The question is deceptively simple, but if you think a bit harder about it, it becomes difficult to answer. Is it a bowl? A goblet? A stone? A person? Did Jesus drink from it at the Last Supper, bleed into it on the cross or none of the above? Does it have magical healing properties?
Tracing how our modern conception of the Grail was shaped formed the focal point of the lecture “Origins of the Holy Grail,” delivered by Professor Emeritus of French Carol Chase Thursday, Oct. 13. This lecture was a part of the Joseph and Clara H.E. Johnson Distinguished Lectureship in Modern Languages. Dr. Chase is an internationally recognized scholar on medieval French Lancelot cycles who contributes greatly to our modern conceptions of the Grail.
Chase asked the audience to attempt to clear their minds of current notions of the Grail, which generally stem from movies such as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Instead, she showed the three essential texts from which the legend of the Holy Grail came from.
The first appearance of the Grail comes roughly in the year 1190, in the work of the French poet Chrétien de Troyes’s “Perceval,” the tale of a young and naïve Welsh boy on a quest to the court of the legendary King Arthur to be knighted and take his place among the Knights of the Round Table.
On his quest, he enters the enchanted manor of The Fisher King, where over dinner he sees the Grail pass by several times in a mysterious enchanted procession. He then goes questing, seeking an explanation of what he saw in the castle.
The Grail is suggested here to be a basic serving dish, generally used for fish. It is not the powerful object that later myths would make it out to be. Indeed, de Troye doesn’t even feel it is important enough to capitalize.
In the second text Chase discussed, Robert de Boron’s “Joseph of Arimathea,” the Grail gets much of its modern back-story. Joseph uses the Grail to collect Christ’s blood as he is dying on the cross, and later survives in prison for many years with only the Grail to sustain him. This is the first time the Grail is given miraculous powers in literature.
The third text under discussion, the anonymous thirteenth century “History of the Holy Grail” goes back to Joseph of Arimathea, but in the words of Chase, “completes the Christianization of the Grail.” She is a particular expert on this text, having authored a translation of it currently in print.
In this version, after leaving prison, Joseph travels to the new Promised Land (which turns out to be Great Britain), baptizing pagans and Saracens with the power of the Grail along the way. It also gains powers that will be recognized by those familiar with modern adaptations of the Grail legend, such as the power to heal, as well as some that will be less familiar, such as the power to cross the English Channel without a boat.
Professor of German Todd Heidt said the lecture was “thoroughly stimulating.”
Sophomore Luke Madson added that it was interesting, and he liked how Chase was able to stay focused on her main point.
Chase taught at Knox for 30 years and had returned to take part in the Besançon program reunion – a program she was on-site director of for many years – as part of Homecoming weekend. She is the author of a number of works, among them a translation of “The History of the Holy Grail.”