The Story of the Grail by Chretien de Troyes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Holy Grail (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosetti01.jpg)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Holy Grail (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosetti01.jpg)

The Story of the Grail

Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet, born in the second half of the 12th century, probably in Troyes. Little is known of his life. From 1160 to 1172 he served at the court of Countess Marie de Champagne, but later - apparently in 1181 - he got attached to Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders.

Before 1181 he wrote four major poems in rhyming eight-syllable couplets: Erec and Enide, Cligès, Yvain the Knight of the Lion and Lancelot the Knight of the Cart. His final romance, Perceval the Story of the Grail, composed between 1181 and 1191, was left unfinished. Chrétien wrote only 9,000 lines; four successors of varying talents added more than 50,000 lines in what are now known as the Four Continuations.

Chrétien speaks in the vaguest way of the source for his romances and the materials he used, but a Celtic influence is easily detectable. Together, Chrétiens romances form the most complete expression of the society he dreamed of and the ideals of French chivalry. His writings were very popular and often adapted in other languages: in German, for instance, by Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzival). They mark the beginning of Arthurian Legend and narrative fiction in Europe.

Perceval, the Story of the Grail (Perceval, le Conte du Graal) was dedicated to Chrétien's patron, Count Philip of Flanders. It is the earliest account of the Quest for the Holy Grail. Since his father's death, Perceval is raised by his mother, apart from civilisation, in a forest in Wales. By chance, Perceval encounters some knights and realises - despite his mother's objections - he also wants to be a knight. He travels to the court of King Arthur, where a young girl predicts his greatness. In a knight's armour, he sets out for adventure, falls in love with princess Blanchefleur and receives some lessons from the wise old man Gornemant.

Perceval reaches the castle of the Fisher King, where he is invited to stay. There he witnesses a mysterious procession in which young men and women are passing before him at each course of the meal, carrying magnificent objects: a bleeding lance, candelabras and finally, the elaborately decorated ‘graal' or ‘grail'. This strange object, carried by a beautiful young girl, contains a single Mass wafer, which miraculously sustains the Fisher King's wounded father.

Perceval has been warned against talking to much and remains silent. He wakes up the next morning, alone, and returns to the court of King Arthur. At Arthur's Court, a very Celtic lady admonishes Perceval for not questioning his host about the Grail, because the right question would have healed the king. Upon learning of his mistake, Perceval vows to find the Grail castle again.

The next section of the poem deals with the adventures of Perceval and Gawain, and with Perceval meeting a hermit, his uncle, who teaches him about the Grail and 'al things spiritual'. Here the completed section nears its end...

The Story of the Grail is one of the great myths of the western world, with a symbolism that is extraordinary, and - as Carl Gustav Jung has shown - the legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation or self-realisation. ‘The Grail quest is a search for that undescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, the Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same,' says Kirk McElhearn, who is translating the original text on his blog Kirkville.

What is the Grail?

In the 12th century, Europe started to awake from the Dark Ages. It was a period of renaissance, new structures and systems were established.

Kirk McElhearn: ‘The Catholic Church had succeeded in achieving Papal authority over most of Western Europe, and all of the Barbarians had been either converted or driven back. A new legal system was developed; universities were created. Towns were starting to grow, because of an overall increase in wealth, and more efficient agriculture. Castles and Cathedrals became more common, since the techniques of building with stone were now established. The middle of the 12th century saw the beginning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. There were social changes also. The royal court became a place of exchange of ideas; chivalry and courtly love were born, and with them, the romantic literature that recounted their episodes. This literature was in the vernacular language, not in Latin. And music came into its own importance, particularly with the polyphony of Pérotin.'

Perceval, the Story of the Grail is definitely a part of this Awakening. ‘Interestingly,' Philip Coppens notes in his book Servants of the Grail, ‘Chrétien refers to his object not as "the Grail", but as "un graal", "a grail", suggesting the word was used, in its earliest literary context, as a common noun - and that there were indeed more than one.'

Chrétien left us with only 9,000 lines of an incomplete poem and he did not explain to the reader (or, in his days, rather the listener) what the Grail was. Some of the appeal of Chrétien's Grail came precisely from the mystery surrounding the strange object and the whereabouts of its most unusual setting, the Grail Castle.

