We have seen that the secret of the Graal, signifying the super-substantial nourishment of man, was communicated by Christ to His chosen disciple Joseph of Arimathæa, who, by preserving the body of his Master after the Crucifixion, became an instrument of the Resurrection. He laid it in the sepulchre, and thus sowed the seed whence issued the arch-natural body. On Ascension Day this was removed from the world, but there remained the Holy Vessel, into which the blood of the natural body had been received by Joseph. Strangely endued with the virtues of the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost, it sustained him spiritually, and by a kind of reflection physically, during forty years of imprisonment, through which period he was in that condition of ecstasy which is said by the Christian masters of contemplation to last for half-an-hour--being that time when there is silence in heaven. We find accordingly that Joseph had no sense of duration in respect of the years; he was already in that mystery of God into which the ages pass. After his release the Holy Vessel became a sign of saving grace, instruction and all wonder to that great company which he was elected to take westward. He committed it in fine to another keeper, by whom it was brought into Britain, and there, or otherwhere, certain lesser Hallows were added to the Hallow-in-chief, and were held with it in the places of concealment. Those which are met with most frequently, as we have
seen, are four in number, but the mystery is really one, since it is all assumed into that vessel which is known for the most part as the Cup of legend. It is understood that for us at least this Cup is a symbol, seeing that the most precious of all vessels are not made with hands. It is in such sense that the true soul of philosophy is a cup which contains the universe. We shall understand also the ministry of material sustenance, frequently attributed to the Holy Graal, after another manner than that which can be presumed within the offices of folk-lore. It is in this sense that the old fable concerning the Bowl of Plenty, when incorporated by the Graal Mystery, may prove to have a profound meaning. Some things are taken externally; some are received within; but the food of the body has analogies with that of the soul. So much may be said at the moment concerning certain aspects which encompass the literature of the Graal, as the hills stand round Jerusalem.
The four Hallows are therefore the Cup, the Lance, the Sword and the Dish, Paten or Patella--these four, and the greatest of these is the Cup. As regards this Hallow-in-chief, of two things one: either the Graal Vessel contained the most sacred of all relics in Christendom, or it contained the Secret Mystery of the Eucharist. Now, the first question which arises is whether the general description which obtains concerning it--as I was almost about to say, in the popular mind--reposes on the authority of the texts. Here also will be found our first difficulty. I may not be pardoned such flippancy, but the Psalmist said: Calix meus quam inebrians est, and this has rather a bearing on the Graal chalice; for the variety of the accounts concerning it may produce in the mind a sense of having visited some inn of strange description where those who come to ask questions are served with strong measures, and full at that.
There are three available sources of information concerning the Sacred Vessel, including those which are purely of the Eucharistic office. (1) The apocryphal
legends concerning Joseph of Arimathæa which are distinct from those that have been incorporated with the romances of chivalry and with the histories leading up to these. (2) The romances themselves and their prolegomena, which are the chief bases of our knowledge, but on the understanding that there is no criterion for the distinction between that which is traditional and that which is pure invention. (3) Some archæological aspects of sacramental practice.
The apocryphal legends which connect Joseph with the cultus of the Precious Blood are late, and they lie under the suspicion of having been devised in the interests of Glastonbury, or through Glastonbury of ecclesiastical pretensions on the part of the British Church at or about the period of Henry II. Above these as a substratum of solid fact--I refer to the fact of the inventions--there has been of late years superposed an alleged dream of a pan-Britannic Church, which belongs, however, more particularly to the romance of history. The chivalrous romances themselves have so overlaid the Graal object with decorations and wonder-elements that the object itself has been obscured and its nature can, in some cases, be extricated scarcely. Eucharistic archæology remains as a source of information on which it is possible to rely implicitly, but while this can satisfy us as to the variations in the form and matter of the Sacred Vessel used in the Sacrifice of the Mass, it does not offer us, except indirectly, much or perhaps any assistance to determine the relic of legend.
