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 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Vision of the Holy Grail. Tapestry from Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. William Morris [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], 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.

King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews

Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 2)

When last we met, Geoffrey of Monmouth had set many of our traditional ideas about King Arthur and his court in place, and Wace introduced us to the Round Table. But there were still plenty of changes in store to the legends. Without further ado, here’s a look at some of the later medieval sources that shaped Arthurian legend.

Chertien de Troyes – Ah, yes, where would the great romance of Arthurian legend be without the French? Chertien was a 12th century poet who gave the legends a softer side that would have the ladies swooning for centuries by adding in the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot. He also gave us the Grail Quest (what would Monty Python do without him?) and the stories of many of the knights’ adventures.

Layamon –  His Brut, based on the similarly named work by Wace (remember him from last week?), introduced the Lady of the Lake, who was an elf named Argante.

The Vulgate Cycle – This 13th century collection was written down by Cistercian monks. Given that, its likely not a surprise that it was in this cycle when Morgan falls from grace, going from the benevolent healer/priestess of earlier legend to Arthur’s evil, incestuous sister. These monks also gave us Lancelot’s life story and adventures, details of the Grail Quest, the characters of Nimue and/or Viviane (they are sometimes interchangeable, sometimes different people, depending on the author), and the theme of the maimed Fisher King and the Wasteland that must be restored.

Thomas Malory – Come on, admit it – you’ve been waiting for me to cover him. Thanks to his 1470 work Le Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), we have a popular notion of King Arthur as the greatest Christian King to ever rule England. (How many of you had to read Le Mort in school? Raise your hand. Mine is raised.) Malory firmly cemented Arthur in the Middle Ages, which is one reason why a lot of people have a hard time thinking of him as a historical Celt. He is also responsible for popularizing Guinevere’s kidnapping by Maleagant, making Morgan a shape-shifter and….drumroll, please…giving us the hope that Arthur may come again when Britain most needs him. The musical Camelot, and frankly the rest of us who dabble in the legends, owe him and his forebears a lot.

With Malory’s seminal work, the legends as we know them today were pretty much in place. Interest in them waned after the 1500s until Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote his famous Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shallot (among others) in the mid-1800s. These words rekindled an interest in Arthur and his court that lasts even to this day.

So, having been through the historical and literary sources behind the legend, tell me your reaction.  What have you learned? Personally, I find it fascinating to watch the legends evolve. Which parts do you like the best? Where do you think they’re going in the future?