The Prose Vulgate Cycle

In the early thirteenth century (ca. 1215–35), a group of anonymous French authors produced five immensely long prose romances, which modern scholars refer to collectively as the Vulgate Cycle. The Cycle vastly expands, multiplies, and complicates material from earlier verse romances. The Cycle interlaces different story lines, that is to say, an adventure or series of adventures is broken off, to resume a previous set or to initiate a new one. Thus several story lines will be developing simultaneously to create exceedingly complex and often bewildering narrative structures. Through elaborate prequels and sequels, the Vulgate romances fill in important gaps left in the Arthurian saga by earlier romancers. However, while to some extent breaking up and fragmenting tales, the work as a whole suggests a greater pattern of destiny or providence determining and explaining events obscure to the human agents enacting them. In this respect the French Arthurian Vulgate resembles the medieval Latin Bible, which was called the Vulgate and was interpreted by Christian commentators as expressing God's plan for the world in which earthly empires, such as Rome's or King Arthur's, would rise and pass away. The Vulgate Cycle is the main source of Sir Thomas Malory's romances, which he often refers to as "the French book" and which William Caxton first printed under the title Morte Darthur.

The five romances, which comprise the Cycle, are not arranged in order of composition. The first, which was among the last to be written, is "The History of the Holy Grail," an adaptation of earlier verse romances telling how the chalice used at the Last Supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea preserved some of the blood shed by Christ on the cross came to Britain. This is followed by "The Story of Merlin," which recounts the birth of Merlin and of Arthur and the beginnings of Arthur's reign. By far the longest section is the "Prose Lancelot," which is followed by "The Quest for the Holy Grail." The final romance is "The Death of Arthur." To make matters more confusing, the Vulgate Cycle was followed by a Post-Vulgate Cycle, which contains variants from and additions to Grail, Merlin, Quest, and Death.

We do not know who planned or wrote the Vulgate Cycle, but it is certainly the work of clerics whose motive was in part to denigrate earthly chivalry in contrast with the spiritual chivalry, which they idealized in the "Quest for the Holy Grail." Sir Lancelot who is the best knight in the world cannot succeed in that quest, which is achieved by his son, the virgin knight Sir Galahad, whom Lancelot, mistakenly believing that he is in bed with Guinevere, begets upon Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles. The authors of the Cycle blame the destruction of the Round Table on the sinful nature of Arthur and nearly all of his knights, most conspicuously on Sir Lancelot and his affair with the queen. They make Mordred not only the nephew of Arthur but also his son, conceived when Arthur unwittingly commits incest with his sister. They tell the story of how the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere began with a kiss. This was the story that, in the Inferno, Francesca tells Dante she and her lover Paolo were reading when they exchanged their first kiss: "That day we read no further."

That is not to say, however, that the authors of the Vulgate Cycle did not also admire and enjoy the stories of love and adventure, even those they meant to condemn. On the contrary, they transmitted the pleasure they took in them to countless readers, including Sir Thomas Malory, whose English version replaced the Vulgate as the standard one.

The selections are from the Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation in five volumes, Norris J. Lacy, General Editor (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993–1996). Copyright 1996. Reproduced by permission of Routledge, Inc., part of The Taylor & Francis Group.


From The Prose Lancelot

How did the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere begin? The Vulgate authors answer that question through a very elaborate series of stories. They tell of Lancelot's birth to King Ban of Benoic (anglicized as Benwick) and his queen Elaine (one of several Elaines or Helaines, including the daughter of King Pelles and the Fair Maid of Astolat); his adoption by the Lady of the Lake after Ban is killed by a usurper; his youth; his knighting at Arthur's court; and his falling secretly in love with Arthur's queen. The queen is aware of his love, but the affair is not consummated until Galehaut (not to be confused with Sir Galahad) intervenes. In the Vulgate, Galehaut, the King of the Long (i.e., distant) Isles and Lord of Surluse is a character of nobility and magnanimity. In the Inferno Francesca tells Dante, "Our Galehot was that book and he who wrote it," meaning that the romance was a pander, but perhaps she and Paolo did not read very extensively in the Prose Lancelot. Galehaut makes war upon Arthur, who would have lost his kingdom except for the feats of arms by an unknown knight in black armor who comes to aid Arthur's army in the nick of time. Galehaut is so impressed by the Black Knight that he befriends him and, at the knight's request, agrees to make peace with Arthur. Because the knight is often red-eyed from weeping, Galehaut eventually extracts from him the secret of his love for Arthur's queen and, out of love for the knight, whose name he still does not know, arranges a meeting, of which only the climax is given in this selection. The translation is by Carleton W. Carroll.

The Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere

[Click on image to enlarge]

"My lady," said Galehaut, "it's not fitting to speak of this, but take pity on him, for he loves you more than himself; God help me, when he came I knew nothing of his thoughts except that he was afraid of being recognized, and he never revealed anything else to me."

"I'll take pity on him as you wish, for you have done what I asked of you, and I must do what you wish, but he asks nothing of me."

"My lady," said Galehaut, "surely he doesn't have the power to do so, for one cannot love what one doesn't fear. But I ask something of you on his behalf, though even if I didn't ask anything of you, you should nevertheless take steps to win him, for you could conquer no richer treasure."

"Truly," she said, "I know that well, and I'll do whatever you direct."

"My lady," said Galehaut, "many thanks; I ask that you give him your love, and that you take him as your knight forevermore, and become his loyal lady for all the days of your life, and you will have made him richer than if you had given him the whole world."

"In that case," she said, "I grant that he should be entirely mine and I entirely his, and that any breach or violation of our compact should be repaired by you."

"Thank you, my lady. But now there must be a preliminary pledge."

"Whatever you stipulate," said the queen, "I will do it." "My lady," said Galehaut, "many thanks. Therefore, give him a kiss, in my presence, to mark the beginning of a true love."

"This is neither the time nor the place for kissing," she said. "Have no fear, I'm as eager for it as he is, but those ladies there >> note 1 are already wondering that we have done so much, and they would necessarily see it. And yet, if he wishes, I will most willingly give him a kiss."

Lancelot was so joyful and also so dismayed by this that all he could reply was, "Thank you, my lady."

"Ah, my lady," said Galehaut, "have no doubt about his wishes, for that's all he thinks of. And be assured that no one will know, for we will withdraw, the three of us, as if we were conferring together."

"Why should I need to be urged?" she asked. "I wish it more than you or he."

Then all three withdrew together, as if they were conferring. Seeing that the knight dared do no more, the queen took him by the chin and gave him a prolonged kiss in front of Galehaut.

Then the queen, who was a most wise and worthy lady, began to speak: "Dear friend," she said to the knight, "I'm yours, because you have done so much, and this gives me great joy. Now take care that this be kept secret: this is necessary, for I'm one of the ladies in all the world about whom the greatest good has been said. If my reputation were to suffer because of you, it would be a base and ugly love. And I ask the same of you, Galehaut, who are so wise, for if harm came to me from this, it could only be because of you; but if it brings me benefit or joy, you will have bestowed it."

"My lady," said Galehaut, "he could do you no wrong, but I've merely done what you ordered me to do. Now you must hear a request from me, for I told you yesterday that you could soon do more for me than I for you."

"Speak confidently," she said, "for there's nothing you could request that I wouldn't do."

"Then you have accepted, my lady," he said, "to grant me his companionship."

"Indeed," she replied, "if you didn't have that, then you would have profited little by the great sacrifice you made for him."

Then she took the knight by the right hand and said, "Galehaut, I give you this knight forevermore, except for what I have previously had of him. And you," she said to the knight, "give your solemn word on this." And the knight did so. "Now do you know," she said to Galehaut, "whom I have given you?"

"My lady, I do not."

"I have given you Lancelot of the Lake, the son of King Ban of Benoic."

And in this way she revealed his identity to Galehaut, whose joy was the greatest he had ever known, for he had heard many rumors that this was Lancelot of the Lake and that he was the finest knight in the world, though landless, and he knew well that King Ban had been a very noble man.