The Evangelium Nicodemi, Acta [vel Gesta] Pilati, and some other oriental apocryphal documents are the authorities for the imprisonment of Joseph by the Jews because he had laid the body of Christ in the sepulchre. William of Malmesbury, John of Glastonbury and similar makers of chronicles are responsible for referring the first evangelisation of Britain to Joseph of Arimathæa. From these, however, we must except Geoffrey of Monmouth, and William of Malmesbury has nothing
to tell us of the Graal, though he has the story of two phials containing the Precious Blood. The reference to relics of any kind is also late in the chronicles. An English metrical life of Joseph, belonging to the first years of the sixteenth century, but drawing from previous sources, shows how the precious blood was collected by that saint and received into two cruets, which we find figuring at a later period in the arms of Glastonbury Abbey. One of these sources, though perhaps at a far distance, may have been the lost book attributed to Melkin or Mewyn, which gives an account of these cruets. The tradition supposes (1) that they were buried at Glastonbury, (2) that they will be discovered concurrently with the coffin of Joseph, and (3) that thereafter there will be no more drought in Britain. John of Glastonbury is one of the authorities for the existence of a book of Melkin--sometimes identified with the Chronicle of Nennius. The more immediate antecedent of the metrical story is, however, the Nova Legenda Angliæ of Capgrave, and it represents Joseph as living with twelve hermits at Glastonbury, where he also died and was buried. The Oxford Vernon MS., written in verse about 1350, shows that there was a sacred vessel containing blood. The Chronicle of Helinandus describes the Graal as a wide and shallow vessel, wherein meats in their juice are served to wealthy persons. The Historia Aurea, written by John of Tynemouth, connects Joseph with the Holy Vessel, which it describes as that large dish or platter in which the Lord supped with His disciples, with which concurs one entire cycle of the legend. It may be added, for what it is worth, that the Armorican Gauls seem to have had a sacred vessel used in certain rites from a very early period. An object of this kind is thought to be depicted on Armorican coins, being semicircular in shape, held by means of thongs and devoid of stem or base. Under Roman domination the vessel was figured with a pedestal.
We come now to the putative historical romances and
the poems and tales of chivalry which contain the developed legend of the Graal. The Conte del Graal, which is the first text for our consideration, has many decorative descriptions of the Sacred Vessel, but they present certain difficulties, as will be exhibited by their simple recitation in summary. (1) It was covered with the most precious stones that are found in the world, and it gave forth so great a light that the candles at the table were eclipsed, even as are the stars of heaven in the glory of the sun and moon (Chrétien de Troyes). (2) It passed to and fro quickly amidst the lights, but no hand appeared to hold it (Gautier de Doulens, or, as he is now termed, Wauchier de Denain). (3) It was borne uplifted by a beautiful maiden, who was discounselled and weeping (Montpellier MS.). (4) It was carried to and fro before the table by a maiden more beautiful than flowers in April (second account of Gautier, with which compare the similar recital of Gerbert). (5) It was carried amidst a great light by an angel, to heal Perceval (Manessier). (6) It was carried in the pageant by a maiden through the castle chamber (ibid.). (7) It was carried openly at the coronation of Perceval, also by a maiden (ibid.). (8) It was, in fine, ravished with the soul of Perceval, and has never since been seen so openly:--
[paragraph continues] What follows from these citations will have occurred to the reader--that in all these several sections of the Conte del Graal there is no intelligible description of the sacred object; that the writers knew of it at a far distance only; that some of their references seem to indicate a brilliant lamp rather than a chalice; and, when they allocated it to Christian symbolism, that they may have wavered in their meaning between the idea of the Paschal Dish and the Cup in which Christ consecrated the wine of the first Eucharist; but we cannot tell. I should
add that the prologue, which is certainly the work of a later or at least of another hand, and embodies some curious material, mentions, but very briefly, the pageant of the Graal procession, saying that the Vessel appears at the Castle without sergeant or seneschal, but again there is no description of the Vessel. In conclusion of this account, the alternative ending of Gerbert retells with variations part of the story of Joseph, and although there is once again no intimation as to the form of the Graal, an account of the service performed at an altar over "the holy, spiritual thing"--the Vessel more beautiful than eye of man has seen--is there recounted, while it leaves no doubt in the mind that this service was a Mass of the Graal. It is the only suggestion of the kind which is afforded by the vast poem, though the origin and early history of the sacred object is in accordance with the received tradition.
