The anonymous prose romance of Perceforest with lyrical interludes of poetry, in six books, appears to have been composed in French in the Low Countries between 1330 and 1344. It forms a late addition to the cycle of narratives with loose connections both to the Arthurian cycle and to the feats of Alexander the Great. The Manuscript C, written by David Aubert around 1459–1460 for Philippe le Bon, Duc de Bourgogne, is the most complete of the four manuscripts known to us. Written in more or less 531 chapters, Perceforest pretends to give us a Genesis of the Arthurian World.
Perceforest is composed of six books that describe a fictional origin of Great Britain, taking its inspiration from Wace, Orosius, Bede, Geoffroy of Monmouth. Alexander, having conquered Britain, departs for Babylon, leaving Perceforest in charge. Perceforest, so named because he dared to "pierce" the evil forest, as king of Britain introduces the Christian faith and establishes a Franc Palais of free equals—the best knights—with clear parallels to the Round Table. "Thus the romance would trace back the model of ideal civilization that it proposes, a model also for the orders of chivalry created from the 14th century onwards, to a legendary origin where the glory of Alexander is united with the fame of Arthur." (Voicu 2003,2014)
An elaborate frame story tells how the "Greek" manuscript was discovered by count William of Hainault in a cabinet at “Burtimer” Abbey; in the same cabinet was deposited a crown, which the count sent to king Edward.
Printing history and translations
Perceforest was first printed in Paris in 1528, as La Tres Elegante Delicieux Melliflue et Tres Plaisante Hystoire du Tres Noble Roy Perceforest in four volumes. In 1531 it was printed in Italian. A Spanish translation is also known. An 800-page abridged English translation/precis appeared in 2011.
Reception at various points in history
According to the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, "it was read in France, and in northern Germany was performed as a pre-Lenten Shrove Tuesday drama in the mid-1400s." Charles IX of France was especially fond of this romance: four volumes of Perceforest were added to the Royal library at Blois sometime between 1518 and 1544, and were shelved with the Arthurian romances. The romance was known and referred to in 14th-century England.
Perceforest, like other late Gothic romances, was vaguely remembered but largely unread until the late 20th century: earlier and High Medieval literature have previously taken center stage. Readers of the Age of Enlightenment were not always delighted with Perceforest when they came upon it. The hero of Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), an early example of the Gothic novel, confesses that
- "Donna Rodolpha's Library was principally composed of old Spanish Romances: These were her favourite studies, and once a day one of these unmerciful Volumes was put regularly into my hands. I read the wearisome adventures of 'Perceforest,' 'Tirante the White,' 'Palmerin of England,' and 'the Knight of the Sun,' till the Book was on the point of falling from my hands through Ennui."
Gérard de Nerval, in a fictional letter published as part of his Angélique (1850), tells of an antiquary who fears for the safety of the valuable first printed edition of Perceforest at the hands of a rioting mob.
- Bryant, Nigel (2011). Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur's Britain. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-262-0.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 26, 2000. Retrieved 2005-01-31.
- The Monk, (vol. II, chapter 1).
- Myriam Yvonne Jehenson, "Quixotic Desires or Stark Reality?", the "Sleeping Beauty" episode mentioned.
- Dr Helen Nicholson, "What was a Medieval woman?", includes excerpts.
- Gilles Roussineau, Le Roman de Perceforest, 2001, ISBN 2-600-00620-6. Roussineau identified the Perceforest origins of "Sleeping Beauty" in "Tradition Littéraire et Culture Populaire dans L'Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine (Perceforest, Troisième partie): Version Ancienne du Conte de la Belle au Bois Dormant," in Arthuriana (Spring 1994): pp30 – 45.
- Mihaela Voicu, Histoire de la littérature française du moyen âge, xii.1, Bucharest, 2003 e-text (in French)
- Les pièces lyriques du roman de Perceforest, éd. Jeanne Lods, Genève, Droz (Publications romanes et françaises, 36), 1953
- Le roman de Perceforest, Première partie, éd. Jane H. M. Taylor, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 279), 1979,
- Perceforest, Quatrième partie, tome I, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 343), 1987
- Perceforest. Troisième partie, tome I, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 365), 1988
- Perceforest. Troisième partie, tome II, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 409), 1991
- Perceforest. Troisième partie, tome III, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 434), 1993
- Perceforest. Deuxième partie, tome I, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 506), 1999
- Perceforest. Deuxième partie, tome II, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes littéraires français, 540), 2001
- Perceforest. Première partie, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz (Textes Littéraires Français, 592), 2007, 2 tomes (ISBN 978-2-600-01133-4)
- Perceforest,Cinquième partie, éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz, 2012, 2 t., CLXXII-1328p.
- Perceforest,Sixième partie,éd. Gilles Roussineau, Genève, Droz, 2014, 2t., 1428 p.
- Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur's Britain, tr. Nigel Bryant, Cambridge and Rochester, Brewer (Arthurian studies, 77), 2011, xxiii + 791 p.
- Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur's Britain',' tr. Nigel Bryant, Cambridge and Rochester, Brewer (Arthurian studies, 77), 2011, xxiii + 791 p.
- Ms C: Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal 3483-3494