Vulgate Cycle

Vulgate Cycle
(Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Pseudo-Map Cycle)
(ca. 1210–1235)
   The Vulgate Cycle is the name given to a collection of five substantial ROMANCES in French prose, concerning the legends of King ARTHUR and the HOLY GRAIL. It was the major source for Thomas MALORY’s Le MORTE DARTHUR, and itself draws from the earlier verse romances of CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES, in particular his LANCELOT and PERCEVAL. Previously, French prose had been used mainly for vernacular translations of Latin theological texts or for sermons. By the 13th century, it began to be used for historical texts in the vernacular as well, like those of JOINVILLE and VILLEHARDOUIN. The prose romances written in the early 13th century, beginning with the Vulgate Cycle, manifested some elements of both of these prose genres, being more overtly Christian in tone and more full of narrative detail in the manner of a prose chronicle. An earlier cycle of three Grail romances had been composed in French verse by the Burgundian poet ROBERT DE BORON. His romances—Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin, and a poem generally known as the Didot-Perceval—were immediately adapted into prose by an anonymous writer, and those prose romances were the immediate inspiration for the longer Vulgate Cycle.
   The first of the Vulgate romances in the sequence of the plot (though one of the last to be written) is the Estoire del Saint Graal (The history of the Holy Grail), which continues the story of Robert’s Joseph of Arimathea, who in the romance possesses Christ’s cup from the Last Supper—in which he had caught the blood of Christ after the Crucifixion. In the Estoire, Joseph’s son Josephe, who in the romance becomes the first Christian bishop, ultimately brings the Grail to England. Upon his death, Josephe bequeaths the Grail to the first “Fisher King,” Alain, who houses it in Corbenic Castle, where it will await the eventual coming of the Grail knight.
   The second romance, also written late, is the prose adaptation of the story of Robert’s Merlin. Here, Merlin, the wonder worker and seer, helps King Uther Pendragon sire Arthur by disguising him as the Duke of Cornwall to allow him to lay with the duchess Igerne. Merlin creates the test of the sword in the stone by which Arthur establishes his royal legitimacy, and then helps Arthur in the wars by which he secures his empire. Arthur’s nephew Gauvain (GAWAIN) is a major character of the romance, as hero of his uncle’s military campaigns, as he is in the chronicle tradition begun by GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH. The Merlin also looks forward to later romances in the cycle by its introduction of the Round Table as an image of the earlier Grail Table, which is itself the image of the table of the Last Supper. It also introduces GUENEVERE as Arthur’s queen, and tells of the birth of LANCELOT.
   The prose Lancelot, which follows Merlin, is a huge work that in itself is half the length of the entire Vulgate Cycle. In keeping with the Grail story, Lancelot is a descendant of King David, and is baptized Galahad. The greatest hero of Arthurian tradition, LANCELOT is raised by the Lady of the Lake. But when he comes to Arthur’s court, he falls in love with Guenevere, and, as is typical of the COURTLY LOVE tradition, he embarks on a series of adventures that will establish him as the greatest knight and prove him worthy of the queen’s love. The long narrative includes the exploits of other knights as well, interwoven with those of Lancelot in a technique of romance known as enterlacement. As in Chrétien’s Lancelot, the hero delivers the prisoners of Logres in the kingdom of Gorre, though he fails a test involving a tombstone in the cemetery on his adventure, a failure that is attributed to his sinful love of the queen. That love also leads him to father GALAHAD, believing he is sleeping with the queen—an act that will have a profound effect on subsequent parts of the cycle.
   Galahad, descended from King David and Joseph of Arimathea on his father’s side, and from the Grail kings on his mother’s, is the chosen knight destined to achieve the quest of the Holy Grail. The Queste del Saint Graal is the story that made Sir Galahad a significant figure in world literature, and established the quest of the Holy Grail as central to the Arthurian tradition. The tale describes the mysterious appearance of the Grail vessel before the knights of the Round Table and the knights’ decision to seek the Grail.While Galahad has already proven himself the chosen Grail knight by pulling a sword from the stone and by sitting in the Perilous Seat at the Round Table, the innocent Perceval and Lancelot’s kinsman Bohoret (Bors) are also successful in finding the Grail because of their virtue and chastity. The narrative follows these three successful knights and interweaves their stories with those of the secular knights, particularly Lionel, Hector, and Gauvain, who fail consistently through their misunderstanding of the quest, the true nature of which is interpreted and explained regularly by pious hermits who inhabit much of the romance’s landscape. Lancelot’s adventures are interwoven as well, as he tries to atone for his adulterous relationship with the queen that prevents him from achieving the Grail—he is the greatest secular knight, but this is a spiritual quest, and thus Galahad, the embodiment of the spiritual knight, eclipses Lancelot’s prowess on this quest.
   The final romance of the cycle is the Mort Artu (The death of Arthur), relating the downfall of the Round Table, and the passing of Arthur and his world. Lancelot’s love for the queen is finally exposed by the jealousy of Gauvain’s brothers, and when Lancelot rescues the queen from execution, he accidentally kills Sir Gaheriet (Gareth), Gauvain’s favorite brother. This begins a war in which Arthur and Gauvain besiege Lancelot and his supporters in France. But the king’s natural son,Mordred, left in charge of the kingdom during the war, usurps the throne, forcing Arthur to return home to fight a bloody battle on Salisbury plain, in which Mordred is killed and Arthur mortally wounded. Arthur has his squire Girflet throw his sword Excalibur into the lake, where it is caught by a hand coming out of the water, after which a mysterious boat carrying Morgain and other women comes to take Arthur away. He is expected to return one day, like the Second Coming of Christ. The Vulgate Cycle was at one time attributed to Walter MAP, who was attached to the court of England’s King HENRY II, but Map died well before the romances of the Vulgate Cycle were composed. While there is no scholarly consensus about authorship, many believe that one writer conceived of the plan for the Lancelot, the Queste del Saint Graal, and the Mort Artu, but that a series of other writers completed the romances, and that the Estoire del Saint Graal and Merlin were added subsequently to complete the story. The cycle was highly influential throughout the later Middle Ages, inspiring a number of imitations and sequels, including the prose Tristan and the Suite du Merlin.Most important, the Vulgate romances were the sources from which Malory compiled his seminal treatment of Arthurian legend as the Middle Ages drew to an end.
   ■ Burns, E. Jane. Arthurian Fictions: Re-reading the Vulgate Cycle. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985.
   ■ Kennedy, Elspeth. Lancelot and the Grail: A Study in the Prose Lancelot. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
   ■ Kibler,William W., ed. The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Text and Transformations. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
   ■ Lacy, Norris J., ed. Lancelot-Grail: the Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation. 5 vols. New York: Garland, 1993–1996.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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