1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Grail, The Holy

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GRAIL, THE HOLY, the famous talisman of Arthurian romance, the object of quest on the part of the knights of the Round Table. It is mainly, if not wholly, known to English readers through the medium of Malory’s translation of the French Quête du Saint Graal, where it is the cup or chalice of the Last Supper, in which the blood which flowed from the wounds of the crucified Saviour has been miraculously preserved. Students of the original romances are aware that there is in these texts an extraordinary diversity of statement as to the nature and origin of the Grail, and that it is extremely difficult to determine the precise value of these differing versions.[1] Broadly speaking the Grail romances have been divided into two main classes: (1) those dealing with the search for the Grail, the Quest, and (2) those relating to its early history. These latter appear to be dependent on the former, for whereas we may have a Quest romance without any insistence on the previous history of the Grail, that history is never found without some allusion to the hero who is destined to bring the quest to its successful termination. The Quest versions again fall into three distinct classes, differentiated by the personality of the hero who is respectively Gawain, Perceval or Galahad. The most important and interesting group is that connected with Perceval, and he was regarded as the original Grail hero, Gawain being, as it were, his understudy. Recent discoveries, however, point to a different conclusion, and indicate that the Gawain stories represent an early tradition, and that we must seek in them rather than in the Perceval versions for indications as to the ultimate origin of the Grail.

The character of this talisman or relic varies greatly, as will be seen from the following summary.

1. Gawain, included in the continuation to Chrétien’s Perceval by Wauchier de Denain, and attributed to Bleheris the Welshman, who is probably identical with the Bledhericus of Giraldus Cambrensis, and considerably earlier than Chrétien de Troyes. Here the Grail is a food-providing, self-acting talisman, the precise nature of which is not specified; it is designated as the “rich” Grail, and serves the king and his court sans serjant et sans seneschal, the butlers providing the guests with wine. In another version, given at an earlier point of the same continuation, but apparently deriving from a later source, the Grail is borne in procession by a weeping maiden, and is called the “holy” Grail, but no details as to its history or character are given. In a third version, that of Diu Crône, a long and confused romance, the origin of which has not been determined, the Grail appears as a reliquary, in which the Host is presented to the king, who once a year partakes alike of it and of the blood which flows from the lance. Another account is given in the prose Lancelot, but here Gawain has been deposed from his post as first hero of the court, and, as is to be expected from the treatment meted out to him in this romance, the visit ends in his complete discomfiture. The Grail is here surrounded with the atmosphere of awe and reverence familiar to us through the Quête, and is regarded as the chalice of the Last Supper. These are the Gawain versions.

2. Perceval.—The most important Perceval text is the Conte del Grael, or Perceval le Galois of Chrétien de Troyes. Here the Grail is wrought of gold richly set with precious stones; it is carried in solemn procession, and the light issuing from it extinguishes that of the candles. What it is is not explained, but inasmuch as it is the vehicle in which is conveyed the Host on which the father of the Fisher king depends for nutriment, it seems not improbable that here, as in Diu Crône, it is to be understood as a reliquary. In the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the ultimate source of which is identical with that of Chrétien, on the contrary, the Grail is represented as a precious stone, brought to earth by angels, and committed to the guardianship of the Grail king and his descendants. It is guarded by a body of chosen knights, or templars, and acts alike as a life and youth preserving talisman—no man may die within eight days of beholding it, and the maiden who bears it retains perennial youth—and an oracle choosing its own servants, and indicating whom the Grail king shall wed. The sole link with the Christian tradition is the statement that its virtue is renewed every Good Friday by the agency of a dove from heaven. The discrepancy between this and the other Grail romances is most startling.

In the short prose romance known as the “Didot” Perceval we have, for the first time, the whole history of the relic logically set forth. The Perceval forms the third and concluding section of a group of short romances, the two preceding being the Joseph of Arimathea and the Merlin. In the first we have the precise history of the Grail, how it was the dish of the Last Supper, confided by our Lord to the care of Joseph, whom he miraculously visited in the prison to which he had been committed by the Jews. It was subsequently given by Joseph to his brother-in-law Brons, whose grandson Perceval is destined to be the final winner and guardian of the relic. The Merlin forms the connecting thread between this definitely ecclesiastical romance and the chivalric atmosphere of Arthur’s court; and finally, in the Perceval, the hero, son of Alain and grandson to Brons, is warned by Merlin of the quest which awaits him and which he achieves after various adventures.

In the Perlesvaus the Grail is the same, but the working out of the scheme is much more complex; a son of Joseph of Arimathea, Josephe, is introduced, and we find a spiritual knighthood similar to that used so effectively in the Parzival.

