Legends of the Grail: The Chivalric Vision

Originally printed in the November - December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ralls, Karen. "Legends of the Grail: The Chivalric Vision." Quest  91.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2003):210-215.

By Karen Ralls

Karen RallsThe Grail and the quest for it have gripped the Western imagination possibly more than any other legendary tradition. It "is the embodiment of a dream, an idea of such universal application that it appears in a hundred different places . . . Yet, although its history, both inner and outer, can for the most part be traced, it remains elusive, a spark of light glimpsed at the end of a tunnel, or a reflection half-seen in a swiftly-passed mirror" (Williams, Elements 1). Though usually thought of as a medieval theme, it is very much alive today like the memory of the Knights Templar, which also continues to hold our fascination. Both the Grail legends and the Templar mythos have resonated through the centuries. And despite the lack of concrete historical evidence, people have tried to link the two in various ways even believing that the Templars had the Grail.

Like the Ark of the Covenant, the Grail is presented as profoundly mysterious. It can be dangerous, even deadly, to certain people with good reason, tradition says. Some people see the Grail, but others don't. To those who do, it often appears surrounded by brilliant light, sometimes carried by a beautiful maiden, in other accounts moving by itself in midair. In the end, it may be not an object at all but a spiritual treasure—the truth and love of God.

The era of the Grail Romances

Despite the enormous antiquity of the Grail material, it did not appear in literary form by and large until the Grail romances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Given the complexities of medieval dating, scholars cannot always determine the precise date for a manuscript; they can say, however, that many Grail romances were written between 1190 and 1240—within the Templar Order's era. Many were authored by monks, in particular, Cistercians and Benedictines. These two Orders, though associated in some ways, were distinct from each other as well as from the Templar Order. There is no historical evidence that a Templar wrote a Grail romance, although some romances have Templar-related themes and details.

The years 1190-1240 fall during the High Middle Ages, one of the great experimental and creative epochs in European history. This period saw not only the writing of the Grail romances and the rise and fall of the Templar Order but also—among other things—construction of the High Gothic cathedrals, the peak of the cult of chivalry, a tremendous upsurge in pilgrimage, the great popularity of the Black Madonna shrines, the troubadours and the Courts of Love, and the rise of certain Hermetic and alchemical themes after a period of dormancy in the West. This cluster of cultural phenomena, expressing the spirit of the times, was contemporaneous with such political and social developments as the Crusades, the signing of the Magna Carta, the time of the Cathars, and the growth of the famed universities of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna—and the lives of such figures as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and St. Francis. Historians note that the quest for knowledge and the arts during this time was nothing short of phenomenal. It was an era of extraordinary flowering.

The notion of a single Grail story is a common present-day misconception. There is no such thing.The Grail romances are many and varied and often do not agree with each other. One could say there is a general, prototypical Grail story, but even that must be an amalgamation of themes, people, and places from different manuscripts. Another popular misconception is that the Knights Templar are the same as the Arthurian knights of the Round Table. This is not the case.

Remarkably, however, the first Grail romance, like many of the first Templar knights, came from the area around Troyes, Champagne.

With both subjects—the Templars and the Grail legends—Troyes seems to figure prominently.

Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron

One of the earliest known instances of the Grail motif in writing is Le Conte du Graal,written by Chrétien de Troyes in 1190, just a few decades after the Templar Order's founding.Chrétien's main character, Perceval, is a guileless knight, the archetypal Fool, whose primary trait is innocence. He sees the Grail during a feast at "a mysterious castle presided over by a lame man called the Fisher King . . . Chrétien calls the object simply 'un graal,' and its appearance is just one of the unusual events which take place during the feast . . . at this time, Perceval is also shown a broken sword which must be mended. The two objects together, sword and grail, are symbols of Perceval's development as a true knight" (Wood, The Holy Grail 171).

Unfortunately, Chrétien died before he could finish his story, so other writers attempted to complete it. These versions, called the Continuations, embellish the tale and bring in other Grail themes, such as the Grail floating on a platter in midair, the bleeding lance, the broken sword, and the curious theme of the Chapel of the Black Hand, where a mysterious hand continuously snuffs out the candles. As more Continuations were written, other details—such as the magic chess board, the spear, the cup, and the Precious Blood—were added, and Perceval has even more challenging adventures. In one Continuation, a lady at the Chapel of the Black Hand offers Perceval a white stag's head and a dog, which he loses and must find again before he can return to the Grail castle. Once a certain broken sword is mended, Perceval "as grail ruler heals the land. After seven years he retires to a hermitage, and when he dies, the grail, lance and dish go with him"(Wood 171).