The fuller memorials of this tradition are embodied, as we have seen, in two cycles of literature, but the text which is first in time and chief in importance is the metrical Romance of the Graal, or Joseph of Arimathæa, by Robert de Borron. A French and a German critic have said that this is the earliest text of the Graal literature proper, and an English writer has concluded, on the contrary, that it is not: mais que m’importe? I will not even ask for the benefit of the doubt, so far as enumeration is concerned. The metrical Joseph says that the Graal was a passing fair vessel, wherein did Christ make His sacrament. This is vague admittedly, and assuming a certain confusion in the mind of the writer, it might have been that Dish mentioned by John of Tynemouth in which the Paschal Lamb was eaten by Christ and His disciples. In place of the words mout gent, which are given by the original French editor of the only text, Paulin Paris, following I know not what authority, or imagining a variant reading, substituted the words mout grant, which might well apply to the Paschal Dish. But Robert de Borron certifies to his own meaning when he
recites an utterance of Christ in His discourse to Joseph, for it is there said that the vessel which has served as the reliquary shall be called henceforth a chalice:--
[paragraph continues] It is impossible to read the later verses in which the Eucharistic chalice is compared with the sepulchre of Christ, the mass corporal with the grave-clothes, and the paten with the stone at the mouth of the tomb, without concluding that by the Graal was intended the first Eucharistic chalice, and the presence of this symbolism in the mind of Robert de Borron suggests a symbolical intention on his part in the whole legend which he presented. If it is said that his idea of a chalice does not correspond to a vessel the content of which is sacramental wine, it should be remembered that the ciborium which contains consecrated Hosts is still at this day replaced on occasion by a chalice of the ordinary form.
The idea of the devotional poet, supposing it to have been as purely mystical as he was himself deeply religious, might have embodied an attempt to shadow forth in the perpetuation of the most precious of all reliquaries the sacramental mystery of the Real Presence.
It seems certain, in any case, that when Robert de Borron speaks of the Graal as that vessel in which Christ made his sacrament, this must not be understood as referring to the Paschal Dish, though one probable derivation of the word Graal would support the latter view. In the dialect of Languedoc, Grazal signified a large vessel, usually of clay; in the dialect of Provence, Grasal was a bowl or platter; in Anglo-Norman, or its connections, Graal was a dish made of some costly material for the purpose of great feasts, which, as we have seen, is the description of Helinandus. With all this some of the later romancers were dissatisfied, and, following Robert de Borron, they exalted the vessel into a chalice, so
that they might bring it into line with the Eucharistic side of the legend, with which side a paschal dish--whether that of Christ or another--offered little analogy. The material of such a chalice would have been probably glass. It follows from Tertullian that in Rome at the beginning of the third century they used glass chalices; so did the Bishop of Toulouse at the end of the fourth century; and about A.D. 550 the same custom prevailed, as appears by the life of Cesarius, Bishop of Arles. A council of Rheims in the days of Charlemagne is said to have forbidden glass chalices because they were brittle.
The Lesser Holy Graal does not depart from the rendering which I have here given in respect of the metrical romance, but it seems to make the assurance of the poet more certain by elucidating further the application of the secret words to the consecration and administering of the Eucharist. Where the poem says that there is a great book in which has been written the great secret called the Graal, the Lesser Holy Graal says: This is the secret uttered at the great sacrament performed over the Graal--that is to say, over the chalice. The vessel is otherwise described as the one in which Christ sacrificed, as if He actually celebrated the first Mass, and from the Eucharistic standpoint this seems much stronger than the corresponding feisoit son sacrement, which are the words of Robert de Borron. The repetition of the experience of the sacred table which is enjoined by Joseph in both texts is in both termed the service of the Graal, but in the prose version alone is it adjudged to the hour of tierce, as if the Mass of the day were celebrated, and as if certain persons, evidently in a state of grace, were sustained in the body by the sacramental nutriment of the soul. The Early Merlin and the Didot Perceval neither reduce nor increase the evidence; but it may be hazarded, for what it is worth, that the original disclosure of the secret words may have had some office in preserving the content of the great relic.
