Holy Grail

Holy Grail
   The concept of the Holy Grail is intimately associated with the world of courtly culture, chivalry, and Christianity.While it may have its origins in Celtic mythology, the earliest references to the Grail can be found in medieval Latin sometime around 718 when the Grail was described as a kind of serving dish. The word appears in medieval courtly literature first in the decasyllabic (10-syllable lines) Roman d’Alexandre (1165–70) and in CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES’s PERCEVAL, or the Conte du Graal (The story of the Grail, ca. 1180). Here the young hero, Perceval, appears in the castle of his uncle, the wounded Fisher King, but he does not understand the situation there and does not ask his uncle, whom he does not even recognize as a relative, about his ailments or about who is served with the Grail, because of instructions about proper behavior at court that he had received prior to this encounter. Because Perceval fails to ask the crucial question, both the Grail and the entire company of Grail knights has disappeared the next morning. This failure forces Perceval to embark on a long and arduous quest for the true meaning of the Grail and of life. After a long quest, Perceval meets a hermit (another relative) who explains the Grail to him as the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper—apparently by this point he has acquired sufficient maturity and ethical understanding to receive this knowledge.But Chrétien’s text is incomplete. Perhaps it would have ended with Perceval assuming the throne of the Grail, as occurs in the third “continuation” of Chrétien’s text.
   After Chrétien, many reworkings of the Grail account appeared in the courts of both France and of Germany. Almost the same sequence of events as in Chrétien’s Perceval occur in WOLFRAM VON ESCENBACH’s PARZIVAL (ca. 1205), although here the criticism raised against Parzival has more to do with the social decline in communication, courtly mores, and the social contact among people. The quest for the Grail thus represents a quest for the healing of the rift between the misery of social reality and the ideals of knighthood. In France, ROBERT DE BORON (fl. 1180s–1190s) fully developed the Grail myth in his Joseph d’Arimathie, or Roman de l’estoire dou Graal, connecting it for the first time with Avalon at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, where a grave marked as King Arthur’s was purportedly discovered around 1190. The Grail, often in conjunction with a bleeding lance identified as the spear of Longinus, thus became an icon of medieval utopia, intimately connected with Christ’s passion and the notion of salvation from human suffering. The association of the Grail with the Last Supper is quite obvious, as is the association of the religious component with the secular aspect of medieval knighthood.
   In Robert’s text, the Grail, as a holy object, is the center piece of the Grail community established by Joseph of Arimathie and continued by a series of ideal knights. The Grail provides happiness for those who behold it and inspires them to accept the task of spreading Christianity in the world.Many other subsequent writers incorporated the Grail motif in their works, such as the authors of the Didot-Perceval (ca. 1195–1215), the First and the Second Continuator of Chrétien’s Conte du Graal, the authors of the VULGATE CYCLE, the prose Perlesvaus (ca. 1191–1212), the prose Welsh PEREDUR, the Old French prose Queste del Saint Graal (ca. 1215–30) with GALAHAD as its protagonist—which was later translated into Middle High German as the Prosa-Lancelot—then Heinrich von dem Türlin with his Middle High German composition in verse,Diu Crône (ca. 1220–40), and Claus Wisse and Philipp Colin with their Nüwe Parzefal (1331–36). One of the most ambitious Grail romances might have been Albrecht’s Jüngere Titurel (ca. 1250–70), consisting of 6,207 stanzas.
   Irrespective of its actual shape and form, either as an object or as an idea, the Grail symbolized the highest goal of late-medieval knighthood and represented the perfect union of the secular with the spiritual. Some historians have argued that the chalice today preserved in the cathedral of Valencia, Spain, which originated from Mont Salvador (1076–1399), might represent the original object venerated by medieval knighthood. More important, though, the Queste del Saint Graal and other versions of the Grail myth represent the attempt by representatives of the Cistercian order to integrate worldly knighthood into a religious quest for God and the defeat of evil.
   ■ Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
   ■ Groos, Arthur, and Norris J. Lacy, eds. and introduction. Perceval/Parzival: A Casebook. Arthurian Characters and Themes. New York: Routledge, 2002.
   ■ Lacy, Norris J. “The Evolution and Legacy of French Prose Romance.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, edited by Roberta L. Krueger, 167–182. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
   ■ Owen, D. D. R. “From Grail to Holy Grail,” Romania 89 (1968): 31–53.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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