Holy Grail, The

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The name of a legendary sacred vessel, variously identified with the chalice of the Eucharist or the dish of the paschal lamb, and the theme of a famous medieval cycle of romance. In the romances the conception of the Grail varies considerably; its nature is often but vaguely indicated, and in the case of Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval poem, it is left wholly unexplained. The meaning of the word has also been variously explained. The generally accepted meaning is that given by the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (d. c. 1230), who c. 717 mentions a hermit's vision concerning the vessel used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, and about which the hermit wrote a Latin book called "Gradale." "Now in French," so Helinandus informs us, "Gradalis or Gradale means a dish [scutella ], wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich successively [gradatim ], one morsel after another. In popular speech it is also called "Graalz, " because it is pleasing [grata ] and acceptable to him eating therein" (PL 212:814).

The medieval Latin word gradale became in Old French graal, greal, or greel, whence English grail. Some scholars derive the word from cratalis (crater, a mixing bowl). It certainly means a dish; the derivation from gradatim or from grata, suggested by Helinandus, is fanciful. The explanation of San greal as sang real (kingly blood) was not current until the later Middle Ages. Other etymologies that have been advanced may be passed over as obsolete.

When the literary tradition concerning the Grail is examined, it is noticeable at the outset that the Grail legend is closely connected with that of Perceval as well as that of King Arthur. Yet all these legends were originally independent. The Perceval story may have a mythical origin, or it may be regarded as the tale of one who, though a simpleton (OF nicelot ), nevertheless finally achieves great things. In all extant versions, the Perceval legend is a part of the Arthurian legend, and in almost all it is connected with the Grail. Reconstruction of the original Grail legend, accordingly, can be accomplished only by an analytical comparison of all extant versionsa task that has given rise to some of the most difficult problems in literary history.

The great body of the Grail romances developed between 1180 and 1240, and after the 13th century nothing essentially new was added. Most of these romances are in French, but there are versions in German, English, Norwegian, Italian, and Portuguese. These are of very unequal value as sources; some are mere translations or adaptations of French romances. All may be conveniently divided into two classes: those concerned chiefly with the quest of the Grail and with the adventures and personality of the hero of this quest; and those mainly concerned with the history of the sacred vessel itself. These two classes have been styled respectively the Quest and the Early History versions.


Of the first class are the Perceval, or Conte del Graal, of Chrétien de Troyes and his continuators, a vast poetic compilation of some 60,000 verses, composed between 1180 and 1240, and the Middle High German epic poem Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, written between 1205 and 1215, and based, according to Wolfram's statement, on the French poem of a certain "Kyot [Guiot] der Provenzâl," which, however, is not extant, if it ever existed. To these may be added the Welsh Peredur contained in the collection of tales called the Mabinogion (extant in MSS of the 13th century, though the material is certainly older), and the English poem Sir Perceval, of the 14th century. In these latter versions only the adventures of Perceval are related, no mention being made of the Grail.

Of the Early History versions, the oldest extant is the metrical Joseph, or Roman de l'estoire dou Graal, composed

between 1170 and 1212 by Robert de Boron. The MS containing this text follows it with the first 502 verses of an unfinished Merlin, and many scholars think that Robert had composed a trilogy of Grail romances, the third being a version of the Quest by Perceval. There is a complete version comprising these three parts (and perhaps derived from Robert's metrical trilogy) in the socalled Didot MS (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, n.a.f.4166) and in a MS in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena.

The most detailed history of the Grail is found in the Grand Saint Graal, also called L'Estoire del Saint Graal, a bulky French prose romance of the first half of the 13th century, where it says that Christ Himself presented to a pious hermit the book containing this history. This version is followed by a Merlin and a Queste del Saint Graal: it is well known to English readers because it was adapted almost in its entirety in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. The others are the so-called Didot Perceval, mentioned above, and the lengthy and rather prolix Perlesvaus.

The poem of Chrétien, regarded by many as the oldest known Grail romance, tells of Perceval's visit to the Grail castle, where he sees a graal, together with a bleeding lance and a silver plate, borne in by a damsel. The graal is a precious vessel set with jewels, and so resplendent as to eclipse the lights of the hall. Mindful of the teaching of his first instructor in knighthood who warned him against excessive speaking, Perceval does not ask the significance of what he sees, and thereby incurs guilt and later reproach.

