense of a transfer between the literal and the figurative, but it also represents a transfer of ideas from Merlin’s mind—which knows all of time and history at once—into the temporal structures of language and narrative chronology.

Of course, on one level this is a useful narrative device: if characters within the text were able to know what was going to happen to them, then it would remove a lot of the dramatic tension! Plus Merlin also makes a conscious decision to prophesy obscurely, in order to avoid the potential problems that this knowledge of the future might cause. However, Merlin’s obscure language also figures a “translation” from the atemporal to the temporal, and the extra-linguistic to the linguistic. The obscure language demonstrates that his understanding of time and language is incompatible with that of the other characters, and with the logic of the narrative (or of history) itself. It emphasises the limited perspectives of the other characters within the text, while speaking directly to readers who would be able to understand the prophecies based on their knowledge of the predicted events.

How big a role does a translator play in that and is it possible to quantify from this great distance in time?
In this period, it’s often difficult to discern what actually constitutes translation between French and Italian, who is translating, and to what extent. Because the lexical and grammatical structures of French and Italian dialects are often quite similar, translation may have at some points simply involved copying the text and making minor linguistic alterations to make a French text more readable for a Venetian or Tuscan audience. This form of linguistic adaptation can be seen in the transmission of texts between different dialects of French, or different dialects of Italian, and probably would not have been regarded as translation, in the strict sense of the word. One Merlin text, the Libero dello Savio Merlin seems to have been composed in this way; it calques the Franco-Italian Prophecies de Merlin into a Venetian dialect, and very much resembles the original linguistically.

On the other hand, some of the Italian Merlin texts demonstrate a more conscious adaptation of the Arthurian romances for Italian audiences. The author of the Storia di Merlino, Florentine chronicler Paulino Pieri, names himself in his prologue and claims to have translated the story accurately from French. Despite this, his translation is the most idiosyncratic of the Italian versions in its style and organisation, and several episodes have been completely re-written. It could also be argued that the adaptation of the Merlin story from manuscript to print also constitutes a form of translation. Luca Venitiano’s 1480 edition, entitled the Historia di Merlino, not only translates the Venetian versions into an Italian that is much less obviously inflected by Venetian dialectal features, but also organises the text into six clearly-defined books, which correspond to the six fictional scribes who compose the book of prophecies. The change in language and format could well have been motivated by the formal constraints of printing and the desire to make the edition more widely marketable.

Is there a fundamental difference between an ‘English’ Merlin and a ‘European’ one?
I would say that it’s actually rather difficult to separate an “English” Merlin from a European one, just as it’s difficult to fully separate the French Merlin from the Italian one. Of course, there are differences in the way he’s represented but the circulation of French Merlin texts in Italian-speaking areas and Franco-Italian Merlin texts in French speaking areas meant that Francophone and Italophone interpretations of Merlin were mutually influential. Alison Cornish has referred to this back-and-forth movement as a “cultural ricochet”, and I would suggest—tentatively, as England isn’t my area of expertise—that the situation is similar in England.

Merlin essentially originates in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin chronicle and his poem, Vita Merlini, which provides a source for the French Arthurian prose romances of the thirteenth century. Robert de Boron’s Merlin takes episodes and ideas straight from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin texts, and this characterisation is expanded upon in later continuations. These French versions then went on to influence Middle English renditions of the Merlin story. As we can see, it’s not really possible to talk about distinct “national” literatures in the Middle Ages; different degrees of multilingualism, as well as transnational institutions such as the church, universities, and royal courts, permitted a significant amount of cultural and textual mobility.

May we ask what you are working on now?
I’m currently interested in applying ecocritical perspectives in medieval texts. I’ve recently been working on medieval vernacular translations and the Genesis story, and the way in which these medieval adaptations encode assumptions about the relationship between humans, animals, and nature. The project still has a translation component, although it regards translation not just in the sense of the movement of text from Latin to the vernaculars, but also in the expanded sense of translatio—the way in which matter is transferred, for example, from the earth, to Adam, to Eve, or the way in which pre-lapsarian language is characterised as untranslatable. The project is in its very early stages, however, and I’m finding a lot of these bible translations rather elusive to track down! I’m hoping to get an opportunity to go digging around in some archives this summer.

Finally, we’re asking all our contributors how they buy their books: online, favourite bookstore, conferences? Don’t buy, borrow? Electronic or print?
I still prefer reading books in print, if possible, although downloading Kindle or electronic Google Play editions can sometimes be an economical and convenient solution if I need to read something in a rush! I’ll tend to buy academic books online (and get some good deals on, because I’m often looking for a specific title, whereas I like to buy non-academic books by just browsing in a bookshop.

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The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy 1 colour illus.; 320pp
978 1 84384 480 8, hardback, £60/$99
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D.S. Brewer

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