Chivalric Mythology

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Yet the religious strength of chivalry is best seen in the steady confidence

expressed in the inherent value of the knightly life rather than in the cut and

thrust of anticlericalism. In its sacred mythology chivalry is older than the clerical

hierarchy, having emerged in the age and circle of Christ. The element of

independence is obvious, as is the associative piety and valorization drawn

Knights and Piety 53

40 Meyer, ed., Histoire, ll. 11354 ff.

41 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland ll. 1606–7. Similar comparisons of the chivalric and monastic

life appear in Moniage du Guillaume, quoted and discussed in Subrenat, ‘Moines mesquins’.

42 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 166–7.

43 Brault, Chanson de Roland, ll. 1876–82. For similarly anti-clerical remarks from Turpin, see

Newth, ed., tr., Song of Aspremont, 9–10, and Brandin, ed., Chanson d’Aspremont, laisse 15.

44 Price, tr., The Waggon-Train, 64; McMillan, ed., Charroi de Nîmes, 66. The French text says

they wanted to make him ‘clers ou abé ou prestres’.

45 Hoggan, tr., ‘Crowning of Louis’, 3; Langlois, ed., Couronnement de Louis, 4.

46 Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, l. 6530.

47 Newth, Song of Aspremont and Brandin, Chanson d’Aspremont, laisse 87.

from links with priestly mythology—correlations and allusions, similarities in


These links appear vividly in stories about Perceval, Galahad, and the Grail.

The blood lines of Perceval and Galahad go back to that great knight Joseph

of Arimathea, who cared for the entombment of that most precious relic in the

world, the body of Christ, and who cared as well for that most famous sacerdotal

object, the Holy Grail. In fact, in the loose and allusive way in which

these romances so often suggest parallels with sacred mythology, Perceval and

Galahad recall the functions of Christ himself, or at least those of his functions

which would appeal most readily to knights. They spread true faith and conquer

the forces of evil.

These are knights for whom God performs miracles. Towards the end of the

Quest Galahad brings healing to a man lame for ten years.49 Even Lancelot’s

blood performs, if not quite a miracle, a marvellous cure when it restores

Agravain in the Lancelot do Lac.50 In Malory’s Mort Darthur Lancelot heals the

grievously wounded Sir Urré by a laying-on of hands.51

Earlier, rough-hewn examples stand behind these Christ-like scenes. The

retired William of Orange has learned from his abbot that he must not fight

with weapons, but only with flesh and blood. Confronted by robbers in a forest,

he rips a leg off a packhorse and uses it as a club. Feeling pity for the packhorse

after the fact, he replaces the leg and prays; the horse becomes whole


An atmosphere of at least pious power thus hangs over these knights. The

result is reverence. In the Lancelot, at a time when Lancelot is thought to have

perished, his battered shield is kept in the centre of a courtyard, with crowds

of ladies, maidens, and knights dancing round it; ‘and every time the knights

or ladies came to face it, they would bow before it as before a holy relic’.53

Again, in the Mort Artu, Lancelot’s shield becomes an object of veneration.

Sent to the cathedral in Camelot before he leaves Logres, it soon hangs by a

silver chain in the middle of the church where it is ‘honoured as if it had been

a holy relic’ by the populace which flocks to see it. The value of this evidence

48 Ecclesiastics must have felt deep ambiguity about the independent directions knightly piety

could take, an uneasiness similar to the reception clerics gave mysticism, which also claimed

authentic religious inspiration irritatingly free from direct clerical control. Burns comments on

clerical opposition to stories about Lancelot and the Grail in Lacy, ed., Lancelot-Grail, I, xxx.

49 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 281; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 275–6.

50 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 370; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 539.

51 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 663–71.

52 Ferrante, ed., tr., Guillaume d’Orange and Cloetta, ed., Deux Redactions, laisse 25.

53 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 326; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 144.

Characteristically, a quarrel over its possession leads to a fight, which brings to mind the fights that

broke out over the possession of relics.

increases when we realize that some battered shields and banners from the very

real world hung in churches in memory of knights who carried them.54

The knights themselves can receive such veneration. After Galescalin has

freed the castle of Pintadol, in the Lancelot, he is greeted ‘with the greatest possible

joy’ by a thankful crowd. ‘And as he passed in front of them, they all fell

to their knees as if before an altar.’55 Those freed by Lancelot’s splendid success

at Escalon the Dark, in the same romance, welcome him ‘as joyously as they

would have hailed God himself’.56

The same could be said of the Grail, which (whatever Chrétien de Troyes

intended), later writers identify with the platter that served Christ’s Passover

lamb, the vessel for the wine, or the vessel that received his blood; they likewise

identify the bleeding lance with the lance of Longinus which pierced

Christ’s side as he hung on the cross. In other words, the objective of this

imagined knightly questing is nothing less than attainment of Eucharistic or

mystical union with the divine; the knights strive to come to the Lord’s table,

there to feed on the bread of heaven dispensed by Christ himself.

This quest and union are effected by the knights and their God, with only

minimal sacramental mediation by priests. As we will see shortly, hermits

stand like signposts on the way, pointing questing knights in the right directions,

spiritually as well as spacially. But in the final moments a few elect

knights who have earned the apotheosis meet God and commune with him in

a blaze of light.

