Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Quest for the Holy Grail

Centuries have passed since someone sat down and began the opening lines of the medieval French text, The Quest for the Holy Grail, yet the themes that it explores continue to fascinate audiences today.[1] While the Grail itself has been the focus of many texts, the Quest looks beyond the Grail to also consider the wider context in which the quest takes place. It makes use of the romance genre and Arthurian literary tradition to allow it to function as a text intended for entertainment and relaxation. However, at the same time it provokes critical thought and is used as a vehicle for societal critique and spiritual instruction. Although the Arthurian romances were set in an idealized past, the chivalric ideals and courtly society in which they were set clearly linked them to the society and time period in which their writers and contemporary audiences were themselves situated. This allowed writers to use the distancing qualities of fantasy to discuss contemporary issues with greater freedom. In the Quest one of the key issues that is addressed is the issue of violence in society, where violence was a defining characteristic of the patriarchal ruling class. The author’s treatment of violence, the values that they choose to endorse and the narrative tensions that they explore make the Quest significantly different to other medieval romances. The Quest encourages its courtly audience to reconsider the values that are familiar to it and to question whether they truly understand what it means to be a true and gentil knight.[2]

The Quest for the Holy Grail was written in France in the early thirteenth century; narrative links to other texts in the group commonly known as the ‘Vulgate Cycle’ indicate that it was most likely finished between 1215-1235 A.D.[3] In the Quest the knights frequently encounter holy men living austere lives of prayer and meditation;[4] the simplicity of their lives and their white garb indicates that they represent the Cistercian order, of which the unknown author was probably a member.[5] The Cistercians arose as a religious order in 1098; they were a reform movement protesting against the perceived worldliness of the Benedictines.[6] The Cistercians hoped to return to a stricter observance of the Benedictine rule. Their order emphasised asceticism, confession, prayer, fasting and chastity; all of these are virtues that are repeatedly exemplified in the Quest.[7] By the thirteenth century, the Cistercians had become a great monastic force and achieved a high level of popularity.[8] However, thanks to the twin virtues of austere living and hard work, they too had accumulated a great deal of wealth and their spiritual simplicity had begun to be corrupted as their lifestyle became more relaxed.[9] The Quest is written during a period when many Cistercians may again have been seeking spiritual renewal and would have seen a need to promote the values of their order. A story written for the French courts would ensure that their message could hope to reach, instruct, and renew the faith of both the priests and those that they were meant to teach.[10]

A text written in purely religious format might not be greeted with the same level of enthusiasm as those of a more entertaining nature; therefore, the Quest forms its didactic elements within a romance narrative. The romance had become an immensely popular narrative form, especially in northern France and Anglo-Norman England, by the end of the twelfth century.[11] These romances were expected to entertain an aristocratic audience and in order to flatter the nobility they needed to reflect a desirable self-image. The values of the nobility still revolved heavily around warfare and martial skill; there was, however, also a move towards creating a courtly culture that valued etiquette, cultured elegance, chivalry, courtesy and largesse.[12] The romances therefore promoted an idealised, favourable image of the nobility and these were often set in a romanticised past. The Arthurian legends provided a setting for many of these romances that allowed them to indulge the wish-fulfilment fantasies of their audience, such as the desires of younger sons to marry beautiful, rich, land owning women or to engage in passionate, illicit love affairs, while having the safety of being set in the past and, to some extent, in a fantasy realm.[13]

Despite being fantasy, the Arthurian romances contained narrative tensions that alluded to social concerns of their courtly audiences. These narrative tensions usually revolved around gender relations and conflicting loyalties, as the male protagonist sought to reconcile contradictory societal expectations of his behaviour.[14] On the one hand, their loyalty should be first to their kinsmen and lords, they should be able to support and defend their family, and they should be valiant in battle and display their martial skills whenever an opportunity arose. On the other hand, the romances often portray the men as subjugating themselves, and their loyalties, to a woman rather than their kinsmen or lord,[15] as receiving their wealth from a woman,[16]and as retiring from fighting or fighting badly because of a woman.[17] In these romances, the narratives explore whether love is an ennobling or emasculating emotion and they playfully invert gender roles in order to flatter women and safely indulge male fantasies. The Quest, however, reveals the inadequacies and dangers of these flattering fantasies by portraying them as focussing on the temporal world and as pandering to human pride. The Quest emphasises, for instance, that a man’s martial skills should be used in the service of God, rather than to gain the acclaim of his fellows or the attention of a woman.

