Perlesvaus or The High History of the Holy Grail

The High History of the Holy Grail

Author unknown. Translation by Sebastian Evans, 1898


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The anonymous 'Perlesvaus' (entitled ‘The High History of the Holy Grail’ by Sebastian Evans in his translation) is believed to have been composed on the continent of Europe, circa 1220-1230, as a continuation of Chretien DeTroyes' unfinished work "Perceval, or the Knight of the Grail".  This romance is rather more mystical in tone than its predecessors although the basic events remain the same. Almost uniquely among the early grail texts this continental romance overtly draws on archaic Celtic legends. The hero of the tale, Perceval, comes from Kamelot in Wales. He is a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. His grandfather was Alain li Gros. His uncles are King Pelles, the Fisher King and the evil king of Castel Mortel. In the romance Perceval encounters the 'Grail Knights' who wear white surcoats adorned with a red cross. The hero makes the journey to what is recognisable as a Celtic Elysium.

"...This continental romance reflects with extraordinary clearness archaic Welsh traditions which can hardly be detected at all in any other Grail text." - Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail, From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol

Translator's introduction; -- Sebastian Evans, Coombe Lea, Bickley, Kent 1898

This book is translated from the first volume of "Perceval le Gallois ou le conte du Graal"; edited by M. Ch. Potvin for `La Societe des Bibliophiles Belges' in 1866, (1) from the MS. numbered 11,145 in the library of the Dukes of Burgundy at Brussels. This MS. I find thus described in M. F. J. Marchal's catalogue of that priceless collection: `"Le Roman de Saint Graal", beginning "Ores lestoires", in the French language; date, first third of the sixteenth century; with ornamental capitals.' (2) Written three centuries later than the original romance, and full as it is of faults of the scribe, this manuscript is by far the most complete known copy of the "Book of the Graal" in existence, being defective only in Branch XXI. Titles 8 and 9, the substance of which is fortunately preserved elsewhere. Large fragments, however, amounting in all to nearly one-seventh of the whole, of a copy in handwriting of the thirteenth century, are preserved in six consecutive leaves and one detached leaf bound up with a number of other works in a MS. numbered 113 in the City Library at Berne. The volume is in folio on vellum closely written in three columns to the page, and the seven leaves follow the last poem contained in it, entitled "Duremart le Gallois". The manuscript is well known, having been lent to M. de Sainte Palaye for use in the Monuments of French History issued by the Benedictines of the Congregation of St Maur. Selections from the poems it contains are given in Sinner's "Extraits de Poesie du XIII. Siecle", (3) and it is described, unfortunately without any reference to these particular leaves, by the same learned librarian in the "Catalogus Codicum MSS. Bibl. Bernensis", J.R. Sinner. (4)

M. Potvin has carefully collated for his edition all that is preserved of the Romance in this manuscript, comprising all the beginning of the work as far as Branch III. Title 8, about the middle, and from Branch XIX. Title 23, near the beginning, to Branch XXX. Title 5, in the middle. Making allowance for variations of spelling and sundry minor differences of reading, by no means always in favour of the earlier scribe, the Berne fragments are identical with the corresponding portions of the Brussels manuscript, and it is therefore safe to assume that the latter is on the whole an accurate transcript of the entire original Romance.

The only note of time in the book itself is contained in the declaration at the end. From this it appears that it was written by order of the Seingnor of Cambrein for Messire Jehan the Seingnor of Neele. M. Potvin, without giving any reason for so doing, assumes that this Lord of Cambrein is none other than the Bishop of Cambrai. If this assumption be correct, the person referred to was probably either John of Berhune, who held the see from 1200 till July 27, 1219, or his successor Godfrey of Fontaines (Conde), who held it till 1237. To me, however, it seems more likely that the personage intended was in reality the 'Seingnor' of Cambrin, the chef-lieu of a canton of the same name, on a small hill overlooking the peat-marshes of Bethune, albeit I can find no other record of any such landed proprietor's existence.

Be this as it may, the Messire Jehan, Seingnor of Neele, can hardly be other than the John de Nesle who was present at the battle of Bouvines in 1214, and who in 1225 sold the lordship of Bruges to Joan of Flanders. (5) These dates therefore may be regarded as defining that of the original Romance within fairly narrow limits.

