1902 Encyclopedia > Grail (The Holy Grail)

(The Holy Grail)

GRAIL, or GRAYLE, THE HOLY (Saint Graal, Seynt Greal, Sangreal, Sank Ryal), the name given to the legendary wonder-working vessel said to have been brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Britain. The correct spelling is "Graal."

In the present article the subject will be considered under the following four heads :—(1) the meaning of the Graal conception; (2) the authorship of the conception : (3) the meaning of the word; (4) the spread of the conception from the land of its origin to other countries.

1. The "Saint Graal" was the name given—if not originally, yet very soon after the conception was started— to the dish, or shallow bowl (in French, escuelle), from which Jesus Christ was said to have eaten the paschal lamb on the evening of the Last Supper with his disciples. In the French prose romance of the Saint Graal, it is said that Joseph of Arimathea, having obtained leave from Pilate to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, proceeded first to the upper room where the supper was held and found there this vessel; then, as he took down the Lord's dead body, he received into the vessel many drops of blood which issued from the still open wounds in his feet, hands, and side. This last feature, which Tennyson in his beauti-ful idyll The Holy Grail has overlooked, is obviously of the essence of the conception. According to Catholic theology, where the body or the blood of Christ is, there, by virtue of the hypostatic union, are His soul and His divinity. That the Graal, such being its contents, should be marvellous— divine—mysterious, was but logical and natural. The Graal was " the commencement of all bold emprise, the occasion of all prowess and heroic deeds, the investigation of all the sciences, . . . the demonstration of great wonders, the end of all bounty and goodness, the marvel of all other marvels." Nasciens, taking off the paten which covered the Graal, comprehends innumerable marvels, but is struck blind. By the Graal Joseph's life is sustained in prison during forty-two years without food, while as an oracle it instructs him in heavenly knowledge. Nothing could be more fantastic and extravagant than all this, were the Graal conceived of merely as a relic, however venerable; but all is altered when it is brought into close relations, according to the design of its inventors, with the mystery of the eucharist.

2. The authorship of the conception involves one of the most difficult of literary questions. Mr Price, in the able and eloquent dissertation prefixed to vol. i. of Wartou's History of English Poetry, seems to maintain the view that it can be attributed to no individual, but was the spontane-ous outgrowth of a group of widely prevalent superstitions, in all which a magical cup or divining bowl was the central object. Others, as Fauriel, Simrock, and Schulz, find the original home of the legend in Provence. M. Paulin Paris, who has been engaged for nearly forty years in the study of Arthurian romance, and whose latest speculations (Romans ile la Table Ronde, v. 352) bear the recent date of 1876, is of opinion that the original conception came from some Welsh monk or hermit who lived early in the 8th century; that its guiding and essential import was an assertion for the British Church of an independent derivation of its Christi-anity direct from Palestine, and not through Rome ; that the conception was embodied in a book, called Liber Gradeáis or L)e Gradali; that this book was kept in abeyance by the British clergy for more than 300 years, from a fear lest it should bring theminto collision with the hierarchy and make their orthodoxy suspected; that it came to be known and read in the second half of the 12th century; that a French poet, Robert de Boron, who probably had not seen the book, but received information about it, was the first to embody the conception in a vernacular literary form by writing his poem of Josephe cVArimathie; and that, after Boron, Walter Map and others came into the field. Lastty, it is maintained, by English writers generally, that the conception arose certainly on British ground, but in the 12th century, not in the 8th ; that it was introduced by some master-hand, pro-bably that of Walter Map, into every branch of Arthurian romance; and that if Map was not the author of the conception, as seems highly probable, he first, by writing the French romances of the Saint Graal, the second part of Lancelot, and MoH Artur, invested it in literary form.

These theories cannot be discussed here ; but it may be remarked that, in order to pave the way for any rational theory, it is indispensable to have a clear view of the con-, dition of romance literature at and before the time when the conception arose. The legend of Arthur, which barely ; rises to the surface in the narrative of Gildas, had in the time of Nennius (9th century) attained to considerable consistency, and through the appearance of the Historia Britonum of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which everywhere excited an extraordinary sensation, had become European. To the Norman and French poets it had become known, long before the appearance of Geoffrey's book, through the Breton lays ; and the mysticism, the tender depths of senti-ment, the wild flights of imagination and fancy which were found in these lays, had so captivated and dazzled them as to induce them almost to desert their own rough Chansons de Geste, of which Charlemagne was the chief figure, for this new field. A succession of startling inci-dents, in which giants, knights, dwarfs, fairies, and goblins were actors, and a nature in mystic sympathy with man was the background, appealed to the feelings of wonder and awe; the instinct of revenge and the lust of war were gratified by battle-recitals innumerable, while around the chief characters of the legends there floated the rapture and the hyperbole of amorous passion. In the Brut of Wace, founded on Geoffrey's work, we find the story of Arthur in ample proportions, and the " Bound Table " appears for the first time—

" Fist reis Ertur la Runde Table, Dunt Bretun dient meinte fable."

