This single work introduced the story of the Grail to a Western audience. According to Chretien, the Grail was a magical vessel, not quite described in detail, that existed simultaneously in our world and the spiritual realm, that not only promised the gift of Grace to those who sought after it, but a lofty goal for which the noble knight might strive in such barbarous times. The hero of his story, named Perceval, seems an unlikely sort to achieve such a goal as the Holy Grail. Described as a innocent from the wilds of the Welsh forrest, he sees a band of knights one day, gleaming in the sunlight, and he was immediately struck by their majesty. Inquiring to his mother about such a vision, she relates to him that he is descended from a family of knights such as these, the knowledge of which has been kept from him for the fear that he may end up like those who came before him -- now all dead.
He rides straight away to the castle of the good King Arthur, and asks to become one of his knights. He is told to become a knight of Arthur’s court, he will have to confront the Red Knight and bring back his armor. With this task, his life, and indeed his training, as a knight begins. Simultaneously succeeding and failing at every task set before him, he illustrates that he was born to be not only a great knight, but a knight singularly suited to the task of achieving the Grail. This curious trait seems to reach its peak when he at last finds himself at the Castle of the Fisher King. Once the king invites the novice in for a rest, he is seated at a great and mysterious feast. During the festivities, a procession of curious objects pass before all present - a bleeding lance, a gleaming candelabra, and finally, carried by a beautiful young maiden, a vessel of some kind which Chretien describes as a “graal”. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this procession is key to achieving the Grail and in curing the King of a wound that keeps him lingering between life and death. When he fails to ask the question that will set everything to rights, the feast ends and the party disperses into the bowels of the castle. Upon the morning, he finds himself alone in the castle, and rides away alone. Soon thereafter, he learns of his failing, and what it means for himself and for the land that has yet to be healed.
Unfortunately for Perceval as well as for us, the story never ended. It would seem that Chretien died before completing his renowned tale of the holy object. We are left with another knight of Arthur’s court, Gawain, being embroiled in a bit of intrigue with a mysterious lady. It was for others in the following years to complete the story, debatably according to their own fancy or according to the same sourcebook Chretien himself used as a guide while writing the story. These “Continuators” went on to provide more detail about the Grail itself, stating it was none other than the vessel from which Christ Himself drank on the night of His Last Supper with His disciples.
Chretien de Troyes was under the employ of Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although he was not specifically said to be employed by Philip of Flanders, it is to him that Chretien credited and dedicated his last book, Perceval, the Story of the Grail. Although little is specifically known of Chretien, some things can be inferred from his history. On several occasions, Chretien refers to himself as “of Troyes”, which would seem to indicate he did not write from there. Also, the husband to Marie de Champagne during his time under her patronage was Henry I, “The Liberal”, Count of Champagne. Count Henry was related to the 12th century abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, and visited him when he became bishop. It is thought that Chretien may have accompanied Count Henry during his visit to England, in part due to Chretien’s in depth explanation of certain areas and environs of England which some say he would had to have seen to write about so clearly.
Chrétien de Troyes, King Henry I of England and his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine
Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey
The date given to Chretien’s writing of The Story of the Grail is usually around 1180-1190 due mostly to the latter date being when Philip of Flanders died while on Crusade. However, one factor puts that dating into question. Rigaut de Berbezilh, an early Troubadour thought to have flourished in the mid 12th century and supposedly a member of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court, exhibits a knowledge of the Perceval story. In one of his poems to his lady love, whom he refers to as “Miellz de Domna”, (Greatest of Women), he states that he was stricken speechless as was Perceval upon viewing the Grail. Although there is some contention regarding the time period in which Rigaut wrote the major body of his works, (ranging from the mid 12th to as late as the early 13th century), it is generally accepted that he came before Chretien’s fame hit its peak.