Burgundian poet Robert de Boron wrote two Grail romances, Joseph d'Arimathie and Merlin—his most famous works—sometime between 1191 and 1200. Walter of Montbeliard, his patron—who, like Chrétien's patron, was a crusader—commissioned de Boron to write both. De Boron gives a definitively Christian tenor to his Grail story, presenting the knights' quest as a spiritual search rather than the usual courtly adventure undertaken for a lady's love or the king's honor. In Joseph d'Arimathie, which scholars now believe may have been written in Cyprus, Pilate gives the cup used at both the Last Supper and the Crucifixion to Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is later put in prison, where he has a vision:

Christ brings the grail to Joseph in prison where it sustains him and teaches him its secrets.Joseph is freed by the emperor Vespasian who has been cured by Veronica's veil (another mysterious relicassociated with Christ's passion) . . . Joseph establishes a second table of the grail, and Bron catchesa fish which is placed on the table and separates the just from the unjust. The object is called the Holy Grail

Alain, the leader of Bron's twelve sons, goes to Britain to await the "third man" (Perceval?) who will be the permanent keeper of the grail (Wood 172).

Bron then becomes the Fisher King, and Joseph returns to Arimathea. Bron himself eventually goes to Britain, taking the Grail with him.

Early thirteenth-century prose versions of Robert de Boron's works link the Grail story more closely with Arthurian legend. Diu Krone, by Heinrich von dem Turlim, presents Sir Gawain as the hero, while the Cistercian Queste del Saint Graal features Galahad. In the latter, the quest for the Grail becomes a search for mystical union with God. Only Galahad can look directly into the Grail and behold the divine mysteries. The Queste presents Galahad as the son of Lancelot, thus contrasting chivalry inspired by divine love, as with Galahad, against that inspired by human love, as between Lancelot and Guinevere. This is the best-known version of the Grail story in the English-speaking world. It was the basis for Sir Thomas Malory's famous late-fifteenth-century prose work Le Morte d'Arthur—in turn, the story-line source for much of the film Excalibur and the musical Camelot.

The Many Forms of the Grail

Various Grail romances present the Grail as different objects: a cup or chalice, a relic of the Precious Blood of Christ, a cauldron of plenty, a silver platter, a stone from Heaven, a dish, a sword, a spear, a fish, a dove with a communion Host in its beak, a bleeding white lance, a secret Book or Gospel, manna from Heaven, a blinding light, a severed head, a table, and more. Indeed, a truth about the Grail is that it takes different forms. In Chrétien's Le Conte du Graal, the Grail is a platter bearing a single Eucharist wafer. Robert de Boron's account introduces the Grail as the chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper. In the Queste del Saint Graal it is the dish from which Jesus ate the Passover lamb, which now holds the Eucharist wafers. Wolfram von Eschenbach presents it as a luminous pure stone. The anonymously written Perlesvaus describes it as five different things. There is no single Grail story, and no single Grail—this point cannot be emphasized enough.

The Grail can manifest differently to each seeker. It can be an earthly object, which may or may notbe endowed with sacrality; it may be the goal of a spiritual search. Ultimately, it remains a mystery."So the pointers to the Grail may only suggest a path to a beatific vision of its manifestations. Each finder discovers a unique insight into the divine . . . Through the control of the body and the refining of the spirit, an understanding of self might be followed by a revelation of the divine. To attain the ever-changing Grail is to search deep within and so reach out to a personal path to God" (Sinclair, Discovery of the Grail 124).

The Grail as a Stone

Wolfram clearly identifies the Grail in his account as a stone: "A stone of the purest kind . . . called lapsit exillas . . . There never was human so ill that if he one day sees the stone, he cannot die within the week that follows . . . and though he should see the stone for two hundred years [his appearance] will never change, save that perhaps his hair might turn grey" (Matthews, Elements 52-3). The term lapsit exillas can be translated as either "stone from Heaven" or "stone from exile"—which some scholars believe could mean a meteorite. Later in the story Wolfram says the Grail stone is an emerald that fell from Lucifer's crown during the war in Heaven; angels who took neither side in that war brought it to earth, where it remains.

The hermit Trevrizent tells Parzival that the Grail guardians, the Templeisen, living at the Grail castle exist by virtue of this stone alone. Some analysts believe this relates to the idea of manna, the special food from Heaven that sustained the ancient Israelites as they wandered in the desert. So also, the Grail knights receive their only nourishment from a divine source. They exist on its luminosity and holiness, and it sustains them physically, rewarding them, as Wolfram points out, with perpetual youth. It can also heal the sick.

When Parzival arrives at Trevrizent's hermitage, he seems unfamiliar with Christian customs.Trevrizent shows him the chapel and stresses that it happens to be Good Friday, so the altar has been stripped bare and no consecrated Host is left there. (The centuries-old custom in the Catholic Church was to "banish the Host" on Good Friday. Since the Vatican II Council, the Host is no longer banished but is removed to a darkened "altar of repose" until Easter morning.) Trevrizent says that on Good Friday at the Grail castle, a dove descends from Heaven and deposits a wafer on the lapsit exillas. This empowers the stone to provide continual nourishment for the Templeisen.

