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Grail: from myth to reality
basic Grail account opens with a young man, Perceval, encountering
knights and realising he wants to be one. Despite his mother’s
objections, the boy trains for the knighthood and begins a series
of travels. On one such trip, he comes across the Fisher King,
who invites him to stay at his castle. While there, he witnesses
a strange procession in which young men and women carry magnificent
objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each
course of the meal.
The first person to write about the Grail was Chrétien
de Troyes, who did not identify the nature of the Grail itself.
Subsequent authors, like Robert de Boron, identified it as a Christian
relic, and normally as the cup used during the Last Supper. However,
the German author Wolfram von Eschenbach then wrote his Grail
book, Parzival, in which he stated that previous authors had committed
serious errors in their accounts, while at the same time identifying
the Grail as a stone that had fallen from heaven, and which displayed
supernatural qualities, bestowing apparent longevity on those
who were near it, as well as attracting water.
Parcival has a unique position in the Grail literature, but is
still seen as a work of fiction. Wolfram stated that the characters
of those who possessed the Grail were genuine people, whose names
and histories his sources had investigated in Latin documents.
Furthermore, Wolfram did not write fiction, and stating that Parzival
is nothing but a work of fiction therefore needs an explanation
why Wolfram departed from his non-fictional writings to meddle
in the fictional literature.
are over 600 names in Parzival and its sequel Titurel combined,
resulting in one of the longest identification parades ever. As
most believe we are faced with a literary invention by Wolfram,
any identification with historical characters seems futile.
Interestingly, most of those who have attempted this match, have
tried to find correspondences with the kings and nobles of Aragon.
This is interesting, for Guyot de Provins, one of the primary
candidates for the role of Kyot of Provence, had strong ties with
Aragon. Guyot wrote about the kings of Aragon, who were his magnanimous
protectors: his patron was Alfonso the Chaste, Alfonso II, the
son of Alfonso I (1104-1134), who freed Saragossa from Moorish
domination in 1118.
Using this as his starting point, Swiss scholar, André
de Mandach, began his research, resulting in the first publication
of his work in 1992, arguing for the existence of an “UrParzival”.
De Mandach felt that Wolfram’s account might not only be
based on real events, he also wondered whether the legend was
perhaps written in a code. The key to unlock this code, de Mandach
felt, lay in the history of the Northern Spanish kingdoms, in
the period of 1104 to 1137. Is it not a nice coincidence that
Flegetanis, the enigmatic “first source” from which
Wolfram stated he retained his information, is a family name in
the Empordà, the northern Catalonian region of Spain?
Mandach realised that the key to breaking the code was the “honorary
surnames”, nicknames, which was a popular tradition in Spain
and specifically in Islam since the 7th century AD. Indeed, the
practice became so popular that it was exported to other parts
of Western Europe, with kings being labelled “the Good”,
“the Seemly”, “the Just”, etc.
He argued that Anfortas, identified as a king, was thus King “something”
Anfortas – “something” requiring to be substituted
with a name like Alfonso, Raymond, or another popular name of
the time. This approach is much more direct than most researchers’
attempts, when trying to explain that Anfortas might come from
the ancient French “enferté(z)”, itself derived
from the Latin “infirmitate(m)”. Such reasoning is
indirect at best.
I of Aragon
This approach enabled de Mandach to identify this person as King
Alfonso I of Aragon, who was nicknamed “Anfortius”.
Indeed, it is that simple: Anfortas was Anfortius. He is identified
as such numerous times, including in his will, and in Flamenca,
where he is known as “Anfors”. Coins minted under
his reign identify him as “ANFUS REX”, some of these
coins having Toletta (Toledo) on the reverse side. Just on this
basis alone, it is clear that de Mandach had just cracked the
code. The question is why it lasted until 1992 until someone did
so. And why few have noted his contribution. Perhaps the reason
can be found in the fact that de Mandach wrote for a scientific
audience, who had impossible pains to accept the historical nature
of the Grail account.
