The Vulgate Rewrite

The Grail story, Weston points out, met with hostility from the Church. So also did the entire Matter of Britain. But then, in the early thirteenth century, the Arthurian saga was taken up and rewritten in the cloister by Cistercian monks, an order at forefront of the Reform movement. Their version is known as the Vulgate cycle. In five interrelated books it tells the entire story in the form best known today, starting with the origin of the Grail itself in L'Estoire del Saint Graal, and ending with the collapse of Arthur's kingdom in La Mort le Roi Artu. The story of the finding of the Grail is told in La Queste del Saint Graal, and it is here we meet Sir Galahad for the first time.

After decades of denouncing Arthurian tales the Reformers decided to write their own. No scholar pretends that the Vulgate cycle is a tale told for amusement. It is, quite frankly, Cistercian propaganda. But why would the monks have chosen such an unlikely vehicle to propagate their views on sex and spirituality? Loomis, still the most influential academic on the subject of Arthurian legend, suggested a change of heart on the part of the clerics: "Though scorned and denounced by the clergy, these conteurs finally won their opponents over".[1] Jessie Weston had put forward an entirely different view: “The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”[2]

The Vulgate’s Queste departs considerably from earlier versions of the story. The Grail knight is now neither Perceval nor Gawain, though both figure in the tale in various stages of transformation. The character of Gawain is completely blackened. From Chrétien's perfect chivalrous knight, foil to the gauche Perceval - a reputation he retained in English romances - Gawain in later French stories had already degenerated into a comic character, lead astray by lust. But the Vulgate transforms him into a lecherous violent lout who ends up slaughtering his dearest friends - a monkish caricature of the vices of knighthood. Perceval fares better: He retains the naivety of his earlier incarnations, but now a virgin, accompanied not by his beloved but by his virgin sister, he is a mere sidekick to the new hero, Galahad.

Galahad is not a traditional character with roots in Celtic pagan tradition. He is a purely literary invention, with no existence prior to the Vulgate cycle. The Cistercian writers make him the son of Lancelot by the daughter of King Pelles (magically disguised as Guinevere), who is conceived specifically to accomplish the task from which his father, though the best knight in the world, is debarred because of his sin with the Queen. Galahad himself is immune to lust. He is a flawless virgin with no imperfections of character, and predestined for his task, so though his story retains the title 'La Quest del Saint Graal', it is not actually a quest any more. There is no initial failure and subsequent success, no development of character through the experience of hardship and disappointment, there is simply an inevitable progress towards an inevitable finale, with a running commentary on the action from a host of moralizing hermits. Most significantly, where once the achievement of the quest brought blessings on all, restoring the Waste Land, now we have the opposite effect.

When Galahad reaches the Grail an apparition of Christ, emanating from it, announces the Grail is to leave Logres 'this same night' because the dissolute inhabitants 'neither serve nor honour it as is its due'. Galahad's vision of the Grail benefits only himself: having delivered the sacred vessel, as instructed, to the holy city of Sarras, he rules reluctantly for a year before his prayer is granted and, dying, he is translated into beatitude. But Arthur's realm is damned by his achievement, and the stage is set for the destruction of the Round Table.

In Weston’s view the writers of the Vulgate knew perfectly well what the Grail signified, and deliberately inverted the story. Others argue that the Grail had no meaning before the Cistercians imposed their own on it. Richard Barber defines the Vulgate story as a “radical rethinking of the idea of the Grail from the hints and half-thought-out ideas of earlier writers.”[3] Richard Cavendish states that the Vulgate cycle “imposed order and coherence on the whole rambling Matter of Britain" and that the surviving Grail romances are not, as Weston thought, half understood remnants of an heretical legend, but “stages in the making of a Christian myth.”[4] Yet it is demonstrably the case that the Vulgate did deliberately invert the themes of Courtly Love so prominent in the original Grail stories.

An incident from the adventures of Sir Bors provides a sufficient illustration. Bors is Lancelot’s cousin, one of the companions who comes close to achieving the Grail. The Queste tells how, after many tribulations, he finds rest in an abbey where the saintly abbot is able to explain to him the significance of his experiences, and the meaning his dreams. Bors had dreamt he saw a rotten stump about to totter, and two lilies, one of which leaned to other and "would have robbed it of its whiteness"[5] but that a venerable old man parted them so that neither touched the other, and both grew into trees laden with fruit. This dream, the abbot explained, related to one of his earlier adventures, in which he rescued of a maiden from her abductor.

The rescuing of a maiden is of course a commonplace of Arthurian romance, and the usual result would be that the hero is rewarded by her love and her hand in marriage. But not so in the Vulgate Quest. Bors never touches the girl. He is a pure soul on a spiritual quest; he has known a woman only once in his life and he deeply regrets his error. But though he had made no lustful mistake in his conduct towards this particular maiden, his conscience is still troubled. For in order to rescue the girl Bors had been forced to abandon his own brother to the mercies of his brutal captors. He had done no wrong, the abbot assures him, for which was it better to let perish, the rotten stump or the lilies? His sinful brother Lionel was the rotten stump. The lilies were the maiden and her abductor. The old man was Our Lord, whose instrument Bors had been. That both lilies grew into fruit-laden trees indicated that great lineages would arise from these two. But this could not have happened if Bors had not parted them. If the knight had succeeded in ravishing the girl, if by this foul deed she had lost her maidenhead, the wrath of God would have condemned them to sudden death and eternal damnation - that's both of them, the rapist and his victim.