We have been prepared for this moment by the unmistakable lay Pentecosts

and Grail appearances in The History of the Holy Grail and especially in The

Quest of the Holy Grail.57 In the latter text, at dinner on the feast of Pentecost,

‘After they had eaten the first course, an extraordinary event took place; all the

doors and windows of the palace closed by themselves, without anyone touching

them. However, the room was not darkened.’ A venerable man in white

appears, leading into the company of veteran knights a young knight dressed

in red and white, the colours of Christ. ‘Peace be with you’, is his greeting. The

Knights and Piety 55

54 Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 152–3; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 162. Joinville hung his crusading

uncle’s shield in his chapel, with a tablet of explanation: Shaw, tr., Joinville and

Villehardouin, 18. Coss notes that ‘English churches seem to have been literally festooned with

armorial glass and depictions of donors’: The Knight, 89. Ayton cites banners deposited in

churches, in addition to representations in windows, altar cloths, and the like: Ayton and Price,

eds., Medieval Military Revolution, 87. The practice is illustrated inversely in the five hundred pairs

of gilded spurs Froissart says the Flemings hung in the church of Notre Dame of Courtrai, having

taken them from dead French knights on the field of battle outside that city in 1302: see

Brereton, tr., Froissart, 251.

55 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 294; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 227. Holdsworth cites a case

from life: ‘Ideas and Reality’, 76.

56 Rosenberg, Lancelot Part III, 303; Micha, Lancelot, I, 265.

57 Chase, tr., History of the Holy Grail, 23; Hucher, ed., Saint Graal, II, 168–72.

young newcomer soon establishes his unique status by taking the Perilous Seat

at the Round Table (doom for anyone else), by drawing the sword from the

stone floating in the river beside the palace, and by defeating all comers in a

celebratory tournament. At the end of the day, announced by a thunderclap

and illuminated by intense rays of light, the Grail appears and provides each

knight with his most desired food. The knights swear to quest for the Holy


Medieval Christians would not miss the parallel between this scene in

chivalric myth and scenes from sacred history—a blending of the first appearance

of the risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room with the original

Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came in a rushing wind to the apostles in a

closed room, to set them on their great mission in the world. Christ’s colours

were red and white; his greeting in the upper room was ‘Peace be with you’.

In fact, the author later makes the parallelism explicit, more than once.

Perceval’s aunt, a pious recluse, draws the connections for him point by


Near the end of the romance another lay Pentecost combines with a remarkable

Eucharist. Galahad, Perceval, and Bors, the three elite companions on the

quest (soon joined somewhat awkwardly by nine knights to make up the

required apostolic twelve), are seated in the castle of Corbenic. The sky darkens,

the stormy wind makes a great hot rush through the hall and the Grail

appears. The companions, ‘their faces wet with tears of awe and love’, see

Christ appear from the Grail, miraculously to offer them the heavenly food of

his own body. They soon hear the voice of the Lord telling them:

you resemble my apostles. For just as they ate with me at the Last Supper, now you will

eat with me now at the table of the Holy Grail. . . . Just as I dispersed them throughout

the world to preach the true law, so too will I disperse your group, some here,

others there.60

Religious valorization of this intensity comes from texts which walk the border—

only as thick as a penstroke—between the pious and the unthinkable.

The essential actors in this drama are God and his knights. Christ himself participates

not only as sacrifice but as officiating agent, assisted by Josephus who

dramatically descends into the scene from heaven, seated on a throne carried

by four angels. This son of Joseph of Arimathea is here called (in full disregard

of sacred priestly history) the first bishop. Josephus conducts at least the consecration

of the host (drawn from the Grail) into which Christ descends from

above in the form of a shining child who becomes a mature human form.

58 Burns, tr., Quest, 5–8; Matarasso, tr., Quest, 36–45; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, VI, 7–14.

59 Ibid., 36–7; 100–1; 56–7. 60 Ibid., 84–5; 273–7; 189–91.

Josephus places this consecrated host in the Grail, kisses Galahad, and vanishes.

Christ himself emerges from the Grail to give each knight present ‘his


Lay independence hovers about this wondrous scene. If a quasi-priest

officiates here, he is surely an unusual specimen. He has, for one thing, been

dead for three centuries, as the marvelling knights recognize when he descends

from heaven. Moreover an inscription on his brow informs the knights that he

was ‘consecrated by our Lord in Sarras, in the spiritual palace’. Josephus is

decidedly not one of the clerics recognized by the priestly tradition in which

the authority of God came to Peter and subsequently, by the laying on of

hands, to each bishop and priest across the centuries. Even if he descends

clothed in bishops robes, holding a crozier, wearing a mitre, Josephus is a

figure created by knightly lay piety to begin a ritual which ends with the

appearance of Christ to feed his best knights with his own body from his own


The Quest of the Holy Grail is far from a simple valorization of knighthood,

whatever the striking parallels with sacred myth it creates for chivalry. Yet the

degree to which such a work praised an idealized knighthood is fascinating and

informative. Powerful ideas crackled like high voltage alternating current

along lines connecting chevalerie and clergie. If, as we will see, the pattern proposed

for knighthood in a text like this soared beyond actual knights, the

sacralization of their idealized work, replete with concessions to their sense of

independence, remains important.62