Chretien’s sourcebook, allegedly given to him by Philip of Flanders, has always been a subject of great interest. The only other bit of information given about the book is that Philip told Chretien to write it in the form of verse, which would suggest that it was originally in prose. This begs the question, from where would Philip have obtained this “sourcebook”, and when? It has been suggested that he would have received this text during a short and ill-fated romance and engagement to Marie de Champagne after the death of her husband Henry I. Then again…there is another option.
Count Philip I of Flanders
It is well known that Count Philip I of Flanders died while on Crusade in 1191, however what isn't as well known is that he travelled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage in 1177-78. In addition, he went on pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in 1172. While his devotion is admirable, the true importance to our present study is that Count Philip may have had additional exposure to the Grail story along the way.
As you can see by the Camino route map above, there are many different paths one can take through France and Spain to reach Santiago de Compostella. Both his native lands and those of Marie du Champagne are near the northern regions of France, so the route Philip may have taken could be nearly any of those shown above. However, two cities in particular were commonly visited either on the way through or on the way back from this pilgrimage: Paris, and Vézelay. In either case, the route of the pilgrimage would have brought him down through the same region of the Pyrenees. A short distance away is the town of Jaca Spain, also on the Camino de Santiago. This city and the surrounding region was a popular one at the time as being a place of extreme religious significance at the time of Philip's pilgrimage. The topic of the relic as the Cup of Christ was well known along the Camino, as well as the veneration of St. Lawrence. Along the pilgrimage routes, such side trips gained the pilgrim a form of "spiritual extra credit" for their endeavors. In a mountain pass near Jaca, there stands a monastery, literally built into the side of a mountain, called San Juan de la Peña. In the 12th century, right about at the time of Philip's visit to the area, this monastery held one of the few "Grail contenders" that has a believable history.
San Juan de la Peña once held a holy chalice now found in the Valencia Cathedral further to the southeast. Called the "Santo Caliz de Valencia", this relic is said to be the same cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, and that used by the first 22 popes of the Roman Catholic Church until it was moved to Spain in a time of danger in Rome. After a long and circuitous route that took it all around northern Spain and eventually to Valencia, it resided in the mountain monastery of San Juan de la Peña for several hundred years around the time the Grail legends began in Europe. This cup, now seen as an elaborate piece of medieval art, is an red/brown agate cup atop a gold stem and handles resting on another agate cup, upturned to form a base, covered in fine gold and several costly jewels.
San Juan de la Peña monastery
The identity of this cup was allegedly recorded first in a letter written by Saint Lawrence, in whose charge the cup was placed by Pope Sixtus II in 258 during a time of Christian persecution in Rome. Accompanying the cup to Spain, this original letter has been lost to time, although according to tradition, the wording of the letter has been recorded in later histories of the relic. The cup's presence at San Juan de la Peña was indeed recorded in an 1134 inventory of the monastery's holdings. In addition, the relic was well known and recorded in the region of northern Spain as early as April of 1063 when the Cathedral of Jaca was consecrated, during which time the relic was venerated there. The Santo Caliz is notable not only for its history, but also by its appearance. This doesn't fit with what we would imagine a simple cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper would look like, but we must remember that only the agate cup atop the stack of ornate gold and jewels is the actual relic. In fact, it is the elaborate reliquary that the gold and jeweled stem and base forms that tell us something about its importance to the development of the Grail legend. In his description of the Grail as Perceval sees it for the first time in the hall of the Rich Fisher King, Chretien describes the Grail as follows.
"A damsel, who came with the youths and was fair and attractive and beautifully adorned, held in both hands a grail. once she had entered with this grail that she held, so great a radiance appeared that the candles lost their brilliance just as the stars do at the rising of the sun or moon. After her came another maiden, holding a silver carving-dish. The grail, which proceeded ahead, was of pure refined gold. And this grail was set with many kinds of precious stones, the richest and most costly in sea or earth; those stones in the grail certainly surpassed all others.
When we remember that Chrétien credited Philip with giving him the source book from which he took the story of the Grail, the importance of the Santo Caliz immediately becomes clear.