Thus was the first tryst between Lancelot and the queen brought about by Galehaut. Galehaut had known him only by sight, and for that reason Lancelot had made him promise that he would not ask him his name until he himself revealed it or another did so for him.


From The Quest for the Holy Grail

On the Quest for the Grail, Arthur's knights, riding singly or sometimes in pairs, experience strange visions, which are glossed by holy hermits. Sir Gawain and Sir Hector (Lancelot's brother who, chancing upon Lancelot's funeral, delivers the lament [NAEL 8, 1.455], which is original in Malory), are together when each has a mysterious dream. We give here only Gawain's dream and its interpretation, which epitomizes the principal reason why he and all but three other knights fail in this quest. The translation is by E. Jane Burns.

Gawain's Dream

While they were sleeping, a wondrous and unforgettable vision came to each of them, one worthy of remembering and recounting because of its great significance. What Gawain saw in his sleep was a vision of himself in a meadow of green grass and many flowers. In the meadow there was a rack where one hundred and fifty bulls were feeding. The bulls were fierce, and all but three of them were spotted. One of the three was neither spotted nor pure white, but just slightly spotted. The others could not have been more white or more beautiful. The three bulls were tied together at the neck by strong and binding yokes. The bulls said, "Let's search for better pasture land than this." They left the meadow and went into the wasteland, where they stayed a long time. When they returned, many were missing. And those who came back were so thin and tired that they could barely stand. Of the three without spots, only one returned. When they reached the rack, strife broke out among them until the food supply waned and they had to disperse. . . .

[Hector also has a disturbing dream concerning his brother Sir Lancelot.]

Hector was so dismayed by this dream that he awoke in anger and then tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Sir Gawain, who could not sleep either, because his own dream had awakened him, heard Hector tossing about and asked, "Sir knight, are you asleep?"

"No. An extraordinary dream has awakened me."

"I too have been awakened by an amazing dream. And I won't be satisfied until I know the truth about it."

"And I will not be satisfied until I learn the truth about Sir Lancelot, my brother," said Hector. As they were talking, they saw a hand, visible up to the elbow and covered in red silk, come in through the chapel door. From the hand there hung an ordinary bridle, and in its fist a thick candle burned brightly. The hand passed in front of them, entered the chancel, and disappeared without their knowing where it went. Then they heard a voice that said, "Knights of little faith and meager trust, you lack the three things you have seen here, and that is why you cannot participate in the adventures of the Holy Grail." Gawain and Hector were speechless when they heard these words. They sat in silence for a long time, until Sir Gawain asked Hector, "Did you understand that?"

"I certainly did not," he said, "though I did hear it." "In God's name," said Gawain, "we have seen such things tonight, both while asleep and awake, that I think it best for us to seek out a hermit, a worthy man who will tell us the meaning of our dreams and the words we've heard. We will then do as he advises us. For to do otherwise, it seems to me, would be wasting our efforts, as we have done thus far." Hector agreed with this suggestion, and the two companions spent the rest of the night in the chapel without sleeping. Each one pondered the vision he had had. . . .

[Click on image to enlarge] Understanding now why the knights had come to him, the hermit responded to Sir Gawain by saying, "In the meadow that you saw, there was a rack. We should understand the rack to be [156] the Round Table. For just as the rack has rods separating the compartments, the Round Table has columns separating each seat from the next. We should understand the meadow to be humility and patience, which remain always vigorous and strong. Because patience and humility could never be conquered, the Round Table was established upon them. And the chivalry it promotes has derived such force from the gentleness and brotherhood of knights that it too can never be defeated. This is why they say that the Round Table was founded upon humility and patience.

"One hundred fifty bulls were eating from the rack. If they had been in the meadow, their hearts would have remained in humility and patience. The bulls were prideful, and all but three of them were spotted. You should understand these bulls to be the members of the Round Table who, in their pride and lust, fell into such mortal sin that their sins could not be concealed within them, but were forced to the surface, making them spotted and stained as the bulls were, that is to say, vile and hideous.