The Quest, however, doesn’t focus on the conflict between love for a woman and the expectations of a society traditionally orientated around male-bonds; instead, it focuses on the conflict between the expectations of society and one’s love for God. For instance, Bors is tested when he has to decide between saving his brother from being beaten and saving a maiden who is being kidnapped with the intention of rape.[18] He should help Lionel in the name of kinship but the maiden asks for aid in the name of God; Bors chooses, correctly, to save the girl.[19] In order to be ‘knights of heaven’ the Quest indicates that they must transcend feudal loyalties by serving God as their first priority. The text suggests that without a strong spiritual foundation that sets loyalty to the ‘King of heaven’ above all else, secular power hierarchies are doomed to corruption and failure. This is clearly illustrated in Gawain’s meadow dream, symbolic of the Round Table.[20] It is also dramatically emphasised by Lionel’s violent rage at Bors abandoning him.[21] Lionel represents the earthly knights whose ‘eyes and hearts are choked’ and who are ‘enwrapped in black and hideous sin’;[22] he is so blinded by the prideful, martial values of the court that he is willing to murder a kinsman, a brother-in-arms, and a holy man.[23] Bors, on the other hand, is shown as one of the righteous knights of heaven. His refusal to fight, because it would be a sin to strike his brother, is not shown as cowardly but rather as illustrating exemplary moral and spiritual strength, and is rewarded by God actively ending the conflict when Bors finally picks up a sword.[24]

This divine approval of Bors’ refusal to fight, when he considers it to be an affront to God to do so, is one way in which the Quest inverts the values traditionally associated with knights in the romances. These values require them to continually prove their masculine strength, valour and prowess, as well as their attractiveness to women. The writer of the Quest embeds their spiritual teachings in an Arthurian romance, in a courtly setting that reflects the aspirations of a their intended audience, so that the values of these romances, and by inference the nobility, can be shown to be misplaced. For instance, Melias, son of the King of Denmark, stubbornly ignores Galahad’s advice when they come to a warning sign at a forked road; he insists on taking the more perilous route for himself because he wishes to prove his knightly virtues.[25] The text shows that actions and intentions are more important than noble birth; Melias’s presumptuous deeds leave him badly injured. The monks who attend him advise that his focus on the temporal world has led him to the mortal sins of pride and covetousness.[26] The association of the court and knightly values with corruption and sin is marked through the book. Gawain and Hector are warned that the fellowship of the Round Table has become corrupted with lechery, pride, and knights who wallow in dissolute lifestyles.[27] Lancelot is shown not as a hero but as a fallen sinner who must repent and seek God’s grace. Like Gawain, Lancelot had enjoyed the ‘sweet and honeyed’ vices that the Devil and the court lauded but which disguised lust, vanity and pride.[28] The prideful self-love of the knights is illustrated in the warnings they receive that they have more faith in their sword-arm than in God, and that their reasons for fighting are to gain personal glory or the love of women, rather than to serve and honour God.[29]

Its consideration of violence, in the life of a Christian knight, is one aspect that particularly differentiates the Quest from other romances. It provides its audience with numerous tournaments and exciting combats but the elucidating teachings of the holy men the characters frequently encounter provokes the audience to reconsider the purpose of violence in society. In medieval romances violence is often glorified; knights are expected to participate in tournaments and gain renown through great martial deeds lest they be called cowards.[30] However, this expectation that knights will engage in violence is presented in the Quest as the knights being overly eager to do battle and losing sight of why they are fighting. When Gawain meets Hector on the road he informs him, with a mixture of boredom and pride, that he has slain more than ten knights, offering no moral contextualization or justification of these deaths. [31] The danger of this casual embrace of violence is illustrated in the eagerness of Gawain and Hector to fight to the death an unknown knight they encounter in their travels.[32] It is only after Gawain has mortally wounded him that he discovers he is responsible for killing Owein the Bastard, a fellow knight of the Round Table.[33] Gawain’s attitude towards violence and his willingness to take life is strongly reprimanded twice by holy men. He is advised that he should not sinfully seek the “murder of men or the slaying of knights”; rather, he should turn from violence and seek to reconcile himself with God.[34]