This conclusion is confirmed by other evidence. An early Welsh translation of the story was published with an English version and a glossary by the Rev. Robert Williams in the first volume of his "Selections from the Hengwrt MSS". (6) The first volume of this work is entitled "Y Seint Greal, being the adventures of King Arthur's knights of the Round Table, in the quest of the Holy Grail, and on other occasions. Originally written about the year 1200". The volume, following the manuscript now in the library of W.W.E. Wynne, Esq., at Peniarth, is divided into two parts. The first, fol. 1-109 of the manuscript, represents the thirteenth to the seventeenth book of Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur". Of the second, which represents the Romance here translated, Mr Williams writes: "The second portion of the Welsh Greal, folios 110-280, contains the adventures of Gwalchmei Peredur and Lancelot, and of the knights of the Round Table; but these are not found in the "Morte d'Arthur". The Peniarth MS. is beautifully written on vellum, and in perfect preservation, and its date is that of Henry VI., the early part of the fifteenth century. The orthography and style of writing agrees literally with that of the "Mabinogion of the Llyvr Coch Hergest", which is of that date. This, of course, is a transcript of an earlier copy; but there is no certainty when it was first translated into Welsh, though Aneurin Owen in his "Catalogue of the Hengwrt MSS." assigns it to the sixth year of Henry I. It is mentioned by Davydd ab Gwilym, who died in 1368."

Whatever may be the date of the Welsh version, the translator had no great mastery of French, and is often at fault as to the meaning both of words and sentences, and when in a difficulty is only too apt to cut the knot by omitting the passage bodily. The book itself, moreover, is not entire. On page 275, all between Branch IX. Title 16 and Branch XI. Title 2, twenty-two chapters in all, is missing. Again, on page 355, Titles 10-16 in Branch XXI. are left out, while the whole of the last Branch, containing 28 Titles, is crumpled up into one little chapter, from which it would seem that the Welshman had read the French, but thought it waste of pains to translate it. In all, not to speak of other defects, there are fifty-six whole chapters in the present book, of which there is not a word in the Welsh.

In one matter, however, Mr Williams' English translation has stood me in good stead. In Branch XXI., as I have said, the French manuscript makes default of two Titles, but almost the whole of their substance is supplied by the Welsh version. By an unlucky accident, before the hiatus in the French is fully filled up, the Welsh version itself becomes defective, though the gap thus left open can hardly extend beyond a very few words. Without this supplement, incomplete as it is, it would have been impossible to give the full drift of one of the Romancer's best stories, which is equally unintelligible in both the French and Welsh texts in their present state.

As the Welsh version gives a number of names both of persons and places widely differing from those in the French, it may be useful here to note the principal changes made. Perceval in the Welsh is called Peredur, which is said to mean "steel suit". The Welshman, however, adds that the name in French is "Peneffresvo Galief", which, unless it be a misreading or miswriting for Perceval le Galois, is to me wholly unintelligible. Perceval's father, Alain li Gros, is in the Welsh Earl Evrawg, and his sister Dindrane, Danbrann. King Arthur is Emperor Arthur, his Queen Guenievre, Gwenhwyvar, and their son Lohot, Lohawt or Llacheu. Messire Gawain is Gwalchmei; Chaus, son of Ywain li Aoutres, Gawns, son of Owein Vrych; Messire Kay or Kex is Kei the Long; Ahuret the Bastard, Anores; Ygerne, wife of Uther Pendragon, Eigyr; Queen Jandree, Landyr; and King Fisherman for the most part King Peleur. Of places, Cardoil is Caerlleon on Usk, Pannenoisance, Penvoisins; Tintagel, Tindagoyl; and Avalon, Avallach.

By a double stroke of ill-luck, the complete and wholly independent Romance here translated has thus been printed by its two former editors as if it were only a part of some other story. M. Potvin describes it as the "First Part, the Romance in Prose," of his "Perceval le Gallois", and Mr Williams accepts it as the ' "Second Portion" of his "Y Seint Greal". This unhappy collocation has led not a few of M. Potvin's readers to neglect his First Part, under the impression that the story is retold in the other volumes containing the Romance in verse; while not a few of Mr Williams' readers have neglected his Second Portion under the impression that there could be nothing of any special importance in an adjunct referred to by the Editor in so perfunctory a manner. In very truth, however, the Story of the Holy Graal here told is not only the most coherent and poetic of all the many versions of the Legend, but is also the first and most authentic.

