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Secret Gestures and Silent Revelations: The Disclosure of Secrets in Selected Arthurian Illuminated Manuscripts and Arthurian Films

Secret Gestures and Silent Revelations: The Disclosure of Secrets in Selected Arthurian Illuminated Manuscripts and Arthurian Films

By Sandra Gorgievski

This Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol.29 (2014)

excalibur film

Introduction: This paper explores visual language and iconic systems central to the representation of the Arthurian cycle in thirteenth and fifteenth century Gothic illuminated manuscripts and in two Arthurian films; its focus is the theme of courtly love and crucial revelations of the secret or hidden. This analysis examines the complex interplay of text and image in selected medieval French illuminated manuscripts, seeking to assess the degree to which they can be compared with the blend of dialogue, soundtrack, and montage in two British productions — the twentieth century Excalibur by John Boorman and twenty-first century BBC series Merlin. While TV writers, directors are very unlikely even to know the original manuscripts, certain parallels that emerge offer an intriguing look at varying and sometimes quite similar visual and narrative responses to roughly the same material.

The essay first addresses the circulation of certain conventions in the medieval images of Lancelot and Guenevere’s secret love and divided loyalties, the tension between public and private values, and the gradual disclosure that eventually leads to the destruction of the Arthurian Kingdom. It then establishes a connection with the Tristram and Isold story as a narrative and visual prolepsis of Lancelot and Guenevere’s secret love and the concept of shame in certain medieval manuscripts as well as in Boorman’s film. The study then examines the disclosure of secrets in the TV series, arguing that interference and interaction between different contemporary media, rather than influence from the medieval images, have shaped new visual conventions.

At a time when costly, lavishly illustrated copies of Arthurian prose romances were flourishing from thirteenth to fifteenth century northern Europe for secular, wealthy patrons eager to possess manuscripts, the tale of the secret love and adultery of Lancelot and Guenevere followed standard, well-established narrative and visual codes with easily recognizable variations. A substantial number of manuscripts with Gothic illuminations favor those archetypal scenes involving the disclosure of secret, the public accusation of the lovers, the entrapment scene, and the judgment of the queen. The same sorts of images were applicable to different texts, forming a wide repertoire of icons which served as mnemonic devices. Such scenes occasionally appear on small-scale decorated initials with particularly dynamic means. For example, in Lancelot du Lac the queen is accused by her half-sister in front of the king holding his scepter in one of the three initials of the folio. In another thirteenth century copy of Lancelot du Lac, Morgan surprises the lovers under a tree that represents the wider forest in the limited space of a decorated initial. In the Lancelot-Graal-Mort Artu, the initial shows the barons accusing the queen, while in the bas-de-page the unframed image displays a hybrid animal wearing a mitre, holding a mysterious object, and blessing an hare in front of him. The image in the margin could be related to the text above and to the initial in particular, the whole perhaps functioning as an allusion to the trap awaiting the queen.

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