The unthinking violence of Gawain and of Lionel marks them as sinners and worthy of the rebuke, which a monk makes to Gawain, “You are a bad and faithless servant.”[35] In contrast, Galahad is named as a paragon of virtue, an example of valour and hardihood, and “a very model of knighthood.”[36] His value system differs from that of Gawain and Lionel and one way that this is illustrated is through his attitude towards violence. Galahad isn’t shown as seeing violence as an end in itself or as a way of acquiring personal glory, in fact he discreetly slips away from one tournament to avoid receiving accolades for his martial prowess.[37] Instead, Galahad fights when it is required as part of his service to God. He fights to protect those who are weak or unable to defend themselves, such as a wounded Melias, or Perceval’s sister, and he fights to defend himself.[38] Moreover, whenever possible he ‘overcomes his opponents without destroying them’.[39] God’s mercy is an important theme in the Quest and Galahad reflects this theme in his combat.[40] He will continue a fight or pursuit until he is convinced that what he is protecting is no longer threatened, but he is shown as considering violence to be defensive rather than aggressive.[41] When his opponent yields or flees, Galahad allows them to live to give them the opportunity to repent and atone to God for their sins.[42] That life is valuable is emphasised by Galahad’s misery at the Castle of Carcelois. Galahad’s party are attacked first, outnumbered and allow those who flee to escape.[43] Nevertheless, he is dismayed when he realizes how many have been killed in the fighting. A Cistercian priest goes to great lengths to reassure him that what he has done was correct in God’s sight. The priest explains that the inhabitants were not Christians, that they were even worse than the Saracens and infidels, and gives a lengthy list of their wicked deeds and acts against the Church.[44]

The importance of defining appropriate uses of violence was of particular relevance to the time in which the Quest was written. Despite the romantic images surrounding the medieval conception of the knight, they were essentially warriors and, primarily, more interested in defending and expanding their own estates than protecting the Church and society.[45] Instead, it was typically the peasants and the Church who suffered most during private warfare; it was those who worked or prayed who most commonly lost their lives and property.[46] In the Quest a holy man informs Gawain that the purpose of knights is to serve God, defend the Holy Church, and safe-keep their souls.[47] This rebuke, like others in the Quest, reminds the audience about the gap between reality and the ideal promoted by the Church. Although the Church could promote ideals such as the ‘Peace of God’, prohibiting warfare against non-combatants and their property, and the ‘Truce of God’, banning warfare during holy days, translating these into a common reality was far more difficult.[48]

The glorification and romanticisation of violence was further inflamed in medieval society by the Crusades;[49] yet the Church actively supported these. Instead of having to do penance for their acts of violence knights now had the opportunity to achieve salvation through them, as successive popes offered a full remission of sins if they fought to reclaim the lands of God.[50] The Church’s justification for supporting violence can be found in the records of contemporary chroniclers, such as Baldric of Bourgueil who recorded an account of Pope Urban II’s announcement of the First Crusade in 1095.[51] This speech condemns knights for their pride, their violent ways and their readiness to butcher their brethren in the fellowship of Christ.[52] Pope Urban II declares that it is “a lesser evil to brandish the sword against the Saracens” and that it is a holy and just cause to unite in saving both their fellow Christians and the holy city of Jerusalem from “pagan tyranny”.[53] Unfortunately, although some undoubtedly went on campaign out of genuine piety, many went to garner lands, wealth and renown for themselves.[54] The Fourth Crusade (1201-4) never even reached the Holy Land; their adventures saw them excommunicated and extremely wealthy after they’d engaged in warfare and pillaging against the Christian inhabitants of Hungary and Constantinople.[55] It is understandable, therefore, that when the Quest was written, the Cistercian author was gravely concerned that the nobility had lost sight of fighting for God and instead come to casually consider violence as a means of increasing personal fortune and renown.