There are two trails of thought regarding the Grail's origin. The first - championed by, among others, Jessie Weston - says that it derived from Celtic myth and folklore. Roger Sherman Loomis traced some parallels between medieval Welsh literature, Irish material and the Grail romances: tales of a life-restoring cauldron that even can raise the dead, legends of magical dishes that symbolize otherworldly power or test what the hero is worth, Vessels of Plenty that generate a never-ending supply of food,... Sometimes they even decide who the next king should be, as only the true sovereign could hold them.

Scholars mostly claim the object had not yet acquired the holiness it would have in the later Grail romances, but I don't agree on that. For Chrétien, the Grail was a wide and deep dish or bowl, that contained not a salmon or lamprey, but a single Mass wafer as a sustenance for the Fisher's King crippled father. This mystical fasting is not unique: several saints were said to have lived without food besides communion. I believe Chrétien intended the Mass wafer to be a significant part of the ritual and maybe at the end of the story, as the first modern European novelist, he wanted to unveil the true identity and the Secret of the Grail.

Although the practice of Holy Communion was first alluded to in the Christian Bible and defined by theologians in the first centuries AD, it was around the time of the appearing of the first Grail romances that the Roman church was beginning to add more ceremony and mysticism to this particular sacrament. The Grail could indeed, from the very beginning, have been a purely Christian symbol. Twelfth century wall paintings in churches in the Catalan Pyrenees present iconic images of the Virgin Mary holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire. Joseph Goering of the University of Toronto argues they were the original inspiration for the Grail legend.

The general view now is that the central theme is Christian, but that much of the setting and imagery of the early romances is drawn from Celtic material. The word ‘grial' seems to be an Old French adaptation of the Latin ‘gradalis', meaning a dish brought to the table. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, after the cycle of Grail romances was fully established, late medieval writers came up with a false etymology for ‘sangréal'-‘san graal'-‘san gréal', meaning ‘Holy Grail' or ‘Holy Blood' (‘sang royal' is French for ‘royal blood', actually).

I don't think that only ‘a false etymology' was responsible for the ‘Holy Blood = Holy Grail Connection'. What most scholars tend to forget, is that Chrétien de Troyes claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders... and that Philip was the son of Thierry, who brought the Holy Blood to Bruges.

Thierry of Alsace and the Holy Blood of Bruges

Thierry d'Alsace (c. 1099-1168, in Flanders known as Diederik van den Elzas) claimed the county of Flanders against William Clito. Cities as Bruges, Ghent, Lille and Saint-Omer supported Thierry. He engaged in battle and when William was found dead in 1128, Thierry was the only claimant of the county. He set up his government in Ghent and was recognized by all the Flemish cities as well as the English King Henry I. Thierry himself swore homage to Louis VI, in order to gain the French King's support against Baldwin IV, Count of Hainaut.

In 1139, Thierry went on pilgrimage to the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and there he married Sybilla of Anjou, daughter of King Fulk of Jerusalem and widow of William Clito. Sybilla returned to Flanders with her new husband. She was pregnant when Thierry left on the Second Crusade, and she acted as a regent of the county. When Baldwin IV attacked Flanders, Sybilla led the counter-attack and pillaged his county of Hainaut.

During the Second Crusade, Thierry led the crossing of the Maeander River in Anatolia and fought at the Battle of Attalya. After arriving in the crusader Kingdom he participated in the Siege of Damascus, led by his wife's half-brother Baldwin III of Jerusalem. With the support of Baldwin, he lay claim to the city, but the siege was a failure and all parties returned home.

A legend says that on Christmas Day 1148, some Templars have found a stone jar in the Holy Grave, near the Temple of Solomon, while they were in the presence of Thierry and his wife Sybilla. This can't be true, because Sybilla was at the moment fighting of Baldwin IV and pillaging his county of Hainaut.