Various writers through the centuries have suggested that the Grail as a stone refers to the famed philosopher's stone, lapis elixir, mentioned in alchemical writings. French Celtic scholarJean Markale comments:

There is first of all an alchemical allusion, lapis exillis being quite close tolapis elixir, which is the term used by the Arabs to designate the Philosopher's Stone. Next the stone of the Grail guarded by angels irresistibly summons thoughts of the Ka'aba stone in Mecca . . . One is reminded in particular of the tradition that states that the Grail was carved into the form of a vessel from the gigantic emerald that fell from Lucifer's forehead . . . In addition, Wolfram's Grail/Stone bears a great resemblance to the Manichaean jewel, the Buddhist padma mani, the jewel found in the heart of the lotus that is the solar symbol of the Great Liberation and which can also be found in the Indian traditions concerning the Tree of Life (Markale, Grail 133-4).

Wolfram's stone could also derive from the legendary lapis exilii, the Stone of Death. Wolfram tells us that a phoenix sits on the luminous stone and is burned to ashes and reborn there—an echo of the alchemical theme of death and rebirth.

Templar-Related Elements in the Grail Romances

What kinds of connections exist among the Templars, the Grail, and the Grail romances? The historical record provides no evidence that a Templar wrote a Grail romance—or that the Templar Order ever possessed the Grail, though people through the centuries have been certain they did have it. We do know, however, that some of the romance authors' patrons were crusaders, though not necessarily Templars, and that these writers certainly knew of the Templars'achievements in the Holy Land. And a number of Templar-related themes and details appear in some Grail romances, ranging from symbolism to the portrayal of the perfect knight to important concepts of chivalry and chivalric behavior.

The Grail and Templar themes mingle the most closely in Wolfram's Parzival. Wolfram is the only Grail romance writer to intimate that his Grail guardians were Templar knights. The medieval German word for "Templars" was Tempelherren, but scholars generally acknowledge Wolfram intended his Templeisen to be viewed as Templars. Parzival's unique focus on the Templars may be partly because both Wolfram and his patron, Hermann I of Thuringia, were drawn to the East. In an earlier work, Willeham, Wolfram shows sympathetic interest in Muslim culture. Hermann I, a promoter of the knightly ideal, himself took up the cross and went on the German crusade of 1197-98. He was also fascinated by astrology, which was gaining popularity in twelfth-century European courts following the influx from Spain of Arabic texts in Latin translation (Nicholson, Love, War, and the Grail 108). Scholars believe Wolfram's Mount of Salvation—on which the Grail castle sits and where the Templeisen live—is a veiled allusion to Mount Sion in Jerusalem, since the original nine Templars lived on the Temple Mount. However, unlike the Templars, his Templeisen's shields bear a turtle dove—a symbol of peace, not holy war.

Wolfram portrays Parzival as related to the Arthurian line through his father and to the Grail family through his mother. Wolfram's Grail family is not the courtly society of Arthurian legend but a divinely chosen vehicle in world affairs, comprising the Templeisen and others whom the Grail silently selects to carry on its tradition. Women are included in the Grail family. Although Wolfram mentions a Grail succession, he also says the Grail lineage derived from it is a secret only the angels know. Certain people are assigned, by God through the Grail, to guard the Grail for posterity, thereby reuniting humanity with God, that is, "restoring the wasteland."

The early-thirteenth-century Old French Arthurian romance Perlesvaus, known also as The High Book of the Grail, was authored by a cleric with Benedictine connections (Bryant). In this tale, the Grail castle sits in both the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem—an idea with obvious Templar connotations. Perlesvaus (Perceval), is a knight of Christ, though not explicitly a Templar. He travels overseas to an island where he visits the Castle of the Four Horns. Here he encounters thirty-three men in white robes with red crosses on their chests, like the medieval Templars' dress. His own shield displays a red cross with a gold border around it, similar but not identical to the historical Templars' shield. Perlesvaus stresses throughout the idea of holy war against the infidel—clearly mirroring the Crusades, in which the Templars played a starring role. It relates Arthur and his knights' efforts to impose by force the New Law of Christianity in place of the Old Law. Atypically for a Grail romance, Arthur's knights are portrayed collectively as a kingdom, not as individuals on their own quests. This resembles the Templar Order's underlying ethos, where the group's intention is more important than an individual's personal quest.