In the Early Merlin there is no allusion to the office
of secret words, and no Graal Hallows are mentioned excepting the Cup, as it is obvious that we cannot include the sword of Merlin, through which Arthur was chosen to be king. It does not appear that this weapon had any antecedent history. In the Didot Perceval the rumour and the wonder of the Graal moves pageant-like through all the pages, but it is more shorn of descriptive allusions than anything that has preceded it in the quests. When the predestined Knight visits the castle, tower, or hold in which the Hallow has been preserved through so many centuries, he sees it plainly enough at the supper-table, along which it passes, carried with no ostentation by a mere page of the chamber; but he is said only to hold a vessel wherein the blood of our Saviour reposed. This is at the first visit, and at the second, when Perceval is initiated into the whole mystery and becomes the Lord of the Graal, the description is repeated merely, as if it were a counsel of perfection to maintain and even to increase in the third text of the trilogy whatsoever could be called vague and dubious in the first.
The Book of the Holy Graal, even when it reproduces with several variations the prose version of Robert de Borron's poem, gives, in some of its codices, an explanation of the Sacred Vessel which is the antithesis of his own. It is described as that Dish in which the Son of God partook of the Last Supper before He gave to the disciples His own flesh and blood. It was, therefore, the Paschal Dish. Certain manuscripts, however, differ so widely that it is difficult to determine the original state of the text. Another codex follows the account of the Lesser Holy Graal. According to a third codex, it was the content and not the Vessel which was called the Holy Graal; but, speaking generally, most versions concur in describing it as the Holy Dish. The connection with the Eucharist is, however, sufficiently close, for he who is elected to say the first Mass and to consecrate the unspotted elements is he also to whom by Divine instruction
[paragraph continues] Joseph surrenders the vessel. But the Blessed Reliquary would seem to have been rather the outward witness to the presence within those elements. For example, in the first unveiled vision of the Holy Graal which is granted to any one outside Joseph himself, we hear of an altar, on one side of which were the nails used for the Crucifixion, together with the hallowed Lance; on the other side was the Dish; and in the centre there was an exceeding rich vessel of gold in the semblance of a goblet--obviously the chalice of consecration: it had a lid after the manner of a ciborium. More astonishing still, the cup of the Eucharist is placed within the Graal during a ceremony which corresponds to the Mass. In a romance so overcharged with decoration and so lavish in episodes of wonder, we should expect, and shall not be disappointed, that many pageants and ornaments would collect about the Holy Vessel, and that it should work many marvels. The Sacrament consecrated within it reveals the mysteries of Christ openly to chosen eyes, but thereon can no man look until he is cleansed from sin. It gives also on occasion the vision of an Eternal Eucharist and a great company sitting at the high table in the Paradise which is above. So far as concerns the authority of the text itself, it would appear that the Mass of the Graal is not like that of the Church without--an office which recurs daily; it is rather an arch-natural sacrifice, at which the incarnate Christ figures as the sensible oblation and subsequently as the Melchisedech of the rite, communicating Himself to the witnesses, while a thousand voices about him give thanks to God amidst a great beating of birds' wings, and
The texts of the later Merlin have several references to the Graal, and it is the chief purpose which moves through the dual romance, leading up, as it does obviously, to a Quest of the Sacred Vessel; but what is
understood thereby must be gathered chiefly from its reflections of the Joseph legend. We shall see that in certain codices the account differs from that of Robert de Borron. The Vulgate Merlin has one very remarkable passage, which tells how the tidings of the Holy Graal spread through the realm of King Arthur, and how the Graal was that Vessel in which Joseph of Arimathæa received the blood from the side of Jesus Christ when He hung upon the Cross. It represents, therefore, a tradition which is familiar enough not only in the literature of romance, but in that of religious legend, though it is the antithesis of the account given in the Lesser Chronicles, wherein we are told that the blood was drawn into the Vessel after Joseph and Nicodemus had taken down the Body of the Lord. Secondly, the Graal was that Holy Vessel which came from Heaven above into the city of Sarras. We have here a reflection only, and that at a far distance, of the Book of the Holy Graal in the form which is now extant. Thirdly, and to us most important, the Graal was that Vessel in which Christ first sacrificed His Blessed Body and His Flesh by the mediation of His bishop, the Second Joseph, whom He ordained with His own hands. According to the Huth Merlin the Graal was that Vessel in which Jesus and His Apostles ate the Last Supper. It was again, therefore, the Paschal Dish.
