The Holy Grail: Part 2 – Medieval Associations

Agate bowl at the Hofburg museum, thought to be the origin of the Holy Grail stories. Image is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Agate bowl at the Hofburg Museum in Vienna, thought to be the origin of the Holy Grail stories. Image is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, we looked at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail stories. This week, we’ll see how it came to be the story we know today.

Medieval Tales
By the time Chretien de Troyes came on the scene in the 1100s, the world was a much different place than in Celtic myth. For one, Christianity had taken over as the main religion of Britain. For another, the ideas of chivalry and courtly love were beginning to become popular. In Chretien’s tale, Perceval finds the grail (which is written with a small “g” and isn’t given miraculous powers). There is little description, only that it was brought into the room by a beautiful maiden. “When she entered holding the grail, so brilliant a light appeared that the candles lost their brightness like the stars or the moon when the sun rises” (quoted in Matthews 84). The story features a wounded king like the later Fisher King, a procession and questions that must be asked of the grail, but the whole story appears to be unfinished. Many speculate that Chretien died before completing it (a fear of every single writer who ever lived).

Many people believe Chretien’s grail to be more of a dish or plate than a cup or chalice. (Side note, when I was 11, I was lucky enough to visit Austrian relatives in Vienna. We visited the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburgs. In the museum, there is an agate dish said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s also said to have been one of the inspirations for the Holy Grail.)

Vision of the Holy Grail. Tapestry from Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. William Morris [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Vision of the Holy Grail. Tapestry from Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. William Morris [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Three people attempted to finish what Chretien started. Gautier de Danans has both Perceval and Gawain encounter the Grail, which is now clearly associated with Jesus, and also with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side (the Spear of Destiny, which can trace its mythological origins back to the spear of the Celtic god Lugh, but that’s another story). Matthews makes the point that the Christianization of the Grail shouldn’t be surprising because many of the men who expanded on the Celtic legends were Christian monks and priests (88).

The next person to add to the story was named Menasier. He identifies the spear with the centurion Longinus (Roar, anyone?) and drawing on an earlier story called Joseph of Arimathea, associates the Grail with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have used it to catch the blood of Jesus while preparing his body to be placed in the tomb. Around the same time, Gerbert de Monteille changed the ending to the story, having Perceval sire a line of Grail knights, a story that would later inspire Wager’s opera Parsifal.

The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legend is five interconnected stories that tell the entire story of King Arthur. This story is attributed to Cistercian monks in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The introduction says the author had a vision of Christ in which He gave the author a book detailing the history of the Holy Grail, beginning with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In these stories, new elements include the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the line of Grail kings, the Maimed King and the Wasteland. The third story in the series introduces the relationship between Lancelot and Elaine, which results in the birth of Galahad, who will go on to be the new hero of the Grail Quest.  By the fourth story, Galahad has his Grail procession vision and the quest as we know it begins. Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad all have adventures on the quest, and the Round Table is for the first time associated with “three great fellowships and tables” (Matthews 106), the other two being the those of the Last Supper and the Holy Grail. After many adventures, Christ appears with the Grail and gives the three knights a chance to drink from it. The last work in the cycle is primarily concerned with the story of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. These five stories would go on to influence Malory, who would rework them into Morte D’Arthur, the story that is perhaps most recognizable to us today.

Next week, other associations with the Grail and a very strange theory involving a saint and a famous mystical work.

Sources
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Grail

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5 thoughts on “The Holy Grail: Part 2 – Medieval Associations

  1. Although I love the legends, I cannot help but wonder why there is so much myth about that period. ‘Arthur’ was around in the 5th/6th centuries. Christianity had been the main religion for probably 3 centuries until the godless Saxons arrived. Remember Pelagius was a Briton and remember his teachings a century before ‘Arthur’. Remember also that Bishop Germanus visited Britain at least once to stamp out our version of Christianity and impose the Catholic version. Remember we did not believe in original sin and also believed in equality of the sexes, yet there was no chivalry or ‘nobles’ then. We are talking about a time when Britain as well as most of Europe were engulfed by climatic disasters, plague and extreme poverty.

    I sometimes wonder whether the legends were simply a method of taking people’s minds off what was happening in the times they were written about. Perhaps an 11th century soap opera? But I still enjoy your posts, Nicole!

    • Hi Tim,

      From everything I’ve read, we can’t know for sure when Christianity became the main religion of Britain. It became the official religion of Rome under Constantine, but there is much speculation that Britain was late to adopt on a large scale it due at least in part to the remoteness of its location and that missionaries like St. Patrick were few and far in between. The Saxons weren’t the first pagan group to inhabit Britain, so the 4th & 5th centuries would likely have been a time of religious transition and upheaval. There are many sources that actually credit the Celts with inventing the idea of chivalry (though not in as pronounced a form as it would hold in the Middle Ages). By the post-Roman period, there was most certainly a ruling class that could be called nobility (depending on your definition of the word) and they were the ones who fought over power when Rome departed, and from whom (if you believe Arthur was/could have been real) Arthur likely would have arisen (if not from the warrior class, which in many cases was one in the same as the nobility). You can call them tribal leaders if you like, but the historians I’ve read portray them somewhere in between that and the clearly defined system of kings, overlords and lords of the feudal system.

      As to the “why” of the legends, you’re probably right. They would have at least, in part, been stories told to help people forget the misery of everyday life. I think as humans, we’ve always had a desire to mythologize our heroes – human or no – to make them larger than life (look at Washington and Lincoln in the US). And there’s also the human tendency to embellish stories as we retell them. Do that for a few hundred years, mix in faulty memories, and you’re likely to end up with a big legend. In the mid-Middle Ages, we know for sure they were written as entertainment because the writers began to stop trying to cloak them in history like Bede, Nineus and some of the earlier writers did.

      Thanks for your comments, Tim. I’m glad that while we may not always agree, you enjoy reading the posts.

  2. Pingback: The Holy Grail: Part 3 – St. Teresa of Avila & Other Associations « Through the Mists of Time

  3. Pingback: The Holy Grail: Part 3 – St. Teresa of Avila & Other Associations « Through the Mists of Time

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