The exuberance of invention here attributed to the Bretons was faithfully imitated by the poets of northern France. Chrestien of Troyes, born near the middle of the 12th century, besides versifying many tales from Ovid, re-produced parts of the Arthur legend in his poem on King Mark and Yseult the Blonde, and the Chevalier aw Lion. In these, however, there is no mention of the Graal. Sud-denly a narrative, possibly in Latin but more probably in French prose, makes its appearance, containing the story of the commission of the Holy Graal to Joseph of Arima-thea, as given above, of his subsequent adventures in Syria and elsewhere, and of the ultimate arrival of his son, his brother-in-law, and others of his kindred, in Britain, where they settle in the island of Avallon. The birth of Arthur is prophesied in this narrative, but otherwise he is scarcely mentioned. About the same time, the prose romances of Lancelot (part i.) and Tristan, containing rich develop-ments of the Arthurian legend, made their appearance and were warmly welcomed. The first is ascribed in the MSS. to Walter Map, and the second to Luc or Luces de Gast; but both statements, in the opinion of M. Paulin Paris, are extremely doubtful. At any rate, if Map wrote the first part of Lancelot, he continued and finished it in a totally different spirit. The first part is mere love and chivalry, " the most secular," says M. Paulin Paris, "of all romances"; while the second part is the most mystical of all. The first part contains no allusion to the Graal; in the second it is an element of overpowering interest. Lancelot joins in the quest for the Graal, fails to see it or only half sees it, repents, becomes a holy hermit, and dies. Tristan in its original form was the legend of a favourite Breton hero ; it was then connected with the cycle of Arthur; lastly, per-haps by the same powerful hand that transmuted Lancelot, it was brought within the sweep of the Graal conception.

But who invented the story of Joseph of Arimathea? or rather, who connected that story with the Graal legend, and I both with Arthur? The importance of a work of William of Malmesbury in assisting us to answer this question has been somewhat overlooked. In his treatise De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesue, written probably soon after Henry of Blois, abbot of Glastonbury, to whom it is dedicated, was raised to the see of Winchester (1129), Malmesbury records with considerable detail the legend which brought Joseph to Glastonbury, and made him the first preacher of Christianity to the Britons. Everything connected with Glastonbury had a duodenary character; Joseph was sent to Britain by St Philip the evangelist as the chief among twelve missioners ; the holy men who afterwards tenanted the abbey always sought to maintain the number of twelve ; Glasteing, from whom the place was named, was one of twelve brothers ; the chief estate of the abbey was called " the Twelve Hides," &c. This same feature distinctly reappears in the Graal legend, where Bron, the brother-in-law of Joseph, has twelve sons, who are all sent to Britain, but one among them, Alain, who renounces marriage, is set over the rest. Again, we read in Malmesbury that Avallon is another name for Glastonbury; and in the Graal legend we read that Joseph's kindred are directed by a divine voice to seek, in the far west, the " valleys of Avaron." Lastly, in the strange story about the altar called " sapphirus," which angels brought from Palestine to St David, and which after a long disappearance was rediscovered in Malmesbury's own day, we seem to lay our finger, as it were, on the origin, the rudimentary suggestion, of the Graal conception.

Now if we accept the general testimony of the MSS., and assume without further proof that Map composed, whether in Latin or in French, the original book of the Saint Gracd, the genesis of the work seems not difficult to trace. In early life Map was a canon of Salisbury (see Wright's preface to the De Nugis Curialium); either after-wards or at the same time he was parish priest of Westbury near Bristol. Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are both neigh-bouring counties to Somersetshire, in which Glastonbury was the most sacred and celebrated spot. Visiting that ancient abbey, Map would have become acquainted with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea in all its details; and he would have seen the altar said to have been transported by angels from Palestine, and which, long hidden from mortal sight on account of the wickedness of the times, had lately been revealed and reinstated. His versatile and capacious mind would, as a matter of course, have been familiar with the whole Arthur legend as it then (1170-1180) existed, if for no other reason, because he lived in the very part of England which was studded with Arthurian sites. He fully answers to the description of the " great clerks" who, according to Robert de Boron first made and told the his-tory of the Graal. He seems to have conceived the vast design of steeping the Arthurian legend, and through it the whole imaginative literature of the age, in the doctrine of the Christian sacrifice. He is generally credited in the MSS. with the composition of the Saint Graal (containing the legend of Joseph of Arimathea), of the Quest of the Saint Graal, of Lancelot in whole or in part, and of the Mort Artur. But it appears that no MS. of any of these romances now exists of an earlier date than 1274, and it is certain that a set of " arrangers" and continuators (like the rhapsodists and cyclic poets of the Homeric epos) com-menced their confusing operations on the legend at an early period. Hence it seems impossible now to recover the exact order in which the different romances were composed.