The peaceful holy men present in the Quest, and the values that they express, are a stark contrast to the earthly knights that they teach.[56] They represent the clarity of vision, surety of self and learned wisdom that the knights often lack, for instance when they require interpretation of their dreams or events that have befallen them.[57] These holy figures represent self-contained, content and peaceful lives that are the result of embracing the Cistercian values of chastity, asceticism and meditative prayer.[58] Moreover, the alternative lifestyle that they represent is shown as attainable. The Quest advises that several of these teachers and healers once lived as Arthur’s knights did but voluntarily gave up their wealth and turned away from the materialism, pride and violence of a knightly life.[59] This is portrayed as the kind of life that the knights should be seeking, and some of them, such as Perceval, do choose to embrace it.[60] However, if they choose to remain in the in the secular world of King Arthur’s court, as Bors does, then these holy men act as guides to teach them what a knight should truly value. [61]

Constance Bouchard argues that the spiritual outlook of the Church and the secular, militant focus of the nobility were ultimately incompatible and resistant to attempts to unify them.[62] However, the Quest reveals that, in fiction at least, it was possible to resolve the conflict between these two lifestyles. Three of the knights are considered truly worthy of the Grail, of these Galahad ascends to heaven and Perceval takes on the religious habit but Bors remains part of the courtly, secular world as an example of a ‘knight of heaven’.[63] The narrative of the Quest is placed in an Arthurian romance so that the conventions traditionally associated with this courtly, secular setting can be inverted and de-familiarised to the audience. The pleasures of these texts, that reflect the aspirations of their readers, are shown not to be virtues but rather vices, such as lust, pride and covetousness. The societal equation of knighthood with violence and death is condemned and shown to be dangerous, for instance both Gawain and Lionel threaten the stability of the Round Table’s fellowship with their desire for combat. The Quest offers an alternative view of knighthood, one that is based on compassion, humility and honouring God. Violence is not shown as an end in itself but rather as something that is to be used only when necessary, to protect oneself or to defend those incapable of defending themselves. This emphasis on combat having a defensive focus is shown not as weakness or a lack of martial prowess but rather as a generosity of spirit that reflects the grace of God and the importance placed on allowing opportunities for repentance.[64] While they must have been aware that many who read the text would react as Gawain did, entrenched in their sins and unwilling to listen to counsel, the author of the Quest must have hoped that some would struggle towards redemption, as Lancelot does, or serve, like Bors, as an example of a godly knight.[65]