sceptics might argue that Anfortius is not totally identical with
Anfortas, it should be remembered that Anfortius was his Latin
nickname, with Anfortas having an Occitan appearance – as
Kyot the Provencal, as an Occitan speaker himself, would do. But
the key to a successful decodation is not finding the key, but
whether or not all subsequent decodations are then made easy,
straightforward, before all pieces fall into place. That is indeed
For if Anfortas/Alfonso I is the key, then it is his cousin, Rotrou
II de Perche, who confirmed that the code was broken. Rotrou II
de Perche was the lord of “Val Perche”: Perche-val…
hence Perceval. And like Rotrou was Alfonso’s cousin, so
was Perceval Anfortas’ uncle. With Anfortas and Perceval
being the nicknames of two historical figures, whose family relationship
was identical to the relationship described in Wolfram’s
document between the Fisher King and Perceval, de Grail code had
known to us as Alfonso I, the Battler, was born in 1074, the king
of Aragon and Navarre, from 1104 until his death on 6 or 7 September
1134. He was a formidable fighter, known for a series of victories
known as the “Reconquista”, the recovery of Spain
from the Moors for the Christians. Before his death, Alfonso I
made a will, leaving his kingdom to the Knights Templar, the Hospitallers
and the Knights of the Sepulchre. It were of course the Knights
Templar who had been identified as the protectors of the Grail
by Wolfram – as was Anfortas. Therefore, in Alfonso I, we
have a king – the Fisher King who owns the Grail in Wolfram’s
story – passing one third of his estates to the Knights
Templar – the protectors of the Grail.
That was not all. When deadly injured in battle, he ordered that
he was transported to San Juan de la Peña, a voyage of
two days and 115 km. He died there. San Juan de la Peña
has, of all sites, one of the strongest connections with the Grail
tradition. We also note that there is a tradition that those who
are in the presence of the Grail, will not die during the following
seven days. Was this the real purpose behind his return to San
Juan de la Peña? It is impossible to prove, but an interesting
thirty miles around has been hewn neither timber nor stone to
build any dwelling but one, rich in earthly splendours. If anyone
sets out to find it alas he will not do so; although there are
many who try. It must happen unwittingly if one should see the
castle. I presume, Sir, that you know of it; Munsalvæsche
it is called. This castle controls a realm named Terre de Salvæsche.
It was bequeathed by old Titurel to his son, King Frimutel.”
There is every possibility that San Juan de la Peña was
indeed the renowned Munsalvæsche, the residence of the Grail
king and the location where the Grail was held. It is indeed,
as the Catholic Church seems to accept, the site where the “Holy
Chalice” was once held, before it ended up in Valencia.
But whereas San Juan de la Peña is often referred to as
a Monastery, it was much more special than that: it was also the
residence of the Aragon kings.
In 1071, Pope Alejandro II provided special protection to the
monastery, which remained under papal authority and thus outside
the bailiwick of the Bishop of Jaca – a privileged position
for any religious site to find itself in. It meant that San Juan
de la Peña could not be interfered with by the normal church
hierarchies – only by the Pope himself. This special status
was reaffirmed in 1095.
Throughout this period, the Aragon kings, such as Sancho el Mayor,
Ramiro I, Sancho Ramirez and Pedro I, continued to favour the
monastery. The last three spent Lent there every year and chose
it as the burial place for themselves and their families. San
Juan de la Peña thus became a royal mausoleum. And if Anfortas
was the Fisher King, then San Juan de la Peña, his capital,
The Fisher King, Alfonso I of Aragon, made large donations to
San Juan de la Peña. He thanked his victory near Tauste
to the relics of San Juan de la Peña. He, like his predecessors
and successors, stayed in San Juan de la Peña, specifically
during the week before Easter – the week when the Grail
procession occurred. It is known that Alfonso I also stayed in
San Juan de la Peña at other times, such as in May 1108,
showing that it could definitely be seen as his residence, and
the Grail Castle.
was labelled “Le Roi Pescheor”, the Fisher King, a
nickname that was the result of him spending his time in what
according to Chrétien was a “plan d’eau”,
a river, or what was known as a “see”, a lake, according
to Wolfram. The river Aragon flows in the valley beneath San Juan
de la Peña. But just 200 metres from the new monastery
of San Juan de la Peña used to be a lake that was renowned
for its many fish. This reputation lasted well into the 20th century,
though the lake was dried out from the 1970s onwards (it sits
close to the modern car park). As Wolfram locates the lake close
to Munsalvæsche, San Juan de la Peña once again conforms
perfectly to Wolfram’s narrative. Wolfram also locates Munsalvæsche
in a forest and San Juan de la Peña sits in a forest.
However, Wolfram situates Munsalvæsche in “Katelangen”,
Catalonia, whereas San Juan de la Peña sits in Aragon.
This apparent contradiction can be smoothed out, as when Wolfram
was writing his account, San Juan de la Peña was indeed
part of Catalonia, after Ramiro II of Aragon had abandoned the
Aragon and San Juan de la Peña to Ramon Berenguer IV, the
count of Catalonia.
