Since 1930 “Arthurian congresses” have been held by what later became the International Arthurian Society (IAS). This society consists of scientists in a variety of fields (linguistics, archeologists, etc.) who have an interest in the Grail-romances and -histories. For the first time in the existence of the IAS the congress was held in the Netherlands in july 2005. The Society was also interested in an exhibition of Dutch Arthurian scriptures, so they approached the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. This library -as reader of these pages will know- mostly focusses on Western esoteric, especially Rosicrucian and Hermetic texts. Because of the esoteric contents of the Grail-romances and their influence on later groups, the BPH also has several of these ancient texts. The IAS thought that the library founded by Joost Ritman was a good place for an intimate exhibition and so it happened that from 25 july to 22 october 2005 a small exhibition with old Arthurian texts can be visited in the wonderfull Amsterdam library. Following BPH customs, a catalogue of the exhibition is available which is the subject of this review.
The exhibition’s oldest item is a 1136 copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Further to be seen are Tristan texts, of course Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, but also Middle-Dutch texts and histories such as Jacob van Maerlant’s Spiegel Historiael. From then on, the exhibition works all the way to the previous century with the famous drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Some books look magnificent, orther are highly affected by time. Also worth mentioning are the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ shoes! The items come from the BPH itself, but also from many other museums and private collections, so you can say that this exhibition is really unique!
Both the exhibition and the catalogue are highly informative. Each item is shortly elucidated and the different sections in the catalogue are each introduced at length, giving the history of the Grail-stories, how they were written and copied by hand, how they spread and survived to the present day. Also you can see/read how the Arthurian legends still appeal to us modern men. The best of it, this 70-pages, full-colour catalogue costs only E 10,-, so be sure to get your copy before they are all gone. Also be sure to pay a visit to the exhibition before it is over too. See www.ritmanlibrary.nl for more information about visiting the library.