Weston suggested the Vulgate’s perversion of the original meaning of the Grail was quite deliberate. Of course she is right. P M Matarasso, in the introduction to her translation of the Queste, actually describes it as an ‘anti-romance’: "The stage is the same and so are the players, but all the accepted values are inverted."[6] The Vulgate writers were not won over. They adopted the Matter of Britain, not because it was a suitable vehicle for their teachings, but precisely in order to subvert a propaganda weapon aimed at themselves. Not only their Grail quest but their entire Arthurian story is a deliberate perversion of the original.

The tragic fall of Camelot, the loss of Arthur's Golden Age, is the culmination of the Vulgate story. In Geoffrey's history it is political intrigue and treachery which bring this about. In the Vulgate version, it is due to exactly that lay conduct which most exercised the Reformers, the sin which, they claimed, brought defeat on the second crusade - sex: Arthur's kingdom is destroyed by adultery, incest, and, most especially, by Courtly Love.

The principal courtly lovers are, always, Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. The best known element of the Arthurian saga is the tale of how their love destroys the fellowship of the Round Table. But the story is familiar because of the Vulgate rewrite. The Vulgate formed the basis of Malory's Mort d'Arthur and Malory in turn inspired Tennyson. The monks' version of Arthur's doom is the one that has come down to us, but there is nothing of this tale in earlier versions.

True, Guinevere is a traitress and adulteress in Geoffrey's history, but her co-conspirator is Mordred: Geoffrey knows nothing of Lancelot. For his account of Guinevere's conduct Geoffrey is drawing on Welsh originals, we know, for fragments survive. But in these Welsh tales Guinevere is as likely to be assaulted, raped, or kidnapped as to willingly take off with Arthur's rival. It is accepted that she is, in fact, a symbol of sovereignty, even Sovereignty personified, so that adultery or abduction of his Queen are mytho-poetic references to an attempted usurpation of Arthur's throne. The Lancelot story is something entirely different.

Lancelot is Queen's champion, a position first held by Gawain - one romance tells how both men attempt to rescue her from an abductor. Queen's champion, the young knight who serves Sovereignty and courts her, is not Arthur's rival but his heir: Gawain is his sister's son. This symbolic meaning may have been lost in the continental romances, but Lancelot, before the Vulgate got hold of him, is never Arthur's enemy. No harm comes to Camelot from his love of the Queen. Their love story originally ended with Lancelot’s elevation to the kingship. On Guinevere's death, broken-hearted, Lancelot determined to leave Arthur's court and return home to Brittany. So Arthur and his knights elect to accompany their friend and assist him in wresting his father's throne from the clutches of the usurper Claudas.

The familiar story of Arthur’s demise at the hands of his own son, product of an insestuous union with Morgan le Fay, also originates with the Vulgate storytellers. Mordred’s earliest appearance as Arthur’s enemy is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, for which, as usual, that writer had a source, the Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals which says both Arthur and ‘Medraut’ died in that battle, though it doesn’t specify that they were on opposite sides. Geoffrey’s Mordred is Arthur’s nephew, the son of his siter Anna by her legitimate husband, Loth of Lodonesia, and the brother of Gawain. During Arthur’s absence on the Continent fighting the Romans, Mordred attempts to usurp both his throne and his Queen, but this original Mordred is no nemesis prepared for Arthur by his own sin. Though Arthur the leacher and fornicator was already a part of ecclesiastical legend by Geoffrey’s time, appearing in that character in the Welsh Saints Lives, it was the Cistercian writers of the Vulgate Cycle who conceived of an Arthur who had sex with his sister. The story is an illustration of the dangers inherent in any unregulated union. When sex occurs outside marriage, purely on the impulse of the participants and with no cleric present to check the genealogies of the offending couple, there is no telling what evil may follow. The consequence in this case was the destruction of a country. But then of course, Britain was already damned by the achievement of the Grail.

The original Matter of Britain was directed against the Reformers, and well they knew it. They subverted the story because they feared its influence would undermine their own preaching. We have further evidence of their concerns in the Jeu d'Adam, a twelfth-century play designed to be performed in church and directed at precisely the same audience as the Arthurian romances, the nobility. It is a play for four characters, Adam, Eve, God and the Devil. It presents the original paradisial state of Eden as being due to these characters observing the correct feudal relationships: Adam is God's vassal, Eve is Adam's vassal, God's sub-vassal. But the Devil enters in, introducing equality between man and wife, and suggesting to Adam "you will be the Creator's peer". Adam at first resists his blandishments, but is finally persuaded by his wife to eat the apple, remarking "I will believe you because you are my peer". Adam's sin is to treat his wife as an equal. The fall from grace, the origin of suffering and sin, is all down to this subversion of the natural hierarchy. The play ends on a warning - beware of poets![7]

The Reformers knew what they were up against. The Grail legend was indeed directed against the papacy, like the rest of the Matter of Britain and the ideal of Courtly Love itself. And as those who opposed the papacy were, by definition, heretics, ineluctably it was heretical. But what exactly was the Grail heresy?

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1. R S Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, p273

2. Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance, p207

3. Richard Barber, King Arthur, Hero and Legend, p75

4. Richard Cavendish, King Arthur and the Grail, pp167 &128

5. The Quest of the Holy Grail, trans. P M Matarasso, p198

6. The Quest of the Holy Grail, P M Matarasso, Introduction, p15

7. George Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest, p213-6