Melech Artus
Hebrew: "King Arthur"
Cod. Vat. Hebr. Urbino 48, ff.75-77

A rare Hebrew Arthurian romance, dated by its author to 1279. It was composed by an Italian Jew, who retells a much-condensed version of the French Vulgate.

The focus of the text is two incidents from the Vulgate--the seduction of Igrane and birth of Arthur, and the story of Lancelot. Much of the story is taken as common knowledge, which may speak for the author's audience. The Quest for the Grail is alluded to, but the main focus of the text is on the illicit affair of Lancelot and Guenevere.

The text itself is defective, and ends in the middle of the story of Lancelot and Elaine of Astolat.

Though largly a retelling, the text has a few interesting elements. First are the numerous allusions to Hebrew scripture; the author borrows phrases and themes from Esther, Kings, Chronicles, and other Biblical books, as well as focusing on the already-popular French notion that Lancelot was descended of King David. As such, our anonymous author was able to make the stories of medieval British kings and knights familiar to his Italian Jewish readers.

The second interesting element are the names: first, Arthur's name is given as Artusin, deriving from the art Merlin used to transform Uther Pendragon. This is later shortened to Artus.

Secondly, in the story of the tournament at Astolat, we are given names for the lord and his family, a feature not seen in other versions. The lord of Astolat is named Lanval, which is an obvious borrow from Marie de France's lai. His sons--the brothers of Elaine--are named Karavoç--a borrowing from the French Caradoc, itself a borrow from the Welsh Caradawg--and Edelpert. Edelpert is a construction on the part of the translator, however--the letters given are ADLPRT, though the P may also be translated as an F, and the A being aleph is left open to interpretation.

Finally, there is a curious bit of serendipity regarding the Holy Grail. The author refers to the Quest of the Dish: the word "dish" is tamchuy. The tamchuy is a charity bowl from which food is distributed to the poor and needy. The tamchuy is closer to the shape of a platter, which is ultimately how Chretien describes the graal. The word was likely chosen because of its association with charity and food, which fits with the nature of the Grail in European literature, but is not thought to be influenced by Chretien's physical description of the Grail.

Anonymous. King Artus : a Hebrew Arthurian romance of 1279. edited and translated with cultural and historic commentary by Curt Leviant. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

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Mary Jones © 2006