This seems to be proved beyond doubt by a passage in the History of Fulke Fitz-Warine, originally written apparently between the years 1256 and 1264. The passage occurs at the end of the History, and is printed in verse of which I give a literal prose translation:

"Merlin saith that in Britain the Great a Wolf shall come from the White Launde. Twelve sharp teeth shall he have, six below and six above. He shall have so fierce a look that he shall chase the Leopard forth of the White Launde, so much force shall he have and great virtue. We now know that Merlin said this for Fulke the son of Waryn, for each of you ought to understand of a surety how in the time of the King Arthur that was called the White Launde which is now named the White Town. For in this country was the chapel of S. Austin that was fair, where Kahuz, the son of Ywein, dreamed that he carried off the candlestick and that he met a man who hurt him with a knife and wounded him in the side. And he, on sleep, cried out so loud that King Arthur hath heard him and awakened from sleep. And when Kahuz was awake, he put his hand to his side. There hath he found the knife that had smitten him through. SO TELLETH US THE GRAAL, THE BOOK OF THE HOLY VESSEL. There the King Arthur recovered his bounty and his valour when he had lost all his chivalry and his virtue. From this country issued forth the Wolf as saith Merlin the Wise, and the twelve sharp teeth have we known by his shield. He bore a shield indented as the heralds have devised. In the shield are twelve teeth of gules and argent. By the Leopard may be known and well understood King John, for he bore in his shield the leopards of beaten gold." (7)
The story of Kahuz or Chaus here indicated by the historian is told at length in the opening chapters of the present work and, so far as is known, nowhere else. The inference is therefore unavoidable that we have here "The Graal, the Book of the Holy Vessel" to which the biographer of Fulke refers. The use, moreover, of the definite article shows that the writer held this book to be conclusive authority on the subject. By the time he retold the story of Fulke, a whole library of Romances about Perceval and the Holy Graal had been written, with some of which it is hard to believe that any historian of the time was unacquainted. He nevertheless distinguishes this particular story as "The Graal", a way of speaking he would scarce have adopted had he known of any other "Graals" of equal or nearly equal authority.

Several years later, about 1280, the trouveur Sarrazin also cites "The Graal" ("li Graaus") in the same manner, in superfluous verification of the then-accepted truism that King Arthur was at one time Lord of Great Britain. This appeal to "The Graal" as the authority for a general belief shows that it was at that time recognised as a well-spring of authentic knowledge; while the fact that the trouveur was not confounding "The Graal" with the later version of the story is further shown by his going on presently to speak of "the Romance that Chrestien telleth so fairly of Perceval the adventures of the Graal." 

Perhaps, however, the most striking testimony to the fact that this work is none other than the original "Book of the Graal" is to be found in the "Chronicle of Helinand", well known at the time the Romance was written not only as a historian but as a troubadour at one time in high favour at the court of Philip Augustus, and in later years as one of the most ardent preachers of the Albigensian Crusade. The passage, a part of which has been often quoted, is inserted in the Chronicle under the year 720, and runs in English thus:

"At this time a certain marvellous vision was revealed by an angel to a certain hermit in Britain concerning S. Joseph, the decurion who deposed from the cross the Body of Our Lord, as well as concerning the paten or dish in the which Our Lord supped with His disciples, whereof the history was written out by the said hermit and is called "Of the Graal" (de Gradali). Now, a platter, broad and somewhat deep, is called in French "gradalis" or "gradale", wherein costly meats with their sauce are wont to be set before rich folk by degrees ("gradatim") one morsel after another in divers orders, and in the vulgar speech it is called "graalz", for that it is grateful and acceptable to him that eateth therein, as well for that which containeth the victual, for that haply it is of silver or other precious material, as for the contents thereof, to wit, the manifold courses of costly meats. I have not been able to find this history written in Latin, but it is in the possession of certain noblemen written in French only, nor, as they say, can it easily be found complete. This, however, I have not hitherto been able to obtain from any person so as to read it with attention. As soon as I can do so, I will translate into Latin such passages as are more useful and more likely to be true." 
A comparison of this passage with the Introduction to the present work  leaves no doubt that Helinand here refers to this "Book of the Graal", which cannot therefore be of a later date than that at which he made this entry in his "Chronicle". At the same time, the difficulty he experienced in obtaining even the loan of the volume shows that the work had at that time been only lately written, as in the course of a few years, copies of a book so widely popular must have been comparatively common. The date, therefore, at which Helinand's "Chronicle" was written determines approximately that of the "Book of the Graal".