The Queste del Saint Graal, written by a Cistercian monk in 1215 for another crusader patron, Jeande Nesle, makes numerous allusions to the Templars. The star of this romance is Galahad—here a descendant of King Solomon—who is devout, chaste, and destined from birth to achieve the Grail.Galahad isn't called a Templar; he is a secular knight. However, at a monastery of white brothers he receives a white shield with a red cross on it that once belonged to Joseph of Arimathea—perhaps because he is portrayed as a direct descendant of Joseph through his mother. The medieval Cistercians were called the White Monks, and the Templars' white mantle was marked with a red cross.

While in Perlesvaus the Grail castle is Jerusalem, in the Queste the Grail knights go to Jerusalem with the Grail, but only after they complete their quest. When Galahad, Perceval, and Bors reach the Grail castle, they encounter nine more knights who have achieved the Grail. One has to wonder if this is a veiled reference to the original nine Templars. All twelve knights then celebrate communion, and Christ himself is the priest—a reenactment of the Last Supper. Galahad, after eating the consecrated host administered by Christ, has a vision of himself as Christ crucified and dies in ecstasy before the altar. Grail scholar R. S. Loomis comments: "In this celestial liturgy Christ is the officiant as well as the victim . . . Presumably it is [the] well-established belief in the presence of angelic visitants at the celebration of the Eucharist and in the assumption of the priestly office by Christ Himself which has led to the introduction of these two features . . . [in the Queste's] reenactment of the Last Supper" (Loomis, The Grail 193-4).

The great Cistercian abbot St. Bernard in mystical states sometimes experienced himself as Christ crucified. In his famous Sermons on the Song of Songs he discusses extraordinary mystical experiences, some involving the mysteries of the consecrated Host, or Eucharist "bread." He refers to "Solomon's bread," an Israelite forerunner of the Christian Eucharist that often induced mystical experiences." Seeing oneself as Christ crucified, especially after ingesting the consecrated Host, was central to the Syriac Mystery of the Cross. Theologian Dan Merkur writes:

It is significant that Bernard began the very first of his Sermons with series of a llusions to the Eucharist. Among them was a discussion of Solomon's bread . . . Bernard was privy to the mystery of manna. He knew of a bread that had had use as a mystical sacrament in the temple of Solomon. How did Bernard come by his knowledge of manna? A passage in the fifty-second Sermon tends to indicate that Bernard was familiar with internal controversies in the Syriac mystical tradition. By the late seventh century Syrian mystics had developed alternative techniques for the performance of the Mystery of the Cross (Merkur, The Mystery of Manna 106).

That Bernard knew of mystical experiences concerning the consecrated Host with roots going back to the time of Solomon's temple is amazing enough. Note too that the Queste's author was also a Cistercian; the Templars and Cistercians were closely connected, especially in France; and Bernard was active in both Orders. Clearly these links formed a web of associations. We know some Templars spent time in Syria; they may have learned about the Syriac Mystery of the Cross from fellow Christians there.

The figure of Galahad in the Queste underscores the secular ideal of Christian knighthood and chivalrous behavior. It is the nonmonastic Galahad—not a Templar—who is the successful Grail knight. He embodies the perfect Christian knight, perhaps even as the Templars conceived this. Yet he dies not in glory on a battlefield but in the Grail castle. Perhaps the Queste's Cistercian author is saying one can reach Christian chivalrous impeccability without joining a military religious Order. Or perhaps he is suggesting that a knight must seek salvation on his own, not as part of an enclosed community. Rather than fighting the enemies of Christ on the battlefield, the task is to slay one's own demons within and perfect one's character.

Bernard's teachings describe a person's progress toward spiritual perfection as a series of states of grace. The Queste, heavily influenced by Bernard's views, presents Galahad's quest for the Grail in similar terms. He is portrayed, as the Templars are portrayed, as striving for knightly perfection in word and deed. However, the mystery of the Grail is in fact found at another level of experience, as an ineffable inner knowing. Nearly all the romances agree on this. It is this aspect of the Grail that beckons many to their own spiritual journeys today.


Karen Ralls, Ph. D., FSA Scot., is an Oxford based medieval historian and Celtic scholar. She was Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Curator of the Rosslyn Chapel museum exhibition. She lectures worldwide and is author of The Quest for the Celtic Key, Music and the Celtic Otherworld and Indigenous Religious Music. This excerpt is from her latest book The Templars and the Grail (Quest Books, 2003).




References

  • Loomis, R.S. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, 1991.
  • Markale, J. The Grail. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.
  • Matthews, J. Elements of the Grail Tradition. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element, 1990.
  • Merkur, D. The Mystery of the Manna. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2000.
  • Nicholson, H. 2001. Love, War, and the Grail: Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights in Medival Epic and Romance 1150-1500. History of Warfare Series, vol. 4.
  • Sinclair, A. The Discovery of the Grail. London, England: Random House, 1998.
  • Wood, J. October 2000. The Holy Grail: From Romance Motif to Modern Genre. Folklore 3:171.

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