Furthermore, even Chrétien’s voyage of how Perceval
reaches the Grail castle coincides with how one reaches San Juan
de la Peña: there is a river to cross, then a journey through
a forest, before you reach a tower – a “square”
tower, as Chrétien states. The square tower of the Old
Monastery is indeed what gives San Juan de la Peña its
billboard characteristic. De Mandach has also identified other
details of Chrétien’s account with those of San Juan
de la Peña, as it existed in his days. It has led de Mandach
to the conclusion that Munsalvæsche, the residence of the
Grail king, was most definitely San Juan de la Peña, the
residence of the kings of Aragon, and of Anfortas – Alfonso
initial findings led de Mandach to identify the other characters
of the Grail story. The Grail dynasty is a series of three male
successors: Titurel – Frimutel – Anfortas. This overlaps
with Ramiro I (1035-1069), Sancho Ramirez I (1063-1094) and finally
Alfonso I, all kings of Aragon.
Wolfram starts the Grail tradition with Titurel. He is the key
person who brings the Grail from the East. It is Titurel, i.e.
Ramiro I, who transformed San Juan de la Peña and made
it his main residence. Coincidence? It is clear that Ramiro must
have had a good reason for transforming the site of San Juan de
la Peña; and is it not interesting to note that “a
good reason” is lacking from the official accounts as to
why Ramiro decided to invest so heavily in this site? But with
the successful identification of Ramiro I as Titurel, the Grail
accounts could actually shed light on a historical enigma. Was
San Juan de la Peña transformed as it was to become the
residence of the Grail?
I’s brother was Ramiro II, who in the Grail account is listed
as Trevrezent, the hermit who explains the story of the Grail
to Perceval. At first sight, there seems to be a major problem
with this identification: Ramiro II married Agnes of Poitiers.
It is Agnes of Poitiers who was also the niece of Philip of Alsace
and Flanders – the noble to whom Chrétien de Troyes
dedicated his story to – and who was also the man who gave
Chrétien the document which he then turned into the first
Grail account. The link between Aragon and Chrétien’s
Grail has thus been made…
Ramiro II’s nickname was, in fact, “the Monk”,
as he was one. Ramiro was bishop of Barbastro-Roda and was given
papal dispensation to abdicate his monastic vows in order to secure
the succession to the throne when his brother had died heirless.
Indeed, once again history and the Grail account overlap and each
provides further information about an auspicious situation: Anfortas,
who is known to have suffered from a debilitating illness that
prevented him from creating offspring, had invested in Perceval,
making him his successor as Grail King, as he knew that he would
die heirless. However, though Perceval would be the leader of
the protectors of the Grail, and carry out its mission, on a totally
mundane level, everyone knew that Rotrou II de Perche would never
inherit the physical kingdom of Aragon, and hence, Alfonso I had
created a will in which it would be divided between the three
monastic orders, which Wolfram had identified as the protectors
of the Grail.
However, as Anfortius’ will was contested, his brother Ramiro
II was told to annul his marriage to God, and instead marry a
woman, so that a legal heir for the kingdom of Aragon could be
created. This, he did.
Crowned king, Ramiro II almost immediately had to fight off Alfonso
VII of Castille, who was one of those trying to lay claim to the
Aragonese crown. His kingship lasted exactly three years: he married
Agnes of Poitiers in 1134, had a child with her, Peroniella or
Petronila in Latin, and then gave her hand away to Ramon Berenguer
IV of Barcelona, known as Kyot of Katelangen in the Grail account.
His nickname was indeed “the little Guillaume” or
“Guiot” or Kyot in Occitan: Kyot of Katelangen, little
William of Catalonia. Ramiro II then abdicated in her favour and
returned to his monastic life.
note that the Fisher King had a serious wound on his leg, which
ails him greatly. Peter L. Hays in The Limping Hero states how
the wound, in Parzival, is a lance point through the testicles,
a divine punishment for the king’s neglect of his sacred
trust, The Holy Grail.
A lot has been written about this symbolism, identifying the Fisher
King with fertility gods and arguing how his wounds were symbols
of how his land had turned into a “Waste Land”. But
amidst dozens of layers of symbolic interpretation, it seems no-one
thought about wondering whether it might actually have been a
genuine, historical account. Indeed, Alfonso I as a king did not
reproduce – he was heirless. This caused the country great
concern, as there was no successor to the throne – and in
the end, we note that it was his brother who had to break his
vow of chastity to guarantee an heir to the throne. It were definitely
testing times for Aragon, the “Grail country”.
Alfonso I was a fighter, and a wound in battle that would inflict
infertility would certainly have been a possibility – though
whether it would have been made public knowledge, is another matter.
One of a king’s primary roles is the creation of offspring.