In its present state, the "Chronicle" comes to an end with a notice of the capture of Constantinople by the French in 1204, and it has been hastily assumed that Helinand's labours as a chronicler must have closed in that year. As a matter of fact they had not then even begun. At that time Helinand was still a courtly troubadour, and had not yet entered on the monastic career during which his "Chronicle" was compiled. He was certainly living as late as 1229, and preached a sermon, which assuredly shows no signs of mental decrepitude, in that year at a synod in Toulouse. 

Fortunately a passage in the "Speculum Historiale" of Vincent of Beauvais, himself a younger contemporary and probably a personal acquaintance of Helinand, throws considerable light on the real date of Helinand's "Chronicle". After recounting certain matters connected with the early years of the thirteenth century, the last date mentioned being 1209, Vincent proceeds: --

"In those times, in the diocese of Beauvais, was Helinand monk of Froid-mont, a man religious and distinguished for his eloquence, who also composed those verses on Death in our vulgar tongue which are publicly read, so elegantly and so usefully that the subject is laid open clearer than the light. He also diligently digested into a certain huge volume a Chronicle from the beginning of the world down to his own time. But in truth this work was dissipated and dispersed in such sort that it is nowhere to be found entire. For it is reported that the said Helinand lent certain sheets of the said work to one of his familiars, to wit, Guarin, Lord Bishop of Senlis of good memory, and thus, whether through forgetfulness or negligence or some other cause, lost them altogether. From this work, however, as far as I have been able to find it, I have inserted many passages in this work of mine own also."
It will thus be seen that about 1209, Helinand became a monk at Froid-mont, and it is exceedingly improbable that any portion of his "Chronicle" was written before that date. On the other hand, his `familiar' Guarin only became Bishop of Senlis in 1214, and died in 1227, (12) so that it is certain Helinand wrote the last part of his "Chronicle" not later than the last-mentioned year. The limits of time, therefore, between which the "Chronicle" was written are clearly circumscribed; and if it is impossible to define the exact year in which this particular entry was made, it is not, I fancy, beyond the legitimate bounds of critical conjecture.

On the first page of the Romance, Helinand read that an Angel had appeared to a certain hermit in Britain and revealed to him the history of the Holy Graal. In transferring the record of this event to his "Chronicle", he was compelled by the exigencies of his system, which required the insertion of every event recorded under some particular year, to assign a date to the occurrence. A vague "five hundred years ago" would be likely to suggest itself as an appropriate time at which the occurrence might be supposed to have taken place; and if he were writing in 1220, the revelation to the hermit would thus naturally be relegated to the year 720, the year under which the entry actually appears. This, of course, is pure guesswork, but the fact remains that the "Chronicle" was written in or about 1220, and the "Book of the Graal" not long before it.

The name of the author is nowhere recorded. He may possibly be referred to in the "Elucidation" prefixed to the rhymed version of "Percival le Gallois" under the name of "Master Blihis", but this vague and tantalising pseudonym affords no hint of his real identity. (13) Whoever he may have been; I hope that I am not misled by a translator's natural partiality for the author he translates in assigning him a foremost rank among the masters of medieval prose romance.

With these testimonies to its age and genuineness, I commend the "Book of the Graal" to all who love to read of King Arthur and his knights of the Table Round. They will find here printed in English for the first time what I take to be in all good faith the original story of Sir Perceval and the Holy Graal, whole and incorrupt as it left the hands of its first author.

-- Sebastian Evans, Coombe Lea, Bickley, Kent




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