However, and for some reason only known to the Knights Templar, this jar had to contain the Holy Blood of Christ. They poured the holy fluid respectfully into an octagonal bottle, of which the ends were carefully sealed with two golden roses. Sybilla had been infected with leprosy, together with some Templars, and suffered from the most horrid attacks of fever. But when the Holy Blood was poured from one jar into another, she held the precious relic in her hands for just a moment, and in a vision she shaw Bruges as ‘a New Jerusalem of the West'. The next moment, Sybilla cured miraculously, as did all the lepers who surrounded her. The Countess then made the solemn pledge to turn Bruges into this New Jerusalem, a Holy City.

On April 7 of the year 1150, the Count of Flanders and his wife, the abbot of the Saint Bertin's abbey of Saint Omer and the Flemish army reached Bruges. The masons had just finished the cathedral of Saint-Basilius on the Burg Square (‘burg' is Dutch for ‘castle') and from now on, the Sanguis Christi, or Holy Blood, would be called upon for the most diverse reasons, from personal matters to important political decisions.

The oldest document concerning the Holy Blood of Bruges dates from 1256. There is a gap of more than a century between the ‘legendary account' and this document, so it's possible the Holy Blood in reality arrived much later in Bruges. But it's also possible that there arrived something in Bruges on April 7, 1150. The date and the circumstances are very precise and were never really questioned. Whether it was truly the Holy Blood of Christ that arrived on that day doesn't really matter. Much more Important is, what the Count of Flanders and the Knights Templar who had given him the relic, wanted it to be.

Sybilla wasn't with Thierry during the Second Crusade, but she was in 1156 on his third pilgrimage, while their son Philip ruled the county of Flanders in their absence. Strange enough, after arriving in Jerusalem, Sybilla separated from her husband and refused to return home with him. She became a nun at the Convent of St. Lazarus in Bethany, where her step-aunt Ioveta of Bethany was abbess. Ioveta and Sibylla supported the election of Amalric of Nesle as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and Sybilla died a few years later in Bethany.

In 1166, Thierry returned home from his last trip to the Holy Land and adopted a date palm as his seal, with a crown of laurels on the reverse. He died in 1168 and was buried in the Abbey of Watten, between Saint-Omer and Gravelines. His reign had been moderate and peaceful; new commercial enterprises were established, and he started developing the administration, economics and agriculture of the rich county of Flanders.

Philip of Alsace and the Holy Grail

The reign of Thierry's son Philip began in 1157, acting as a regent for his father. Philip stopped piracy and defeated the Count of Holland, who was captured in Bruges and remained in prison until being ransomed in 1167, in exchange for recognition of Flemish suzerainty over Zeeland. Philip married Elisabeth of Vermandois and when his brother-in-law died, he inherited the county of Vermandois.

Philip and Elisabeth were childless. In 1175 however, Philip discovered Elisabeth was committing adultery and had her lover beaten to death.

In 1177, Philip went on crusade. Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, was a leper and childless too. He offered Philip the regency of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as his closest male relative currently present there. Philip refused both this and the command of the army of the kingdom, saying he was there only as a pilgrim.

He returned from Palestine in 1179 and Louis VII, now sick, appointed him as the guardian of his young son. His wife Elisabeth died in 1183 and in 1190 Philip took the cross for a second time and joined the Flemish army at the Siege of Acre, where he was stricken by the epidemic passing through the crusader camp.

He died in August 1191, his body was brought back to Clairvaux Abbey - the Cistercian monastery founded by St. Bernard who wrote the rule of the Order of the Knights Templar - and buried there.

By the end of the reign of Count Philip, the county of Flanders had entered into a period of unpredented prosperity. Despite all sorts of costly wars, the economic expansion of Flanders did not stop. Chrétien dedicated his poem to his patron, saying he sowed 'the seed of a tale in such good soil that its greatness is ensured, for he does it for the best man in all the Roman Empire, Count Philip of Flanders, who is greater even than Alexander'. It's the stuff dedications are made of, but somehow it also sounds true... And there's something of a prediction in it - or better: the hint of a plan, a strategy in his claim of sowing ‘the seed of a tale in such good soil that its greatness is ensured'.

Chrétien states that the count believes in firm justice and loyalty to the Holy Church. He thinks his labours will not be in vain when he follows the count's wishes and so, from a book given to him by the count, he puts into verse the beste story ever told in a royal court: the Story of the Grail... that could have turned out as the Story of the Holy Blood of Christ brought to Bruges by d'Alsace Senior, if Chrétien had been able to finish it.