Undoubtedly Chrétien meant to relate the hero's second visit to the castle when Perceval would have put the question and received the desired information. But the poet did not live to finish his story, and whether the explanation of the graal offered by his continuators is what Chrétien had in mind is doubtful. As it is, we are not informed by Chrétien what the graal signifies; in his version it has no explicit or even clearly implied religious character. In the Early History versions, however, it is invested with the greatest sanctity: it is the dish from which Christ ate the paschal lamb with his disciples and which passed into the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, to be used by him to gather the Precious Blood from Christ's body on the cross. It becomes identified also with the chalice of the Eucharist. The lance is identified as the one with which Longinus pierced Our Lord's side, and the silver plate becomes the paten covering the chalice. The quest in these versions assumes a most sacred character; the atmosphere of chivalric adventure in Chrétien's poem yields to a militant asceticism that insists not only on the purity of the quester, but also, in some versions (Queste, Perlesvaus ), on his virginity. In the Queste and the Grand Saint Graal, moreover, the hero is not Perceval but the maiden knight, Galaad. Other knights of the Round Table who participate in the quest achieve at best only a partial success.


In the Early History versions the Grail is intimately connected with the story of Joseph of Arimathea. When he is cast into prison Christ appears to him and gives him the sacred vessel through which he is miraculously sustained for 42 years, until liberated by Vespasian. The Grail is then brought to the West, to Britain, either by Joseph and Josephes, his son (Grand Saint Graal ), or by Alain, one of his kin (Robert de Boron). Galaad (or Perceval) achieves the quest; after the death of its keeper the Grail vanishes. According to the version of the Perlesvaus, Perceval is removed, no one knows whither, by a ship with white sails marked by a red cross. In the Guiot-Wolfram version we meet with a conception of the Grail wholly different from that of the French romances. Wolfram conceives of it as a precious stone, lapis exillis, of special purity, possessing miraculous powers conferred upon it by a consecrated Host that a dove brings down from heaven and lays upon it each Good Friday, thus endowing it with the power to feed the whole brotherhood of the Grail. It is guarded in the splendid castle of Munsalvaesche (mons salvationis or silvaticus? ) by a special order of knights, the Templeisen, chosen by the Host and nourished by its miraculous power.

The relationship of the Grail versions to each other, especially that of Chrétien to those of Robert de Boron and the Queste, is a matter of dispute, and their relative chronology is uncertain. But in all these versions the legend appears in an advanced state of development. Its preceding phases, however, are not attested by extant texts and can, therefore, only be the subject of conjecture.


The origin of the legend is involved in obscurity, and scholars hold various views. An Oriental, a Celtic, and a purely Christian origin have been claimed. But the Oriental parallels, like the sun table of the Ethiopians, the Persian cup of Jamshīd, and the Hindu paradise, Cridavana, are not very convincing, and Wolfram's statement that Guiot's source was an Arabic manuscript of Toledo is open to grave doubt. The theory of a Celtic origin seems better founded. There are undoubtedly Celtic elements in the legend as we have it; the Perceval story is probably, and the Arthurian legend certainly, of Celtic origin, and both these legends are intimately connected with the quest story. Talismans, such as magic lances and food-giving vessels, figure prominently in early Celtic narratives of mythological origin. Some scholars hold that the Peredur (in the Mabinogion ) version, with its simple story of vengeance by means of talismans and its lack of religious significance, would yield the version nearest to the original form of the Perceval legend. Back of the quest story would be some pre-Christian tale of a hero seeking to avenge the injury done to a kinsman. The religious element would then be secondary and would have come into the legend when the old vengeance tale was fused with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, essentially a legend of the conversion of Britain.

