Coherence and communication in medieval French literature cover

Coherence and Communication in Medieval French Literature: Narrative distortion in the Vulgate Cycle

The Vulgate Cycle is the first French Arthurian cycle in prose (c. 1215-35). A cycle is a series of texts about common characters, who are generally adapted from myth or history. I chose the cycle’s narrative for my dissertation topic and soon spent days trying to understand the variations between rather inaccessible editions, let alone analyse them. I believe the cycle merits lots of critical attention, since there are many opportunities for interpretation according to different combinations of manuscripts.

The sensationalism and romanticism of Arthurian legend in popular culture is a double-edged sword. It is beneficial that many people are familiar with the most famous episodes, such as Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair and Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. This glimpse of familiarity with Arthurian legend is an encouraging reason to choose Arthurian studies over a completely unfamiliar topic. Naturally, this is true of any study of myths which have passed into common knowledge. 

This initial attraction which Arthurian literature offers, however, often fades away when students are faced with many complications, such as inconsistency across texts, or within a single text. I shall categorise textual inconsistency into four sections:

  • Orthographic inconsistency. There was no authority on French spelling until the first dictionary appeared in 1499, so the spelling of standard vocabulary and also proper nouns invented by authors varies.
  • Narrative inconsistency, such as differences between manuscripts, some of which may omit entire episodes.
  • Content inconsistency, such as changes to a character’s parentage across texts. One famous example of this is Arthur being Mordred’s uncle in earlier Arthurian texts, then later, his father. In the Vulgate Cycle, the author(s) use this confusion to form the plot, which centres around the lie of Arthur being Mordred’s uncle, followed by the consequences of him actually being Mordred’s father.
  • Authorial inconsistency, such as an apparent change in author or a claim to authorship that scholars have challenged. Most modern scholars believe that both of these are the case in the Vulgate Cycle, since Gautier Map is credited with authorship but died before its composition, which was probably carried out by a group of monks.
14th-century illustration from an Italian manuscript of the Vulgate Cycle’s The Quest for the Holy Grail. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The cycle opens with the origins of the Holy Grail in the Estoire del Saint Graal (Story of the Holy Grail) and the Estoire de Merlin (Story of Merlin), before detailing the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere (in the Lancelot) and the quest for the Holy Grail (Queste del Saint Graal) before culminating in the death of Arthur in the Mort Artu. 

A crucial moment in the Mort Artu is when Guinevere announces that Mordred is the son of Arthur:

“cil de cest regne me vuelent marier a cel traïtor desloial qui fu, veraiement le vos di, filz lo roi Artur, mon seignor”

“the men of this kingdom want me to marry a disloyal traitor, who, to tell you the truth, is the son of my lord King Arthur” 

The narrator does not share how Guinevere knows about Mordred’s parentage and it is not even revealed if Arthur knew at this stage. The modern reader, however, has known for some time if they read the Estoire de Merlin or the Estoire del Saint Graal (which were written after the Mort Artu but set before, and are therefore normally read first), in which a lengthy description of the circumstances of Mordred’s conception and infancy are narrated. Contemporary readers may have had neither the prior knowledge of the characters, nor access to other texts in the cycle. Given that the first texts in the cycle were written last, the chronology of this cycle is problematic and therefore scholars have been unable to ascertain to what extent the texts were considered and read as a whole. Indeed, the cycle is sufficiently episodic for each text to be read on its own.

It is possible that Guinevere knows about Mordred’s parentage through Lancelot, since Lancelot and Mordred witness a holy man’s premonition that the latter will kill his father, Arthur. Lancelot decides not to tell Guinevere the part about Arthur being Mordred’s father, since:

“Il amoit tant le roi que en nule manniere il ne volsist dire sa honte”

“He loved the king so dearly that he certainly did not want to tell of his shame”

The origin of a character’s knowledge is clearly of less importance than it was in the Lancelot, at the start of the cycle, since preoccupations surrounding the knowledge of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair were at the focus of the many subplots. Towards the end of the cycle, the author narrows the reader’s attention to the conflict between Arthur, Lancelot and Mordred and focuses more on events than on communication between characters.

The juxtaposition of Mordred’s epithet, “cel traïtor desloial”, with Guinevere’s insistence on telling the truth, is not incidental. Throughout the cycle, the author(s) repeatedly introduce subplots involving liars, to whom the narrator often refers as “li traïtres”, “the traitor”. In this way, the reader is reminded of the contemporary view of lies as deeply treacherous, and even treasonous. Guinevere has been linked with deception and falsehood throughout the cycle, especially in the “fausse Guenièvre”, or “false Guinevere”, episode, in which Arthur is convinced by an imposter Guinevere that she is the real Guinevere he married. It is evident that later in the cycle, there is still an association between the queen and lies.

Lancelot and Guinevere, Herbert James Draper. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This news about Mordred may remind the reader of the secret of Lancelot and Guinevere’s relationship. In the Mort Artu, Arthur discovers the affair through paintings and texts about the relationship by Lancelot, which he left in Morgan’s castle. Arthur exclaims,

“se la senefiance de cez letres est veraie, donques m’a Lancelot honi de la roïne Guinievre, car ge voi tote apertement que il s’en est acointiez”

“if these texts tell the truth, then Lancelot has dishonoured me with Queen Guinevere, since I can clearly see that he has had relations with her”

This is another example of a simplified way of revealing a secret in the Mort Artu, rather than through fragmented retellings of the secret between characters, as in the Lancelot. Arthur discovers the affair through visual means (paintings and writing), which is not only an especially cruel way for Arthur to discover his wife’s infidelity, but makes the episode succinct, as Arthur gains direct access to Lancelot’s perspective.

This reduced preoccupation with sources of knowledge and increased anxiety about action is one of many ways in which the anonymous author(s) of the Vulgate Cycle create a claustrophobic backdrop to the last instalment, the Mort Artu. The cycle therefore becomes more linear and has less subplots. I believe that this change, an inconsistency in content, may be explained by the cycle’s probable authorial inconsistency. This change in structure complements the climatic tension in the Mort Artu, leading to the text’s seemingly apocalyptic end as Arthur is killed and the kingdom is left broken. It is difficult to conclude that Guinevere’s unexpected knowledge about Mordred’s parentage is an example of content inconsistency. It could be instead a subtle example of how sources of information become less critical as the cycle draws to a close. I certainly hope this is the case, if only because it could be argued that such careless divulsion of knowledge parodies the preoccupation with it in the Lancelot. This interpretation would in fact consider this episode as an example of cohesion, not inconsistency, across the texts. Whilst the progression of the cycle’s narrative is of limited importance to contemporary readers, modern readers who can access the cycle as a whole must appreciate any evidence they can find of such cohesion between the rather episodic texts.