Rumours or knowledge that the king is unable to reproduce, could
be perilous: the people would loose trust and other claimants
to the throne may not have been able to contain their excitement,
rallying troops to invade Aragon. This is exactly what happened
when the king died and one claimant to the throne felt that he
had more rights to the throne than the king’s brother.
Though we do not know the precise cause of Alfonso I’s impossibility
to procreate, we do know that he was married to Queen Urraca in
1107; it is often said that the marriage was void of love; Alfonso
I is described as a soldier, unable to give love, even depicted
as beating his wife. But unless Urraca herself was adamant she
did not want to have a son with this man, it is clear that the
marriage was created for one specific purpose: the creation of
an heir. The possibility that no heir was ever conceived –
and that Alfonso was apparently not all that interested in women
– might have to do with the fact that the king was indeed
infertile – maimed to the extent that any sexual activity
might have been painful at best, and impossible at worst. And
thus we find that the Grail account and history once again walk
hand in hand, one able to shed insights into the other.
thought that the story of the Grail had its origins in Spain,
which is where he cites his sources, whether he invented them
or not. Canadian Professor of history Joseph Goering has identified
a number of churches in Aragon that have frescoes of the Virgin
Mary holding a fiery Grail. He points out that the oddity about
this depiction is twofold. First, the area in which the Virgin
was depicted with a fiery Grail is very small. Second, she was
depicted with the Grail fifty years before Chrétien’s
tale – when the Grail was officially not yet invented as
a “literary device”.
The earliest example of a fresco depicting the Virgin with a Grail
dates from December 1123 and is an apse painting in the church
of St. Clement in Taüll. Here, the Grail is a dish-like object,
filled with a red-orange material from which rays rise, as if
the plate is hot. Goering noted that the position of the Virgin
holding this Grail in her left hand, the rest of her arm obscured
by her blue cloak, while making a hand gesture with the right
hand, is equally unique in iconography.
He concluded that “the image of the Virgin holding a sacred
vessel is to be found only here, in these mountain villages, and
nowhere else in Christian art before this time”, adding
that “the Virgin at the head of the apostolic college is
an uncommon artistic theme, and Mary holding a vessel of any sort
seems to be attested nowhere else in Christian art before this
paintings were made at a time when Chrétien had not yet
written about the Grail, and it would be almost a century before
de Boron would link the Grail with Christian imagery. So where
did this painter get his inspiration from? The answer seems as
straightforward as it is simple: this type of image was local
to the region, so it must have depicted a theme that was only
popular in that region. And the only frame – which even
Goering has to admit – was de Mandach’s conclusion,
for, indeed, de Mandach’s timeframe for the Grail being
in Aragon is precisely in agreement with the facts revealed by
these wall frescoes.
The question, of course, is why the Virgin Mary became upgraded
amongst the group of apostles and why she became the Grail bearer.
For this, Goering has no clear answer. Is it possible that these
wall paintings were the first attempt, performed within the heartland
of the Grail (i.e. Aragon), to see whether a new image could be
introduced in religious iconography, namely that of the Virgin
holding the Grail? Why the Virgin Mary? Because she was said to
be a virgin… and of course, in the Grail tradition, the
Grail Bearer had to be a virgin. Hence, the Virgin Mary masqueraded
as the Grail Bearer.
in at least eight Pyrenean churches, all located within a small
area, stretching from the old boundary between Aragon and Catalonia
in the west to the principality of Andorra in the east, all dating
from the same period (ca. 1100-1170), a unique type of religious
icon was introduced. In the end, it was never exported, and was
abandoned before Chrétien commenced his Grail book –
and the story of the Grail would take off for good.
In his analysis of these paintings, Goering goes further, noting
that these churches were decorated at a time when the bishop was
one Raymund, of French origins, but in 1101 invited to the court
of King Pedro I of Aragon and elected as bishop of Roda –
apparently to everyone’s surprise. Pedro’s son Alfonso
I remained intimately involved with Bishop Raymund, from 1114
until his death from wounds received while accompanying Alfonso
on a daring incursion into Andalusia in 1126. Goering’s
historical analysis revealed that Raymund and Rotrou II de Perche
– Perceval – not only fought together, but also appeared
together frequently in royal charters, “so frequently that
one might suppose a real friendship had developed between the
two” and adding that “Rotrou may have even been with
Raymond on his deathbed”.
identification of a specific family – the Aragon kings –
and specific locations in Northern Spain – San Juan de la
Peña – show that the territory of the Grail was the
kingdom of Aragon, south of the Pyrenees.
from the introduction of “Servants of the Grail”