3. Galahad.—The Quête du Saint Graal, the only romance of which Galahad is the hero, is dependent on and a completion of the Lancelot development of the Arthurian cycle. Lancelot, as lover of Guinevere, could not be permitted to achieve so spiritual an emprise, yet as leading knight of Arthur’s court it was impossible to allow him to be surpassed by another. Hence the invention of Galahad, son to Lancelot by the Grail king’s daughter; predestined by his lineage to achieve the quest, foredoomed, the quest achieved, to vanish, a sacrifice to his father’s fame, which, enhanced by connexion with the Grail-winner, could not risk eclipse by his presence. Here the Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper, is at the same time, as in the Gawain stories, self-acting and food-supplying.

The last three romances unite, it will be seen, the quest and the early history. Introductory to the Galahad quest, and dealing only with the early history, is the Grand Saint Graal, a work of interminable length, based upon the Joseph of Arimathea, which has undergone numerous revisions and amplifications: its precise relation to the Lancelot, with which it has now much matter in common, is not easy to determine.

To be classed also under the head of early history are certain interpolations in the MSS. of the Perceval, where we find the Joseph tradition, but in a somewhat different form, e.g. he is said to have caused the Grail to be made for the purpose of receiving the holy blood. With this account is also connected the legend of the Volto Santo of Lucca, a crucifix said to have been carved by Nicodemus. In the conclusion to Chrétien’s poem, composed by Manessier some fifty years later, the Grail is said to have followed Joseph to Britain, how, is not explained. Another continuation by Gerbert, interpolated between those of Wauchier and Manessier, relates how the Grail was brought to Britain by Perceval’s mother in the companionship of Joseph.

It will be seen that with the exception of the Grand Saint Graal, which has now been practically converted into an introduction to the Quête, no two versions agree with each other; indeed, with the exception of the oldest Gawain-Grail visit, that due to Bleheris, they do not agree with themselves, but all show, more or less, the influence of different and discordant versions. Why should the vessel of the Last Supper, jealously guarded at Castle Corbenic, visit Arthur’s court independently? Why does a sacred relic provide purely material food? What connexion can there be between a precious stone, a baetylus, as Dr Hagen has convincingly shown, and Good Friday? These, and such questions as these, suggest themselves at every turn.

Numerous attempts have been made to solve these problems, and to construct a theory of the origin of the Grail story, but so far the difficulty has been to find an hypothesis which would admit of the practically simultaneous existence of apparently contradictory features. At one time considered as an introduction from the East, the theory of the Grail as an Oriental talisman has now been discarded, and the expert opinion of the day may be said to fall into two groups: (1) those who hold the Grail to have been from the first a purely Christian vessel which has accidentally, and in a manner never clearly explained, acquired certain folk-lore characteristics; and (2) those who hold, on the contrary, that the Grail is aborigine folk-lore and Celtic, and that the Christian development is a later and accidental rather than an essential feature of the story. The first view is set forth in the work of Professor Birch-Hirschfeld, the second in that of Mr Alfred Nutt, the two constituting the only travaux d’ensemble which have yet appeared on the subject. It now seems probable that both are in a measure correct, and that the ultimate solution will be recognized to lie in a blending of two originally independent streams of tradition. The researches of Professor Mannhardt in Germany and of J. G. Frazer in England have amply demonstrated the enduring influence exercised on popular thought and custom by certain primitive forms of vegetation worship, of which the most noteworthy example is the so-called mysteries of Adonis. Here the ordinary processes of nature and progression of the seasons were symbolized under the figure of the death and resuscitation of the god. These rites are found all over the world, and in his monumental work, The Golden Bough, Dr Frazer has traced a host of extant beliefs and practices to this source. The earliest form of the Grail story, the Gawain-Bleheris version, exhibits a marked affinity with the characteristic features of the Adonis or Tammuz worship; we have a castle on the sea-shore, a dead body on a bier, the identity of which is never revealed, mourned over with solemn rites; a wasted country, whose desolation is mysteriously connected with the dead man, and which is restored to fruitfulness when the quester asks the meaning of the marvels he beholds (the two features of the weeping women and the wasted land being retained in versions where they have no significance); finally the mysterious food-providing, self-acting talisman of a common feast—one and all of these features may be explained as survivals of the Adonis ritual. Professor Martin long since suggested that a key to the problems of the Arthurian cycle was to be found in a nature myth: Professor Rhys regards Arthur as an agricultural hero; Dr Lewis Mott has pointed out the correspondence between the so-called Round Table sites and the ritual of nature worship; but it is only with the discovery of the existence of Bleheris as reputed authority for Arthurian tradition, and the consequent recognition that the Grail story connected with his name is the earliest form of the legend, that we have secured a solid basis for such theories.