"There were three unstained bulls, those without sin. Two were perfectly fair and pure, while the third had a trace of spots. The two perfect ones represent Galahad and Perceval, who are fairer and purer than anyone. They are fair indeed, being perfect in all virtues. And they are pure without blemish or stain, which is almost impossible to find in a human being. The third one, bearing the trace of a blemish, is Bors, who once lost his virginity. But since then he has made such amends through a life of chastity that his sin has been pardoned.

"The three bulls were attached at the neck; they are the three knights in whom virginity is so strongly rooted that they cannot lift their heads; that is to say, they are careful that pride does not enter into them. The bulls said, 'Let's search for better pasture land.' And the knights of the Round Table said at Pentecost, 'Let's go on the quest for the Holy Grail, so that we'll receive worldly honors and the heavenly food that the Holy Spirit sends to those who sit at the Table of the Holy Grail. That's where the better pasture lies. Let's leave this one behind and go there.'

'They left court and went into the wasteland, not the meadow. They departed without making confession, as one should do before entering into Our Lord's service. Neither did they set out in humility and patience, which are represented by the meadow, but they traveled through the waste and desolate land on a path where no fruit or flowers grow. That's the road to hell, where everything that is not right is destroyed. When they returned, many were missing; that is to say that not all returned because some died. And those who came back were so thin and weak that they could hardly stand; that is to say that those who will return will be so blinded by sin that they will have killed each other. That they will have no limbs to support them means that they will possess none of the virtues that keep a man from falling into hell. They will be filled with all kinds of uncleanliness and mortal sin. Of the three without stain, one will return and the other two will stay; that is to say of the three good knights, one will return to court, not for the food on the rack, but to tell of the good pasture that will be lost to those living in sin. The other two will stay away because they will find such sweetness in the food of the Holy Grail; they will never leave after having tasted it."


From The Death of Arthur

Driven by Sir Gawain's implacable desire to take revenge on Sir Lancelot for the slaying of Gawain's brothers in Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere (NAEL 8, 1.444-48), Arthur's army lays siege to Lancelot in his castle Joyous Garde. The single combat between Gawain and Lancelot is probably the most dramatic in Arthurian literature and is closer to the motif of blood revenge in epic than to the romance duel like the duel between Yvain and Gawain in Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain. In contrast, Lancelot's reluctance to finish off his old friend is in the chivalric tradition. The account in this episode of Gawain's magical strength has suggested to some scholars that Gawain was at some remote time a euhemeristic character, i.e., a Celtic solar deity, interpreted as a historical hero. The translation is by Norris J. Lacy.

The Battle between Gawain and Lancelot

Then there began between the two of them the most cruel and prodigious battle that two knights ever fought. Anyone who saw them dealing and receiving blows would know they were valiant men. The battle continued that way for a long time. . . .

If they had been as strong then as at the start of the battle, both of them would soon have been dead, but they were so exhausted that often their swords turned in their hands when they attempted to strike; and each of them had at least seven wounds so serious that the least of them would have killed any other man. But despite the pain they suffered from having lost a great deal of blood, they continued the battle until the hour of tierce [9 a.m.]. Then they had to rest, for they could no longer continue. Sir Gawain was the first to draw back and lean on his shield to catch his breath, and then Lancelot did the same. . . .

Thus were the two knights engaged in battle, and one of them was gaining the upper hand. But when Sir Gawain saw that it was noon, he called Lancelot back to battle as freshly as if he had not yet struck a single blow, and he attacked him so energetically that Lancelot was amazed and said to himself, "My word, this man must be a devil or a phantom, because when I let him rest, I thought he was exhausted from fighting, but now he's as fresh as if he hadn't struck a single blow in battle."

That is what Lancelot said about Sir Gawain, whose strength and vitality increased around noon; and he was telling the truth. But the phenomenon was not new: everywhere Gawain had ever fought, people saw that his strength increased around noon, and since some people consider that a lie, I will tell you how it happened.