[1] Modern texts have included Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gwilliam and Terry Jones (dir.), Sony Pictures, 1999 [DVD], film release date 1975; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Steven Spielberg (dir.), Paramount Home Entertainment, 1999, film release date 1989; Dan Brown, The Da Vinci code, New York, 2004.
[2] Gentil means noble but also carries wider connotations of nobility of birth, nobility of character, courtesy and honour.
[3] The five French texts composing the Vulgate Cycle are the Estoire del Saint Graal (The History of the Holy Grail), the Estoire d’Merlin (The History of Merlin), the Lancelot Propre (The Lancelot Proper), the Queste du Saint Graal (The Quest of the Holy Grail), and the Mort Artu (The Death of Arthur). Tracey Adams, ENGLISH 340 lecture, University of Auckland, 31 July 2006.
[4] There at least twenty-five encounters mentioned in the Grail with holy figures such as hermits, monks, anchorites and nuns.
[5] The Quest for the Holy Grail, trans. and introduction by P. M. Matarasso, London, 1969, reprint 2005, p.21.
The only times that the garb of the holy figures is described it is always white; see, for instance, pp.53, 119, 136-7, 195, 240, 268. The only exception is the black-garbed priest who appears to Bors as he searches for Lionel and whom he discovers, subsequently, to have been the Devil in disguise, pp.190-194.
[6] C. Warren Hollister, Medieval Europe: a short history, 6th ed., New York, 1990, p.193.
Quest, Matarasso, p.20.
[7] Quest, Matarasso, p.21.
[8] Hollister, p.193.
[9] Ibid. p.194.
[10] By the thirteenth century young nobles were expected to spend many hours on the practice fields, training for combat, however, they were also expected to spend a large number of hours studying with priests for their spiritual welfare and to learn appropriate moral and social behaviour.
Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of body, brave and noble: chivalry and society in Medieval France, Ithaca, 1998, p.111.
[11] Linda M. Paterson, The world of the troubadours: medieval Occitan society, c.1100-1300, Cambridge, 1993, p. 63-5. Pamela Porter, Courtly love in medieval manuscripts, London, 2003, pp.28-9, 41.
[12] Sandra Resnick Alfonsi, Masculine submission in troubadour lyric, New York, 1986, pp.38-41.
Joachim Bumke, Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages, Woodstock, 2000, pp.311-2.
[13] E. Jane Burns, Courtly love undressed: reading through clothes in medieval French culture, Philadelphia, 2002, p.42. Frederick Goldin, ‘The array of perspectives in the early courtly love lyric’, in Joan M. Ferrant and George D. Economou [et al.], (eds.), In pursuit of perfection: courtly love in medieval literature, Port Washington, 1975, p.55. Bouchard, pp.133-4. Bumke, pp.311-2, 326.
[14] Bouchard, p.113.
[15] Such as in Tristan and Isolde where the narrative tension relies on the tension between Tristan’s adulterous love for Isolde and the loyalty he owes to King Mark, both as a kinsman and as a vassal. Ibid. p.114.
Similarly, in Chrétien’s Knight of the Cart, Lancelot adulterously loves Queen Guinevere despite his place in King Arthur’s fellowship. Chrétien de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart, trans. Burton Raffel and afterword by Joseph J. Duggan, New Haven, 1997.
[16] For instance, in the tale of Sir Launfal, his fortunes are restored and vastly increased by the gifts he receives from Dame Triamoure. Thomas Chestre, ‘Sir Launfal’, in: Donald B. Sands, ed., Middle English verse romances, New York, 1966, pp.201-232.
[17]For instance, Gawain giving up jousting out of his love for Dame Ragnell, or Lancelot fighting badly because Guinevere wishes it. Respectively: ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’, in: Donald B. Sands, ed., Middle English verse romances, New York, 1966, pp.345-6; de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart, pp.178-180.
[18] Quest, Matarasso, pp.187-8.
[19] Bors is later advised by an abbot that he was right to “set natural love aside” in order to show love and obedience to the “King of heaven.” Ibid. pp.188, 198-9.
[20] Ibid. pp.166-168, 170-4.
[21] Ibid. pp.200-5.
[22] Ibid. p.159.
[23] Lionel murders a hermit and Sir Calogrenant for protecting Bors while Lionel attempts to murder him. Ibid. p.159.
[24] Bors’ prayers and his unwillingness to sin by striking his brother are rewarded by God sending first the hermit and Sir Calogrenant to protect him; then by sending a ball of fire from heaven that stuns Lionel and Bors. Ibid. pp.202-5.
[25] Ibid. pp.65-6.
[26] Ibid. pp.70-1.
[27] Ibid. pp.79, 170-4.
[28] Ibid. pp. 85-6, 88-93, 134, 142-3.
[29] Ibid. pp.42, 71, 89, 143-4, 159-60, 260.
[30] For instance, Gawain is called a coward when he gives up jousting at the end of the romance, ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’, op. cit., pp.345-6.
