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  • Transfers of Empire, Movements of Mind: Holy Sepulchre and Holy Grail
  • Jon Whitman

A. History and Story

It has long been customary to speak of the interaction between historical crises and imaginative ones. But at times there are changes so radical in a civilization that they alter conventional distinctions between history and imagination themselves.1

A radical shift of this kind, I think, develops in European civilization in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. During this period a leading form of narrative often luxuriant in its subject matter and largely secular in orientation—chivalric romance—is increasingly transfigured by a sacralizing story evocative of Christian Scripture. This is the story of the Holy Grail,2 a redemptive object associated (in a formative version of the story) with the Last Supper and initially entrusted to Joseph of Arimathea, the New Testament figure who had furnished a sepulchre for the crucified Christ. In relating how the numinous [End Page 895] Grail eventually transforms the chivalric milieu of Arthurian Britain, narrative of this kind tends to turn an imaginative story of romance into an extension of Christian sacred history itself.

A range of recent studies have discussed some of the provocations of this new kind of scripture, and this is not the setting in which to examine the issue at large.3 For the moment perhaps I could note only that by the time Grail romance acquires one of its most influential forms in the early thirteenth-century Quest of the Holy Grail, not only does it treat the Grail as a historic object originating in the time of Jesus; it also treats the preeminent Grail knight as a descendant of the historic line of an Israelite king with which Christian Scripture affiliates Jesus himself. When that knight, Galahad, enters the Arthurian court, he is introduced as “descended from the noble lineage of King David and the family of Joseph of Arimathea.”4 Nor is it only the story of the Quest that evokes the aura of authentic history; it is also its style. The Quest of the Holy Grail and a number of other early Grail romances belong to a stylistic revolution in thirteenth-century Europe in which imaginative works in the Continental vernaculars come to be composed not in verse but in prose. For the Quest and its antecedents, that “authenticating” idiom seems designed to document authoritatively the wondrous history to which the romances refer.5

The sacralizing and historicizing revolution that I have noted in romance has increasingly attracted scholarly attention during the past few generations. But while such research has gradually exposed the careful alignment of Grail romance with ancient stages of Christian sacred history, it has been more difficult for scholarship to situate romance of this kind in the contemporary history of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries themselves.

The difficulty involves not just the general problem of clarifying the literary and social origins of the Grail story at large—a notoriously elusive question.6 It involves more distinctly the specific problem of assessing the historical functions of such a story in its own time. It [End Page 896] is frequently observed, for example, that the religious zeal of Grail romance in the first half century of its development—from about the 1180s to about the 1230s—suggests the militant spirituality of the Crusades during this period, marked by urgent efforts to control the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and to possess the Holy Land at large. But most studies of the subject leave that association relatively undefined, briefly noting potential parallels with selected persons, objects, or events while concentrating on literary motifs and religious beliefs.

In recent years there have been certain attempts to assess more closely possible relationships between these two revolutionary (and contemporary) developments—the story of the Grail and the history of the Crusades. Beyond the speculative work on this topic by Helen Adolf decades ago,7 scholars such as Stephen Knight (1994), Carol Chase (1995, 1998, 2003), and Helen Nicholson (2001)8 have suggested something of the density of relations between accounts of the Grail and aspects of the Crusades. While I am extensively indebted to these studies, it seems to me...


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