With regard to the religious form of the story, recent research has again aided us—we know now that a legend similar in all respects to the Joseph of Arimathea Grail story was widely current at least a century before our earliest Grail texts. The story with Nicodemus as protagonist is told of the Saint-Sang relic at Fécamp; and, as stated already, a similar origin is ascribed to the Volto Santo at Lucca. In this latter case the legend professes to date from the 8th century, and scholars who have examined the texts in their present form consider that there may be solid ground for this attribution. It is thus demonstrable that the material for our Grail legend, in its present form, existed long anterior to any extant text, and there is no improbability in holding that a confused tradition of pagan mysteries which had assumed the form of a popular folk-tale, became finally Christianized by combination with an equally popular ecclesiastical legend, the point of contact being the vessel of the common ritual feast. Nor can there be much doubt that in this process of combination the Fécamp legend played an important rôle. The best and fullest of the Perceval MSS. refer to a book written at Fécamp as source for certain Perceval adventures. What this book was we do not know, but in face of the fact that certain special Fécamp relics, silver knives, appear in the Grail procession of the Parzival, it seems most probable that it was a Perceval-Grail story. The relations between the famous Benedictine abbey and the English court both before and after the Conquest were of an intimate character. Legends of the part played by Joseph of Arimathea in the conversion of Britain are closely connected with Glastonbury, the monks of which foundation showed, in the 12th century, considerable literary activity, and it seems a by no means improbable hypothesis that the present form of the Grail legend may be due to a monk of Glastonbury elaborating ideas borrowed from Fécamp. This much is certain, that between the Saint-Sang of Fécamp, the Volto Santo of Lucca, and the Grail tradition, there exists a connecting link, the precise nature of which has yet to be determined. The two former were popular objects of pilgrimage; was the third originally intended to serve the same purpose by attracting attention to the reputed burial-place of the apostle of the Grail, Joseph of Arimathea?

Bibliography.—For the Gawain Grail visits see the Potvin edition of the Perceval, which, however, only gives the Bleheris version; the second visit is found in the best and most complete MSS., such as 12,576 and 12,577 (Fonds français) of the Paris library. Diu Crône, edited by Scholl (Stuttgart, 1852), vol. vi. of Arthurian Romances (Nutt), gives a translation of the Bleheris, Diu Crône and Prose Lancelot visits.

The Conte del Graal, or Perceval, is only accessible in the edition of M. Potvin (6 vols., 1866–1871). The Mons MS., from which this has been printed, has proved to be an exceedingly poor and untrustworthy text. Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, has been frequently and well edited; the edition by Bartsch (1875–1877), in Deutsche Classiker des Mittelalters, contains full notes and a glossary. Suitable for the more advanced student are those by K. Lachmann (1891), Leitzmann (1902–1903) and E. Martin (1903). There are modern German translations by Simrock (very close to the original) and Hertz (excellent notes). English translation with notes and appendices by J. L. Weston. “Didot” Perceval, ed. Hucher, Le Saint Graal (1875–1878), vol. i. Perlesvaus was printed by Potvin, under the title of Perceval le Gallois, in vol. i. of the edition above referred to; a Welsh version from the Hengwert MS. was published with translation by Canon R. Williams (2 vols., 1876–1892). Under the title of The High History of the Holy Grail a fine version was published by Dr Sebastian Evans in the Temple Classics (2 vols., 1898). The Grand Saint Graal was published by Hucher as given above; this edition includes the Joseph of Arimathea. A 15th century metrical English adaptation by one Henry Lovelich, was printed by Dr Furnivall for the Roxburghe Club 1861–1863; a new edition was undertaken for the Early English Text Society. Quête du Saint Graal can best be studied in Malory’s somewhat abridged translation, books xiii.-xviii. of the Morte Arthur. It has also been printed by Dr Furnivall for the Roxburghe Club, from a MS. in the British Museum. Neither of these texts is, however, very good, and the student who can decipher old Dutch would do well to read it in the metrical translation published by Joenckbloet, Roman van Lanceloet, as the original here was considerably fuller.

For general treatment of the subject see Legend of Sir Perceval, by J. L. Weston, Grimm Library, vol. xvii. (1906); Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail, by A. Nutt (1888), and a more concise treatment of the subject by the same writer in No. 14 of Popular Studies (1902); Professor Birch-Hirschfeld’s Die Sage vom Gral (1877). The late Professor Heinzel’s Die alt-französischen Gral-Romane contains a mass of valuable matter, but is very confused and ill-arranged. For the Fécamp legend see Leroux de Lincey’s Essai sur l’abbaye de Fescamp (1840); for the Volto Santo and kindred legends, Ernest von Dobschütz, Christus-Bilder (Leipzig, 1899). (J. L. W.) 

  1. The etymology of the O. Fr. graal or greal, of which “grail” is an adaptation, has been much discussed. The Low Lat. original, gradale or grasale, a flat dish or platter, has generally been taken to represent a diminutive cratella of crater, bowl, or a lost cratale, formed from the same word (see W. W. Skeat, Preface to Joseph of Arimathie, Early Eng. Text Soc.).—Ed.