[31] Quest, Matarasso, p.162.
[32] Ibid. pp.166-7.
[33] Ibid. pp.168.
[34] Gawain is reprimanded the first time for killing the seven brothers who had been holding the Castle of the Maidens. The second reprimand is at the hermitage where Gawain and Hector seek an explanation for their dreams. Ibid. pp.79, 174-5.
[35] This rebuke acts as a scriptural reference to Matthew 25, where those who have served their Master [God] well are praised with “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” but those who have failed will be told “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” ‘Matthew 25, verses 21 and 41,’ in: The NIV Study Bible, Kenneth Barker, ed., Grand Rapids, 1995, pp.1476-7.
[36]Quest, Matarasso, pp.77, 134.
[37] Ibid. p.208.
[38] Ibid. pp.68, 239, 246-7.
[39] Ibid. p.79.
[40] “For the Scriptures state that there is none so wicked but Our Lord will have mercy on him, provided that he implore Him with a contrite heart.” Ibid. p.80.
[41] Ibid. pp.73-6, 108, 208.
[42] Ibid. pp.79, 240.
[43] Ibid. pp.239-40.
[44] Ibid. pp.240-1.
[45] Hollister, p.156.
[46] Ibid. p.156.
[47] Quest, Matarasso, p.79.
[48] Hollister, p.178.
The Church met with even less success in its condemnation of tournaments, which it felt encouraged vices, endangered souls and risked the meaningless loss of life or limb. Bouchard, pp.123-5
[49] The Crusades were a series of holy wars chiefly fought during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Those that are best known today were the attempts by Christian nations of Western Europe to take and hold Jerusalem; however, as time passed the focus shifted from Jerusalem itself to the perceived threat to Christendom of the Muslim empire. The Crusades also involved other campaigns that had been approved by the Church, such as the attempts to regain territorial control in Spain from the Muslims or the war on heretics in France (the Albigsenian Crusade).
For further information see Hollister, pp.170-186, 196-7;or: Riley-Smith, Jonathan, What were the Crusades?, London, 1992.
[50] Hollister, pp.178-9. Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West, London, 1986, p.130.
[51] Baldric was prior and abbot of Saint-Pierre-de-Bourgueil from 1089 to 1107 and he attended the Council of Clermont in 1095. He is one of four contemporary chroniclers whose version of Pope Urban II’s sermon has survived. Baldric of Bourgueil, ‘Account of the preaching of the First Crusade’, in: Louise and Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality, 1095-1274, London, 1981, p.49.
[52] Ibid. p.51.
[53] Ibid. pp.49-52.
[54] Hollister, p.178.
[55] Ibid. p.181-2.
[56] I have chosen to use the phrase ‘holy men’ to refer to the monks and anchorites met by the knights during The Quest for the Holy Grail due to linguistic ease, as it is a common English phrase, and because the society in which the Quest was written was dominated by men. However, this catchphrase does inadvertently elide the presence of ‘holy women’ in the text, such as the nuns who raised Galahad or Perceval’s aunt whom he encounters after she has become an anchoress.
Quest, Matarasso, pp.32, 96.
[57] For instance: Ibid. pp.70-1, 78-80, 87-94, 121-124, 150-4, 158-60.
[58] “…I am she who was once called the Queen of the Waste Land…I was one of the richest ladies in the world. And yet those riches never pleased nor became me as well as does my present poverty.”
Ibid. p.96.
[59] Ibid. p.69, 96, 138, 209.
[60] Ibid. p.284.
[61] Ibid. pp.79 and 284.
[62] Bouchard, pp.121-2.
[63] The contrast between the ‘earthly knights’ and the ‘knights of heaven’ is explained to Lancelot by an anchoress. Quest, Matarasso, pp.158-9.
[64] Andrea Williams comments that in the Quest there is always scope for reform and redemption; this is echoed in the words of the Quest’s holy figures who state that God’s mercy is available to all who penitently request it. Andrea M. L. Williams, The Adventures of the Holy Grail. A study of La Queste del Saint Graal, Bern, 2001, p.73. Quest, Matarasso, p.80.
[65] Gawain decides that penance is too hard, is too busy at one point to listen to the advice of a holy man, and the final mention of him is Lancelot’s grief at discovering that Gawain has slain King Baudemagus. Although he is encouraged to turn to God, his refusal to repent marks him as a determined sinner. Quest, Matarasso, pp.80, 175, 268.
Lancelot is an example of the sinner who strives towards God but definitely struggles along the way. One example of this is his time in Castle Corbenic where he does get to see the Grail, but is also rebuked twice by God. However, his insistence on continuing to wear his hair-shirt indicates his desire to continue seeking to become a godly knight. Ibid. pp.260-5.


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