The Longer Prose Perceval has many descriptions of the vessel, all of which are designed to connect it with the chalice, but they are highly mystical in their nature. As one of the most express attempts to relate the Graal with the Eucharist, it must be regarded as important for the subject of the Hallow-in-chief. This romance and the great Quest of Galahad are both texts of transubstantiation, and they must rank also among the latest documents of the literature. The Lesser Chronicles, even in the prose version of De Borron's poem, offer no suggestion concerning this doctrine, the Graal Vessel being simply a Hallow containing a precious relic. About
the period of the Quest and the High History, the tide of ecclesiastical feeling, which long previously had set towards the definition of the dogma, must have permeated the mind of the laity, prepared as it also was by the desire of things sensible and tangible in matters of religion. It was, this notwithstanding, still long to the establishment of the high, symbolical festival of Corpus Christi, which provided an external epilogue to the closed canon of the Graal, as if by a final substitution that which was taken away, or at least ex hypothesi, was to be in perpetuity memorialised about the precincts of the gate by the wardens thereof. In connection with transubstantiation, it may be remarked that the religious office of Knighthood was above all things to hear mass, and, next, to confess sins. There are few records in the Graal romances that the chivalry of Logres communicated, except in the Quest of Galahad, and then only in the case of the elect knights. All high festivals were observed, all penances fulfilled; but to participate in the Eucharistic mystery seemed apart from the life of the world and withdrawn into the sphere of sanctity. However this may be, the Longer Prose Perceval has two cryptic descriptions of the Graal Vessel, which, on account of their complexity, but for the moment only, I must present as they stand actually in the story. (1) It is said concerning Gawain, when he looked at the Graal in his wonder, that it seemed to him a chalice was therein, "albeit there was none at this time." It was, therefore, an ark or a tabernacle which was designed to contain a cup, but when the latter was removed it still held the shadow or semblance thereof. (2) In the course of the same episode a change was performed in the aspect of the external object, and it appeared to be "all in flesh," meaning that it was transformed into a vision of Christ crucified. Towards the close of the story, when a certain Queen Jandree relates her visions to Perceval, she sees, in one of these, an image of the crucifixion from which people collect the Blood into a most Holy Vessel, elevated
for that object by one of them. There are no names mentioned, but for purposes of simplicity we may assume that they were Joseph and Nicodemus. In the castle of King Fisherman the office of the Cup was to receive the Blood which fell from the point of the Sacred Lance. The priest who officiated at the Graal service is said to begin his sacrament, with which expression we may compare the words feisoit son sacrement, which are those of Robert de Borron. There is indubitably reference to the Eucharist in both cases, and perhaps the Graal Mass Book was a traditional version of the Mass, supposed, ex hypothesi, to follow the Last Supper. Speaking generally, the historical account of the Cup follows the Book of the Holy Graal rather than De Borron's poem, for the blood which flowed from the wounds of Christ when He was set upon the Cross is said to have been received into the Sacred Vessel. There is no ministry in respect of material sustenance attributed to the Graal in this spiritual romance.