3. On the origin ot the word Graal, the opinion of M. Paulin Paris seems to be satisfactory. He thinks that graal is a corruption of gradale, or graduale, the Latin name for a liturgical collection of psalms and texts of scripture, so called " quod in gradibus canitur," as the priest is passing from the epistle to the gospel side of the altar. The author of the Graal conception meant by graal, or gradale, not the sacred dish (escuelle), but the mysterious book revealed to the supposed hermit of 7175 in which he finds the history of the escuelle. Robert de Boron, mistaking this, transfers the name to the dish, and connects it wdth grè (gratus, gratia) on account of the inward solace connected with it (see Romans de la T. R., i. 143). The word rapidly became popular in the sense of bowl, or shallow cup, so that Hélinand (1204) could say, " Dicitur vulgari nomine graalz, quia grata et acceptabilis est in ea comedenti." This etymology is the same as Boron's. The older French word greet, meaning service-book (Ducange, article " Gradale "), was displaced by the new graal or greal. On the other hand, M. Fauriel derives graal from an old Provençal word for a cup, grazed. But this grazal, according to the article in Ducange, seems to be of Armorican origin ; anyhow M. Fauriel has not proved its use in the sense of cup at a period earlier than the rise of the Graal legend.

4. The spread and ascendency to which the Graal con-ception rapidly attained in all Christian countries made the creations of Arthurian romance the delight of all cultivated minds, from Caerleon to Venice, and from Iceland to the Straits of Gibraltar. From England, which we must regard as the land of its origin, the Graal legend at once passed to France, and found an enthusiastic and capable interpreter in Robert or Robiers de Boron. This Boron was no Englishman of Nottinghamshire, as some English writers have pretended, but, as Paulin Paris conclusively proves, a French poet of the county of Montbeliard in the region of the Vosges. Chrestien de Troyes in his Percival (written before 1191, for it is dedicated to Count Philip of Flanders who died in that year), gives in a metrical dress the legend of Percival, one of the knights of the round table, under the transformation which the introduction of the Graal conception had effected. The continuations of the poem, by Denet and Manessier, come down to about 1240. The famous Mid-German poem of Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which appeared near the begin-ning of the 13th century, is founded partly on Chrestien's Percival, but partly also on some other, perhaps Provençal, source, which is now lost. A rude English metrical version of the French prose romance of the Saint Graal, by one Harry Lonelich, dating from the reign of Henry VI., has been recently edited by Mr Furnivall for the Roxburghe Club. Flemish, Icelandic, and Welsh reproductions of the Graal romances have been found to exist. One of the first employments of the printing press in England, France, and Germany was to multiply poems or romances embodying this legend. Hence Caxton printed for Sir Thomas Malory (1485) The Historié of King Arthur and his Noble Knightes, a version in English prose of the French romances of Merlin, Lancelot, Tristan, the Quête du Saint Graal, and Mort Artur, or at any rate based upon them. An early French edition of the Tristan, of which there is a copy in the British Museum, is dated 1489. Lancelot du Lac was printed at Paris in 1513; and not long afterwards editions of the Tristan and other portions of the Arthur cycle, always as interpenetrated by the Graal legend, appeared both in Italy and Spain (Schulz's Essay, p. 114).

See Paulin Paris, Les Manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Soi/aie, 1836, and Les Romans de la Table Ronde, 1868-77 ; Madden's Sir Gawayne, edited for the Bannatyne Club, 1839; the Seynt Graal (part i.), edited by F. Furnivall, with a prefatory essay on the Graal-saga by San "Marte (Schulz), 1861-3; several MSS. of the King's Library in the British Museum, Keg. 14 E. iii., 19 C. xii., 20 C. vi., &c.; Fauriel, Hist, de la Poésie Provençale; Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival und Titurel, edited by Pfeiffer, 1870 ; Warton's History of English Poetry, vol. i.; La France Littéraire, vol. xv.; Helinand's "Chronicles" (in Migne's Patrologie, vol. ccxii.) ; Schulz's Essay on the Influence of Welsh Tradition, Llandovery, 1841, &c, &c. (T. A.)

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