Queen Mary researcher finds rare manuscript fragments hidden in library

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Image of the fragment of Guillaume. Photo: Tamara Atkin, courtesy Bodleian Libraries

The two handwritten parchment fragments were discovered while Dr Atkin was undertaking Leverhulme Trust-funded research into the reuse and recycling of old books in the Bodleian Library. Immediately suspecting their importance, she approached academics from the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh and the University of British Columbia to help identify them. They are now working together to analyze the two fragments of parchment which would come from two French poems: that of Béroul Romain de Tristan and the lost so far Yesèage of Orange.

Béroul’s 12th century poem is one of the earliest versions of the famous story of Tristan and Isolde – the “Romeo and Juliet of the Middle Ages”. Until now, the only proof of its existence was an incomplete 13th century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The new fragment, which differs considerably from the longer version, demonstrates a wider circulation of the poem than previously understood.

The Orange Headquarters is a lost poem from a cycle of epics – narrative poems – on Guillaume d’Orange. With only 47 lines, Guillaume’s new fragment offers a little glimpse into what would once have been a much longer poem. But its discovery proves the existence of a poem that until now was believed to be completely lost.

The new fragment appears to come from a copy of the poem made in England written using the French (Anglo-Norman) form that was in use in England at the time.

The fragments were found in the binding of a book published in 1528. Throughout the 16th century, unwanted manuscripts and printed books were frequently reused for various purposes, as paper and parchment were expensive products.

Dr Tamara Atkin from Queen Mary University in London said: “When I first opened this book, I was extremely excited. It is not uncommon to find manuscripts recycled as trash in the bindings of other books, but they are more in Latin and often relate to religion. It is relatively rare to find manuscripts containing poems written in the language of everyday life thus used and finding two in a single book is even rarer!

“It is very likely that the manuscripts from which the fragments were extracted were cut out in the binding and used as ‘rubbish’ in the binding of this book, and possibly others.

“Just as this book has been the work of many hands, I am eager to collaboratively reveal the full significance of these fragments. “

By pooling their expertise, the team will now attempt to learn more about the journey of the fragments, including when and where they were copied and how they were bound in a printed book centuries later. They will produce complete transcriptions and translations of the fragments, as well as descriptions of their manuscript and bibliographic contexts, to better understand their relationship to the Tristan and Guillaume traditions.