It is, therefore, in one sense the antithesis of the Quest of Galahad, which dwells with equal fulness on the food giving properties of the Vessel and on its connection with the mystery of such a mass and such an office of the Eucharist as never before or after was said in the wide world, apart from this sacred object. When the Holy Graal enters the court of King Arthur and into the banqueting-hall it is clothed in white samite, but neither the Vessel nor the bearer are visible to human eyes. On a later occasion it manifests as a Holy Vessel on a table of silver in an old chapel. Elsewhere it is observed that the Flesh and Blood of God are present in the Graal. When it appears to Lancelot in the Castle of Corbenic, it is still upon a table of silver, but this time the object is covered with red in place of white samite, and it is surrounded by angels. In the course of the ceremony Lancelot sees three men, who represent the Trinity, exalted above the head of the officiating priest. Two of them place the youngest between the hands of
the priest, who again exalts him. On another occasion a child enters visibly into the substance of the Mass-bread. A man is also elevated, bearing the signs of the Passion of Christ, and this Personage issues out of the Vessel, coming subsequently among the knights present, and causing them to communicate sacramentally. It is after this episode that the Graal is removed to the spiritual city of Sarras. There Christ appears to Galahad and his companions, and this is the last manifestation in connection with the Sacred Vessel. It is the viaticum of the haut prince, who thereafter exercises the high option which has been granted previously and demands that he should be taken away.
As the chief Hallow in the Parsifal of Wolfram differs from all the other romances, it will be left for more full consideration in dealing with the German cycle; but seeing that in this cycle there are correspondences outside this great poem with the Northern French accounts, one of these may be placed here so as to illustrate the Germanic allusions to the Sacred Vessel in the general understanding thereof. Diu Crône, the poem of Heinrich, says that it was borne on a cloth of samite and had a base of red gold, on which a reliquary of gold and gems was superposed. It was carried by a crowned maiden. There is here, however, a fresh departure from the Graal in Christian symbolism, for as, on the one hand, it is the quest of a feigned and impossible hero, so, on the other, the content ascribed to the reliquary is not the true content. It holds the semblance of bread, as if that of the Divine Body, but the wine or royal blood, which corresponds to the second element of the Eucharist, is distilled from the Lance of the legend.
We are now approaching the term of the inquiry allocated to this section, and it will be seen on reflection that we have three possible hypotheses regarding the precious vessel: (1) that it was a cruet or phial, wherein the blood of Christ was reserved permanently--in which case we can understand the legend on the score of comparative
possibility; (2) that it was an open platter or bowl, which, it is obvious, could have had no permanent content, much less the precious or indeed any other blood; (3) that it corresponded to the notion of a chalice, but probably with a cover, after the manner of a ciborium. It is in late texts that the vessel appears most indubitably in connection with the sacrifice of the Mass; it was and could be only that which was recognised by Diu Crône of Heinrich and by John of Tynemouth--namely, a reliquary; but the mystic side of the legend, reflecting in the minds of the romancers many conflicting issues, took it over to the Eucharist, influenced by the irresistible connection between the sacramental blood and the sang réal poured out at the Crucifixion. There is evidence that this view is almost coincident with the marriage of the legend to romance. The mind of romance connected the vessel and its office with secret words of consecration and a wonderful grade of priesthood, the root-matter of which must have been drawn from some source wherein relics could have counted for little in the presence of the higher secrets of sanctity.
In conclusion as to this matter, the Holy Graal, according to the Greater Chronicles, was not the only Hallow which was brought into Britain by those whose mission was to preach first the gospel therein, but it was more especially the exotic of the legend, as this was developed in Northern France. In several cases the other Hallows, as we shall see, were either present in Britain or arrived some centuries later. As regards the Lesser Chronicles, it is warrantable to decide that, in the mind of Robert de Borron, the Sacred Vessel was a ciborium or covered chalice, and that in some manner which is not clearly declared it was connected with a sacramental service performed in great seclusion. As regards the Greater Chronicles, it was originally a Dish, and that Dish in which the Paschal Lamb was eaten at the Last Supper; but from the very beginning of this ascription the notion of a cup was essential to the Eucharistic office
which also resided in the Vessel; in the Book of the Holy Graal a cup is inserted therein, but in later texts of the cycle the Dish sometimes undergoes transmutation and reappears as a chalice.