Argument for Christian Origin. Those who maintain the theory of a purely Christian origin regard the religious element in the story as fundamental and trace the leading motifs to Christian ideas and conceptions. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which was in vogue in the 12th century, particularly in Britain, tells how Joseph in prison was miraculously fed by Christ Himself. Additional traits were furnished by the Vindicta Salvatoris, the legendary account of the destruction of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Joseph was confused with the Jewish historian, Flavius josephus, whose liberation by Titus is narrated by Suetonius. The food-producing properties of the vessel can be explained, without resorting to Celtic parallels, by the association of the Grail with the Eucharist, which gives spiritual nourishment to the faithful and in many saints' lives is said to have been their sole physical nourishment as well. According to this theory, the purely Christian legend that thus had arisen became the generally accepted version of the evangelization of Britain, and then developed on British soil, in Wales; this accounts for its undeniably Celtic stamp. In the 13th century, the Abbey of glastonbury combined the story of Joseph of Arimathea with its own older version of the evangelization of Britain, and so became a powerful instrument in the propagation of the legend of Joseph's evangelization of England, which was accepted as historical fact for at least two centuries.

The fully developed Grail legend was later on still further connected with other legends, as in Wolfram's poem with that of Lohengrin, the swan knight, and also with that of prester john, the fabled Christian monarch of the East. Here also the story of Klinschor, the magician, was added. After the Renaissance the Grail legend, together with most medieval legends, fell into oblivion, from which it was rescued when the Romantic Movement began at the beginning of the 19th century. The most famous modern versions are Tennyson's "Holy Grail" in the Idylls of the King (1869), and Wagner's music drama, the festival play Parsifal, produced for the first time at Bayreuth in 1882.

Attitude of the Church. It would seem that a legend so distinctively Christian would find favor with the Church, but it did not. Excepting Helinandus, clerical writers do not mention the Grail (although the apocryphal Joseph of Arimathea and other legends were widely adopted), and the Church completely ignored it, for the legend contained elements the Church could not approve. Its sources are in survivals of pagan heathendom and in apocryphal, not canonical, scripture, and the claims of sanctity made for the Grail were refuted by their very extravagance. Moreover, the legend claimed for the Church in Britain an origin well-nigh as illustrious as that of the Church of Rome, and independent of Rome. It was thus calculated to encourage and to foster any separatist tendencies that might exist in Britain. The whole tradition concerning the Grail is of late origin and on many points at variance with historical truth.

Bibliography: Texts. chrÉtien de troyes, Der Percevalroman del Graal, ed. a. hilka (1932), v.5 of Sämtliche Werke, ed. w, foerster, 5 v. (Halle 18841932); Le Roman de Perceval, ed. w. j. roach (Paris 1956; 2d ed. 1959); The Story of the Grail, tr. r. w. linker (Chapel Hill 1952). Perceval. Continuations of the Old French Perceval, ed. w. j. roach (Philadelphia 1949); The Didot Perceval according to Manuscripts of Modena and Paris, ed. w. j. roach (Philadelphia 1941); The Romance of Perceval in Prose: A Translation of the E Manuscript of the Didot Perceval, tr. d. skeels (Seattle 1961). r. de boron, Le Roman de l'estoire dou Grand, ed. w. a. nitze (Paris 1927). Perlesvaus. Le Haut livre du graal, ed. w. a. nitze and t. a. jenkins, 2 v. (Chicago 193237); The High History of the Grail, tr. s. evans (New York 1903). King Arthur. L'Estoire del Saint Graal and les aventures ou la queste del Saint Graal, v.1 and 6 of The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. h. o. sommer, 8 v. (Washington 190816). La Queste du Saint-Graal, ed. a. pauphilet (Melun 1949). w. von eschenbach, "Parzival," in v.1 of Wolfram von Eschenbach, ed. k. lachmann (7th ed. Berlin 1952); Parzival, tr. h. m. mustard and c. e. passage, (pa. New York 1961). t. malory, "The Tale of Sankgreal," Works, ed. e. vinaver, 3 v. (Oxford 1947) v.2. "Peredur," in The Mabinogion, tr. t. and g. jones (New York 1949) 183227. General Studies. r. s. loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol (New York 1963), the best recent study. j. marx, La Légende arthurienne et le Graal (Paris 1951), useful review and critical studies of the Grail texts with outlines of all the principal texts in an appendix. h. h. newstead, Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance (New York 1939), the Welsh prototype of the Grail King in the various versions. Colloques internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 3: Les Romans du Graal aux XIIe ? et XIIIe siècles (Paris 1956), discusses various aspects and problems of the legend. r. s. loomis, ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford 1959) general discussion of the various Grail texts.

[h. c. gardiner;

j. misrahi]

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