Buried in Glastonbury

Following the count's wishes, from a book given to him by the count...

Saint Dunstan was an important minister of state to several English kings, an abbot of Glastonbury, a bishop of Worcester and London and an archbishop of Canterbury. He restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. Adding to his myth was his legendary cunning in dealing with the Devil.

As a young boy Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury abbey. In his youthful optimism, he had a vision of the abbey being restored. But before he could work on this project, Dunstan was appointed to the court of King Athelstan. There a plot was hatched to disgrace him and he was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic. The King ordered him to leave the court and outside the palace he was attacked by his enemies, beaten severely and thrown into a cesspool.

In 943, Dunstan returned to live as a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St Mary he built a small cell where he studied, did his handicrafts and played on his harp. He also worked as a silversmith in the scriptorium. It is thought likely that he was the artist who drew the well-known image of Christ with a small kneeling monk beside him in the Glastonbury Classbook.

Dunstan, now abbot, began to rebuild the abbey and established the Benedictine monasticism. In 995, King Edwy came to the throne, a headstrong youth wholly devoted to the reactionary nobles. On the day of Edwy's coronation, Dunstan found the young monarch cavorting with a noblewoman and her mother. Edwy refused to return with the bishop and, infuriated, Dunstan dragged him back and forced him to renounce the girl. When he realised he had provoked the King, Dunstan fled to the sanctuary of his cloister, but Edwy followed him and plundered the monastery.

Dunstan managed to escape and seeing his life was threatened, he fled England and crossed the channel to Flanders, where he was received by Count Arnulf I and lodged in the abbey of Mont Blandin in the city of Ghent. This was one of the centres of the Benedictine revival in Flanders. His exile ended in 957, when Edwy had to flee for his brother Edgar, who was chosen to be the new king of the country north of the Thames.

In the tenth century, the rich and powerful Glastonbury Abbey got associated with King Arthur and some time later with the legends of the Holy Grail. In 1191, at the time Chrétien died and left an unfinished Story of the Grail, abbot Henry de Sully discovered in the cemetery of Glastonbury two graves. According to the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, at the depth of 16 feet a massive hollowed oak trunk was found, containing two skeletons. Above it, under the covering stone, was a leaden cross with this inscription: Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia (Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon). The other skeleton had to be Queen Guinevere, of course.

Could the book that Philip, Count of Flanders, had given to Chrétien in order to write the Story of the Grail, be a book that was brought to Ghent by Dunstan, the famous illuminator, metalworker and abbot of Glastonbury, that soon would become a center of Arthurian Legend & Grail Stories? Is the Grail then the Holy Blood of Christ - or the secret of his 'bloodline' - that was brought to Bruges by the Templars, whether in 1150 or a century later, to turn Bruges into the New Jerusalem? And is the Grail Castle then the 'Burg' (Dutch for 'castle') of Bruges, where the Chapel of the Holy Blood is?

'Chrétien lists a knightly and royal tradition surrounding a precious relic, carried in a procession. Did his master desire a romance that displayed his relationship to the Holy Blood and the city of Bruges?' asks Philip Coppens in his book Servants of the Grail. 'For it is a fact that in the Procession, several nobles participated. The same applies to the fact that a group of 31 men, under the chairmanship of the dean, all of whom had to reside in Bruges and who were "honourable", protected the relic. The organisation continues to exist today and a number its members are still of noble origin. Though this could therefore be the famous "Grail Brotherhood", the only problem is that the fraternity is known to have only been incorporated in the 15th century, much too late for any mention in Chrétien's account.'

True, but it's also about the time Jan Van Eyck finished his masterpiece The Mystic Lamb. And maybe the Brotherhood of the Grail existed already long before that as a secret society...

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Comments 3 comments

jjrubio 7 years ago

very long hub!! WHOOO! I made it to the end. It was very insightful and lots of information. Nice Job!!


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Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

Wow - that was very informative - I've always been fascinated by the legends surrounding the Grail- so thank you!


Don 20 months ago

What a great rescuroe this text is.

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