The Lancelot-Grail Project:
The Story: Outline of the Lancelot-Grail Romance
Alison Stones 2007




The Lancelot-Grail romance in its five-branch form is structured around two poles: the search for spiritual purity symbolized by the Quest for the Holy Grail and the chivalric, military, and amorous adventures of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table.  The first branch, the Estoire del saint Graal relates the early history of the Grail, narrated by a hermit-author who receives the story, in the form of a book, from Christ himself. It tells how Joseph of Arimathea retrieved from the Upper Room the vessel ('escuele') in which Christ had celebrated the Last Supper, and used it to collect the blood of Christ at the Entombment, converting many people together with his son Josephé, the first Christian bishop, then transporting the Grail to England, accompanied by their followers.  The next branch is Merlin, beginning with the devils' plot to foil Christ's triumph in the resurrection through an antichrist, Merlin, conceived by the devil in a pure virgin; but Merlin's devout mother saves her child from evil through her confessor Blaise.  Endowed with prophetic and supernatural powers, Merlin is instrumental in the conception of Arthur, son of King Uther and the virtuous Ygerne, wife of Uther's vassal the Duke of Tintagel.  Arthur's rightful claim to the throne is confirmed by his feat of drawing the sword embedded in the anvil, and he rules the kingdom for many years in peace.  There follow battles against the Romans and Saxons, described in the lengthy Suite Vulgate du Merlin, and Arthur marries Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegan, who also fathered another daughter, the False Guinevere.  The story of Lancelot follows, from the loss of his father's home and his upbringing by the Lady of the Lake, to his arrival at King Arthur's court where he falls in love with Queen Guinevere.  Their adulterous relationship is presented as an ennobling thing, through which Lancelot is given the strength of three knights, becoming the best knight in the world and saving Arthur's kingdom more than once.  He eventually has to choose between his deep friendship for Galehot and his love for Guinevere.  Many adventures follow, involving numerous other knights of Arthur's court. Lancelot unwittingly begets a son, Galaad, with the daughter of King Pelles, and this son will become the Grail winner and achieve the Quest of the Holy Grail (La Queste del saint Graal) which his sinful father is unable to accomplish.  The final branch, La Mort Artu, recounts Arthur's the discovery of the adultery, Guinevere's trial for having unwittingly given a knight a poisoned apple, Arthur's betrayal by his own illegitimate son Mordred, and many battles against the Romans and Saxons.  In the end, Guinevere retires to a nunnery, Lancelot to a hermitage, and Arthur and Mordred mortally wound each other, and the glorious age has come to an end.  As we explain elsewhere (What is the Lancelot-Grail ?), the various parts of the story were composed separately and put together in a sequence that most likely does not reflect the five-part arrangement that was arrived at by the second quarter of the thirteenth century.  For a more detailed summary of the story see the Summary page.

 

The story encompasses the whole range of human emotions, from purity to lust and sin, from friendship and love to treachery and betrayal, from aspiration to achievement but also to failure, from salvation to death.  It was immensely popular from the earliest copies at the beginning of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth century, surviving in whole or in part in some 200 manuscripts, and several versions, most of which are illustrated.  This project aims to examine the illustrations in these manuscripts for their selection, placing, and iconographic contents.  We have found that the illustrations offer many different readings of the text and emphasize the aspects of it the patrons and readers must have found most compelling.  Some subjects and events were particularly popular and were illustrated in large numbers of manuscripts, but direct copies of one sequence of illustrations to another are rare, even among manuscripts made by the same scribes, decorators and illuminators.  Most of the patrons remain anonymous but we can tell a great deal about the kinds of people they must have been from whether it was the spiritual aspects of the text that interested them particularly, or the military aspects, or other elements, depending on which parts of the text were selected for illustration.  Comparisons among manuscripts are what make this kind of study feasible and we aim to present as many as possible here so that we and others can continue to discover what it was about these stories that so fascinated the medieval imagination, and what was the context in which they were produced and acquired.  

 

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