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Dr. Thomas Crofts publishes first English edition of obscure Arthurian poem
Dr. Thomas Crofts seated in his office, displaying an image of a page from the original Greek text of "The Old Knight."

JOHNSON CITY – He wasn’t looking for it, but Dr. Thomas Crofts stumbled across the seed of what would become an important contribution to the world of Arthurian literature in the form of a footnote.

After following that footnote and spending years in research, the East Tennessee State University Arthurian scholar has published the first English edition of a little-known poem in the journal Arthurian Literature.  Crofts’ work includes a critical introduction and images of the original medieval Greek text from the Vatican Library along with the facing-page English translation of “The Old Knight,” co-translated with Greek scholar Dimitra Fimi.

The text is a 307-line poem about a beating King Arthur and his knights take in an encounter with a mysterious, centenarian knight, according to Crofts, a professor of English and director of the Classical Studies minor in the ETSU Department of Literature and Language.

“It was really unexpected,” he said.  “I was reading about Italian Arthurian literature and saw a reference in a footnote about a Greek Arthurian poem.  I was instantly attracted to it, because Arthurian literature is my specialty and I studied Greek, which was not well known in medieval times.  People knew a lot of Latin, but not Greek.  So here was a great chance to bring my Greek into play.  It seemed like something I was cut out to do.”

While investigating the extent to which “The Old Knight” had been examined by scholars before, Crofts found that it had been edited by a German scholar in the mid-19th century, a French scholar in the 1930s and an Italian scholar in the 1990s, and no one had produced a critical edition of the Greek text in English.

Crofts learned that the Greek text of “The Old Knight” referenced in the footnote dated to the Italian renaissance of the 15th century.  He found that especially interesting since there were few elements of European literature that made their way into Greek literature at that time.  This, he says, was likely due to a divide between the Latin Middle Ages and the Greek Middle Ages that corresponded with the divide between the Western and Eastern churches, and as a result of the Crusades. 

Crofts believes the specific text probably originated as part of a textbook that was compiled after the last fall of Constantinople in 1453, when large numbers of Greek scholars fled to Italy to escape the Turks.  Many Italians wished to learn Greek, and so the scholars compiled hand-copied excerpts of famous works for their students to use, which Crofts says would be comparable to a professor teaching a class today using photocopied materials rather than textbooks.

“The manuscript that it’s part of in the Vatican Library is part of somebody’s homemade Greek book,” he said.  “I think that at some point, a Greek teacher said, ‘Let’s translate this Arthurian literature into Greek for an exercise.’  That’s a guess, but that’s the kind of activity they would’ve been doing.”

The text from which the Greek version came, Crofts said, is the first two chapters of a prequel to the Arthurian story penned by Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer perhaps best known for “The Travels of Marco Polo.”  His Arthurian work, written in French in the late 13th century, tells of King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, and the knights of his generation.

“The fun thing about our Greek poem is that it kind of pokes fun at King Arthur,” Crofts said.  “It shows him to be an over-the-top, grandiose blowhard, which might have been part of the Greek element.  King Arthur and his knights in this poem come out like spoiled little boys, which is pretty hilarious.  The main thing that happens is they get beaten up by a knight who’s 125 years old.”

With the aid of a $4,000 stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Crofts traveled to Italy, where he was based at the American Academy in Rome for his study of the manuscript at the Vatican Library. 

After undergoing what he calls “an incredibly scary vetting process” and undertaking many precautions necessary when handling ancient writings, Crofts had his opportunity for first-hand examination of the special poem, an experience he says never gets old.

 “You’re just sitting there with a 600-year-old manuscript,” he says, “thinking, ‘How did I get here?  I can’t believe they’re letting me touch this manuscript.  What are they thinking?’

“I’ve looked at old manuscripts in lots of libraries, but I never quite get used to that feeling you get when you’re looking at something that was done by a person – an individual – however many hundred years ago.  It’s amazing how intimate it is when you’re sitting with a manuscript.  It’s really unique.  If you have a copy of “All the Pretty Horses” or “Moby Dick,” it’s going to be just like the copy your friend has, word for word.  But every single medieval manuscript is different.  Every one of them is somebody’s project, and you really feel that strongly when you’re sitting there with one.”

Originally from San Antonio, Crofts did his undergraduate work at Bard College and earned a master’s degree at Trinity College, Dublin.  He went on to receive a second master’s and his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and taught for one year at the University of Oklahoma before joining the ETSU faculty in 2004.
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