The Santo Caliz is most immediately recognized by its highly ornamented gold and jeweled body. History records that the relic was still listed as a single agate cup in 1135, but was recorded as being in the exact form we see today, (the image shown above), when King Martin "the Humane" claimed the relic from San Juan de la Peña in 1399. It is thought that at least the stem and base were added to the original agate cup in the first half of the 12th century, before Philip likely saw it for himself during as side trip on his pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago. Recalling that the Grail described by Chrétien was said to have ornamentation that included costly jewels "from the sea", we then must realize that the only "gem" from the sea is a pearl, and there are 22 pearls on the Santo Caliz, in addition to the other larger gems visible above.
Turning our attention now to this sourcebook given to Chrétien by Philip, we for the first time realize that this "sourcebook" might have been a medieval history written about the cup that Philip brought back to France and later gave to Chrétien. This may seem like flimsy evidence to support such a claim, but one of Chrétien's continuators provides corroboration.
The 12th century German romancer Wolfram von Eschenbach made the extraordinary claim that he used the same sourcebook as did Chrétien, but that his French counterpart did not do the story justice. He went on to say the story first came through someone named Kyot from Toledo Spain. He described the Grail as a stone on which the worthy may see mysterious writing appear. (It should here be noted that there is indeed Arabic writing on the base of the Santo Caliz that is faintly visible.) In addition, Wolfram says that the Grail can be found in a location he calls Munsalvaesche. According to research conducted by Janice Bennett and Michael Hesseman, the mountains in which the monastery of San Juan de la Peña is hidden was called, in the native Occitan language of the region in the 12th century, Munsalvasche.
In case you need further proof, consider the writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach's own continuator — Albrecht von Sharfenburg. Albrecht built on Wolfram's version of the Grail story, only in his text, he made the further stipulation that the chapel which housed the Grail was surrounded by 22 arches. If he had access to the same source material that Wolfram himself used, (which is reasonable to assume), we might rightly think that this feature of the Grail chapel came from the original sourcebook.
The medieval altar at San Juan de la Peña. Note the arches. (3 arches across the front)
The center chapel "room" of the altar. (7 arches along the back wall, and 2 arches leading to either side chapel.)
The right chapel "room" of the altar. (5 arches along the back wall)
The left chapel "room" of the altar. (5 arches along the back wall)
Therefore, if we add up the arches built around the altar of the chapel where, in the 12th century, the Santo Caliz was venerated, we find the following:
3 arches across the front
2 arches from the center chapel room to either side chapels
7 arches around the back wall of the center chapel
5 arches around the back of the left chapel
5 arches around the back of the right chapel
Totalling: 22 arches. *
This, taken together with Wolfram's Munsalvaesche, there can be little doubt that the Grail Cup and the Grail Chapel could be found in San Juan de la Peña in the 12th century when Count Philip likely passed through while on pilgrimage. It would be reasonable that the "sourcebook" of which Chrétien spoke, given to him by Philip, was some sort of history of the Santo Caliz relic obtained from San Juan de la Peña, brought back to France, and passed on to become the Grail story with which we are all so familiar today.
Why then was the medieval story of the Grail paired with King Arthur and set in an English landscape? In a theory I will elaborate on later, the simplest answer is that I believe the Grail story entered the Western literary tradition at two different times — once as a simple elaboration on the Arthurian traditions in England, (which Chrétien had already written on extensively) maybe as early as the 1160's, and again some years later when Philip brought back the history book about the Santo Caliz, the "sourcebook" which Chrétien mentioned in the introduction to his Conte del Graal. In Glastonbury we see the connection between the Arthurian tradition and the tradition of Jospeh's two cruets of Jesus's blood and sweat which could supposedly found with him in his grave, as mentioned by Melkin in the 6th century AD.
"So what? — Are you saying there might be two Holy Grails???" you may ask. No, certainly not! I think there might have been even more than that.
* To my knowledge, no one has ever made this connection between San Juan de la Peña's arches and the 22 arches mentioned by Albrecht von Scharfenburg. Therefore, I am pleased to say, it appears this is my own discovery.