Bemidji State languages professor gives new life to ancient manuscript

BEMIDJI, Minn. (April 18, 2011) — This June, an 800-year-old tale recounting the exploits of Sir Lancelot will gain new life thanks to a Bemidji State University professor’s decade-long editing and translation project.

Dr. Kathleen Meyer, professor of languages and ethnic studies, has completed work on “German Romance IV: Lanzelet,” which provides a full English translation of the story alongside a newly edited version of the piece in its original Middle High German. It is the first side-by-side Middle High German-and-English version of the work to be published.

The original work, “Lanzelet,” by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, dates from the late 12th or early 13th century, around the years 1195-1200. That work is itself a translation of a story that originated in Anglo-Norman England, although that original French version has never been located.

It presents the story of Sir Lancelot, called “Lanzelet,” focusing on his knightly and romantic exploits on his way to discovering his true identity. He discovers his identity as the nephew of King Arthur, wins the affections of his wife, Iblis, and departs to join his uncle’s royal court. The second half of the story revolves around Lanzelet’s efforts to defend the honor of the Arthurian court, twice rescuing Arthur’s wife Guinevere in heroic fashion. Lanzelet eventually establishes his own kingdom with his wife, where they die of old age on the same day.

“Lanzelet” is notably different from the traditional portrayal of Sir Lancelot from Arthurian legends, as it makes no mention of Lancelot’s affairs with Guinevere and portrays the knight as a flawless character from the outset rather than as a heroic figure who falls from grace. Still, it features all of the traditional elements of romantic tales from the period, including mystical forces, sexual escapades and plenty of combat.

“It’s different from any other Lancelot story, and that’s intriguing,” Meyer said. “Nobody really knows how this story came about, or even if the original story came before or after the story of Lancelot that we already know. It’s a change from tradition, and it really is a puzzle as to how this story came to be.”

Meyer has a long history with this work, having done previous scholarly research and writing on the piece before tackling this translation. She first learned of the story during a 1987 summer seminar on medieval French literature at Princeton University. There, Meyer heard a professor describe the ribald tale as “something jocks would tell in a locker room.” Intrigued, she immediately set out to find the story.

From there, Meyer went on to publish several articles and stories about the piece. Around 1999 or 2000, through an existing contact with a publisher who had knowledge of her interest in the piece, Meyer was asked if she’d be interested in tackling this project.

“In a moment of weakness I said yes, not quite realizing what I was getting myself into,” Meyer joked.

She spent nearly an entire year on sabbatical reconstructing the 9,400-line story by hand in its original Middle High German, using two complete manuscripts and four other fragments as source material. Working from paper copies of a complete manuscript supplied to her on microfilm as a starting point, Meyer carefully rebuilt the story, line-by-line, comparing the microfilm copy with another copy she found online and to the four fragments. As she worked her way through the tale, decisions had to be made on which spelling of a particular word to use and how sentences were to be structured grammatically, with every change meticulously recorded in footnotes.

“The only way to get an electronic version of the story was to type it,” Meyer said. “I felt like a monk, copying the entire manuscript by hand.”

The work not only helped Meyer gain a completed original text, but an appreciation for the scribes who originally put the story to paper some eight centuries previously. She noted that the manuscript she used from the microfilm had been written by two different scribes, with notable differences in style. The two scribes traded off on the manuscript no less than five times.

“The scribe who started was more careful,” she said, “The second scribe worked faster and made more mistakes and had more erratic spelling. It made me wonder why they would’ve been changing the way they were. Did the first person get sick? Was the second scribe an apprentice who was learning how to do this? We’ll never know, but it was interesting to speculate what might have been going on.”

The translation was done in concert with the assembly of the original German, with assistance from an editor based in England and another scholar who Meyer noted had more experience than she working with ancient manuscripts.

Now that this chapter of her lengthy relationship with von Zatzikhoven’s story  has been completed, Meyer is ready to move forward. Her future plans involve more research into this work with the hope of learning more about its mysterious French origin.

“I want to research some French Anglo-Norman literature that originated in England,” she said. “I want to see if I might be able to find some connections to the original story.”

Meyer has been on the faculty at Bemidji State University since 1990 and was promoted to full professor in 1996. From 1998-2006 she served as department chair for the University’s Department of Modern Languages, and she has been chair of the Department of Languages and Ethnic Studies since 2009. She has been a member of the University’s Honors Council since 1995 and on the International Studies Council since 1998.

Prior to joining the faculty at Bemidji State, Meyer spent 13 years at North Dakota State University, chairing that school’s modern languages department from 1984-87 and spending one year as assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 1989-90.

Meyer earned her bachelor’s degree from Macalester College and holds master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Kansas.

“German Romance IV: Lanzelet” will be published in June, 2011, as part of publisher D.S. Brewer’s “Arthurian Archives” series. It is available for pre-order at