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13 - Arthurian Literature in the Percy Folio Manuscript

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

By the time that the Percy Folio manuscript (BL Add. MS 27879) was being compiled in the years around 1650, printing had long been established as a medium for Arthurian literature. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur had been in print for over 160 years. Yet the compiler of the Percy Folio still thought it worth his while to make hand-written copies of a substantial selection of Arthurian texts. King Arthur, or leading members of his court, appear in fourteen of the 195 items in the manuscript as it now stands; and of these fourteen, which include several of the longer items in the collection, nine complete texts and part of another are unrecorded elsewhere. What does the survival of these fourteen texts together in the Percy Folio tell us about the currency of Arthurian literature in the seventeenth century? Should their presence in this manuscript be taken as evidence for the ongoing appeal of Arthurian literature in the post-medieval period, and perhaps even for the existence of post-Malorian Arthurian literary traditions that were to some extent still productive? Or were such texts copied into the Percy Folio only to serve what had already become an essentially antiquarian interest in the textual ‘reliques’ of a bygone age?

A summary answer to these questions would seem to be offered by those two texts in the Percy Folio in which Arthur’s presence is most fleeting, both of which invoke his name simply in order to point out that he is dead and gone. In the 96-line poem called ‘The Fall of the Princes’ (which is apparently recorded only in the Percy Folio), Arthur’s name appears in a roll-call of departed heroes that extends from Adam, David and Joshua to Henry V, Charles (the Bold) of Burgundy and Henry VIII. In this context, the poet demands:

Where is King Arthur the venturer, with his Knights bold?

or Sir Tristeram, that treasure of curtesye?

or Sir Gawaine the good, with his helmett made of gold?

or Sir Lancelott dulake, a Knight of Chiualry? (71–75)

The answer to these questions is, of course, that all these people are illustrations of the inevitability of mortality, even for the greatest heroes.

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 189 - 204
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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