The Middle English romance Off Arthour and of Merlin (AM) has been somewhat overlooked in terms of narrative because the main story consists of a sequence of battles considered repetitive and therefore boring. Although it is true that the outcome of the battles is predictable (King Arthur and his knights will prevail), the text includes detailed descriptions and specific word choices of how this happens: Arthurian knights win because they have excellent fighting knowledge. Among them, Ywain, fighting to free London from the Saracens, demonstrates mastery of the blade from various binds (the time and position where opposing weapons are engaged). His skill is confirmed by the importance given to the topic in fight books.
A unique copy of the romance AM is preserved in the Auchileck Manuscript at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh under the signature Advocates’ MS 19. 2. 1. Written exclusively in English, it is of paramount importance for the history of English literature and literary taste in the first half of the fourteenth century. The manuscript is a miscellany of 44 secular and religious texts; among the former, there are eighteen romances. Linguistic, palaeographical, and internal evidence point to the origin of the manuscript being in London in the 1330s, where a rich merchant probably commissioned it.
Although in its current state the Auchinleck MS comprises 331 leaves of 250×190 mm, codicological studies of both the manuscript and fragments thereof have revealed that it originally contained at least 386 leaves of 264×203 mm. The manuscript was compiled on vellum by five or six scribes in 48 quires of eight leaves each (with the exception of one gathering of ten). Scribe α acted as the “editor” of the manuscript and wrote most of it. He also copied AM.
Although only surviving in the Auchinleck ms (fols 201rb-256vb), AM originates in late-thirteenth century London. The text, written in rhyming couplets and 9938 lines long, was introduced by an illumination, which has unfortunately been cut out (like many from the same manuscript). As a result, ten lines on the other side of the folio have been lost. A further 200 lines towards the end have also been lost due to a missing leaf; the text is otherwise intact and clearly readable.
The first third of the romance is concerned with the antecedents to Arthur’s reign and it is a close translation of the French Lestoire de Merlin. The remaining two thirds are more autonomous and describe Arthur’s early reign as a sequence of protracted battle scenes, starting with kings of various territories in Great Britain (whose leader is Lot) rebelling to Arthur’s right to rule. Although Arthur wins two battles, the Rebel Kings still refuse to recognise him as their leader. However, the British internal fights must cease when each king, Arthur as well, must fight separate battles against external invading forces: Danes, Irish, Saxons and Angles, who in the text are typically collectively named ‘Saracens’. The text focuses on two armies: one led by Arthur and the other by Gawain. Despite being Lot’s son, Gawain recognises Arthur legitimacy to rule. While Arthur is fighting in Leodegan’s lands (Leodegan is Guinevere’s father), Gawain, together with his brothers Gueheres, Agrevein, Gaheriet, and with his cousins Galathin and Yvain, leads an army in Arthur’s name to protect London. The romance ends with Arthur and Gawain being successful in freeing those key territories.
London is prominent in the romance. However, it is not described in detail and its political relevance is only inferred. Arthur holds court there for important and lavish occasions: he gives a feast ‘ƿat last ful fourten niȝt’ (l. 3582) and a tournament in honour of Ban and Bohort (two of his late father’s allies) joining his legitimacy cause; it is also there that he celebrates his second victory against the Rebel Kings with another 14-days long feast. Furthermore, London is where he prepares against the Saracens’ invasion by ordering that every town should be supplied with food and by appointing a constable for each of them; Arthur focuses on London first, choosing Sir Do, an earl who already has experience in running a town, to administer it, rather than a knight who had distinguished himself in battle.
The text also offers some clues on the considerable size and cultural aspects of the town. The number of pack-horses (700), of carts (700), and of wagons (500) that were meant to supply London with food (but were robbed by Saracens instead) speaks of a large population. As a big city, London has a lot to offer, which is why Gawain, his brothers, and cousins decide to reside there for months after the first battle.
The population itself, and perhaps a glimpse of its political structure, only makes an appearance during the first battle for London. Seeing that Gawain and his army are bravely fighting against the Saracens but that they are greatly disadvantaged in numbers (1200 against 7000), Sir Do gathers the aldermen at the assembly point at Aldgate and quickly convinces them to raise their banners and go in support of Gawain with an army of 5000 men in total (both citizens and knights) ‘[f]or alle chaunce Londen to kepe’ (l. 5126). Conversely, neither Sir Do nor the aldermen are mentioned as leaders of a London contingent in Gawain’s army in the second battle outside the town. The focus there is solely on Arthurian knights and their skills.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur, Gawain, and the other Arthurian knights win against the invaders. However, the text does not assume that they are better a priori: it demonstrates it by employing specific choices in vocabulary and fight descriptions. King Arthur and his knights are very skilled fighters and they have a deep knowledge of fighting practices.
During the final battle for the control over London, Gawain admires Yvain’s fighting skill: ‘He [Gawain] hadde wonder of his [Yvain’s] pruesse | Þat so leyd doun hard and nesse’ (ll. 8165-66). ‘Hard and nesse’ is interpreted by Macre-Gibson as ‘every sort of adversary’, meaning both strong and weak ones (‘nesse’ means ‘weak’, ‘pliant or yelding’). However, it is improbable that Gawain would commend Yvain for killing weak opponents; instead, it is much more likely that this sentence refers to Yvain’s ability to work from strong and weak binds. Simply put, depending on the circumstances, when two swords clash, the opponent can put a lot of pressure on the bind (i.e. a strong bind) or very little (i.e. a weak bind). A follow-up attack from a specific bind will not necessarily have a positive outcome if executed from a different one. Immediately performing a successful attack depending on the type of bind is not easy; it requires understanding of blade mechanics and training. In the late-fourteenth century glosses to Liechtenauer’s verses, the anonymous author of Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, ms 3227a writes that knowing how to act according to the situation (whether it is a weak or a strong bind) is essential.
Vor, noch, swach, stark, indes: an den selben woerten leit alle kunst meister lichtnawers und sint dy gruntfeste und der kern alles fechtens […] Dy weile her denne ieme noch an syme swerte ist, […] zo sal her gar eben fuelen und merken ab iener […] an syme swerte weich ader hert, swach ader stark sey.
[Before, after, weak, strong, indes: on these words lay master Liechtenauer’s entire art and they are the basis and core of all fencing […] While he [the fighter] is still on [the opponent’s] sword, […] he shall quite precisely feel and note whether the other is soft or hard, weak or strong on his sword.]
Just a couple of lines before Gawain’s assessment of his cousin’s fighting skill, the audience is told that Yvain kills many enemies in various ways: he cuts two enemies at the waist, decapitates other two, and inflicts fatal wounds to a fifth. This demonstrates that Yvain is able to employ different and successful techniques depending on the circumstances. By mentioning that he can use to his advantage both strong and weak binds and that he kills all his enemies, Yvain’s fighting skills are emphasised: he clearly knows what he is doing.
In Off Arthour and of Merlin, Arthurian knights save London from the invaders not because they are implicitly better fighters, but because they demonstrate better fighting skills and knowledge. This is achieved through the choice of specific vocabulary that finds parallels in fight books, and therefore by creating links and associations between two literary genres that approached martial culture from a different perspective. For Yvain, this is expressed through his mastery of the bind.
Macrae-Gibson, O. D., ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1979)
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalbibliothek, ms 3227a <http://dlib.gnm.de/item/Hs3227a> [accessed 18 August 2020]
Bliss, Alan Joseph, ed., Sir Orfeo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966)
Byrne, Aisling, ‘West and East: The Irish Saracens in Of Arthur and of Merlin’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 55 (2011), 217-229
Hanna, Ralph, ‘Auchinleck ‘Scribe 6’ and Some Corollary Issues’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 209-221
Liedholm, Astri, A Phonological Study of the Middle English Romance Arthour and Merlin (Ms Auchinleck) (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1941)
Loomis, Laura Hibbard, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 75: 3 (1942), 595-627
‘nesse’, in Middle English Dictionary [online], <https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED29350/track?counter=1&search_id=4141698> [accessed 18 August 2020]
Pearsall, Derek, and Cunningham, I. C. (eds), The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS 19.2.1 (London: Scholar Press, 1977)
Ramey, Lynn Tarte, Christians, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2001)
Sklar, Elizabeth, ‘Arthour and Merlin: The Englishing of Arthur’, Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 8: 1 (1975), 49-57
Schmidt, Herbert, Sword Fighting: An Introduction to Handling a Long Sword, trans. by David Johnston (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing)
 O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), II, p. 9; Astri Liedholm, A Phonological Study of the Middle English Romance Arthour and Merlin (Ms Auchinleck) (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1941), p. xxi.
 In The Sayings of the Four Philosophers there are ‘Anglo-Norman macaronics’ and Latin insertions are present in The Harrowing of Hell, Speculum Gy de Warewke, and David þe King (Derek Pearsall, and I. C. Cunningham (eds), The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS 19.2.1 (London: Scholar Press, 1977), p. viii).
 Alan Joseph Bliss, ed., Sir Orfeo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. ix-x; Laura Hibbard Loomis, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 75: 3 (1942), 595-627, p. 601; 627; Macrae-Gibson, II, p. 62; Pearsall and Cunningham, p. vii.
 A recent study proposes that the writing hand identified as the sixth actually should be understood as a second moment in scribe α’s writing (Ralph Hanna, ‘Auchinleck ‘Scribe 6’ and Some Corollary Issues’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 209-221).
 Pearsall and Cunningham, pp. vii-xvi.
 Elizabeth Sklar, ‘Arthour and Merlin: The Englishing of Arthur’, Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 8: 1 (1975), 49-57 (pp. 52-54).
 In high and late medieval literature, it is not unusual to find that the term ‘Saracens’ designates any type of foreigners, rather than a specific group of people from the Near East. In AM, this idea of otherness is strongly connected to the emerging sense of a national language and identity present both in other parts of the romance (cf. ll. 21-22: ‘Riȝt is ƿat Inglische vnderstond | ƿat was born in Inglond’; Macrae-Gibson, I, pp. 3-5) and in other Middle English texts of the same period: ‘Saracen’ means ‘the Other’, ‘the non-British’ (Aisling Byrne, ‘West and East: The Irish Saracens in Of Arthur and of Merlin’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 55 (2011), 217-229 (pp. 218-19); Lynn Tarte Ramey, Christians, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), p. 8).
 Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 205.
 Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 246.
 Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 325.
 Macrae-Gibson, II, p. 193.
 ‘nesse’, in Middle English Dictionary [online], <https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED29350/track?counter=1&search_id=4141698> [accessed 18 August 2020]).
 Herbert Schmidt, Sword Fighting: An Introduction to Handling a Long Sword, trans. by David Johnston (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing), pp. 30; 132.
 Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalbibliothek, ms 3227a, fol. 20r-v.
 Transcription and translation are mine. The editorial principles are the following: abbreviations have been silently expanded, the letters u and v have been modified according to modern standards, and the punctuation has been made in accordance with the translation.
 ll. 8153-58 (Macrae Gibson, I, pp. 324-25).