The truth is that Sir Gawain was born in Orkney, in a city called Nordelone. When he was born, his father, King Lot, who was very happy, had him taken to a hermit who lived in a nearby forest. That holy man lived such a pure life that for his sake Our Lord performed miracles every day, healing the lame and making the blind see and doing many another miracle for love of this good man. The king sent the child to him because he did not want the child to be baptized by any hand other than his. When the holy man saw the child and learned who he was, he willingly baptized him and called him Gawain, for that was the name of the good man. And the child was baptized around the noon hour.

At the baptism, one of the knights who had brought the child said to the good man, "Sir, do a great service to the kingdom, and see to it through your prayers that when the child is of an age to bear arms, he will be more gifted than any other."

"To be sure, sir knight," said the good man, "grace comes not from me, but from Jesus Christ, and without him no grace can prevail. Nevertheless, if through my prayer this child could be endowed with greater gifts than other knights, that will be done. But stay here tonight, and tomorrow I'll be able to say what kind of man he will be, and how good a knight."

That night the king's messengers stayed there until morning, and when the holy man had sung Mass, he came to them and said, "Lords, I can say with certainty that this child will be more endowed with prowess than his companions, and as long as he lives, he won't be defeated around noon. He has been so blessed through my prayer that every day at noon (the hour when he was baptized), his power and strength will increase, wherever he is. And never will he be so beaten or exhausted that he won't feel refreshed and strengthened at that time."

It happened just as the holy man said, for every day, his power and strength increased around noon, regardless of where he was; as a result, he killed many valiant men and won many battles for as long as he bore arms. For when he happened to be fighting a powerful knight, he attacked him and pressed him as well as he could until noon, so that at that time the opponent was so exhausted that he could not continue. And when he wanted to rest, then Sir Gawain pressed him with all his power, for at that time he was valiant and swift; and he quickly overpowered him. And that is why many knights feared to do battle with him, unless it was after noon.

His grace and power had come to him through the prayer of the holy man, and they were evident that day when he fought the son of King Ban of Benoic. It was easy to see that before noon Sir Gawain was hard-pressed and near defeat, so that he needed to rest. But when his strength returned, as it customarily did, he leapt at Lancelot with such speed that everyone who saw him said that he was so quick and agile that he seemed not to have struck a single blow yet that day. Then he began to press Lancelot so hard that he drew blood from at least ten wounds; he was pressing him that way because he thought he could defeat him and thought that, if he failed to best him around noon, he would never do so. Thus he rained blows on Lancelot with his sharp sword, and Lancelot was dazed and in pain. . . .

Thus the battle lasted until past noon, with Lancelot being barely able to withstand Sir Gawain's attack and defend himself; but by doing that, he was able to rest a little and regain his strength and breath. As a result, he suddenly turned on Sir Gawain and struck him such a blow on the helmet that he made him stagger, and Gawain was so affected by the blow that it took all his strength to stay on his feet.

Then Lancelot began to strike him and deal great blows with his cutting sword and gain ground against him. Sir Gawain, who had only recently been at the peak of his strength and now saw himself in danger of being shamed if he could not defend himself, redoubled his efforts and called on all his prowess, because of his fear of death. He then defended himself so desperately that his exertion made him bleed from the nose and mouth, in addition to his other wounds, which were bleeding freely.

Thus the battle between the two knights continued until the hour of nones. By then, both were in such a bad state that their distress was obvious to everyone; and the place where they were battling was covered with links from hauberks and pieces of shields. But Sir Gawain was so weakened by his injuries that he expected nothing less than death. Nor was Lancelot so healthy that he would not have preferred to rest rather than fight, because Sir Gawain had pressed him so hard and so close that the blood flowed from his body in more than a dozen places. Had they been any other knights, they would already have been dead from their ordeal, but their hearts were so great that they would think they had accomplished nothing if they did not press on until one of them was killed or defeated and the other revealed as the victor.

The ordeal continued that way until the hour of vespers, and by that time Sir Gawain was so exhausted that he could scarcely hold his sword. And Lancelot, who was less exhausted and was still able to continue, struck him repeatedly, driving him back and forth on the field. Gawain, however, managed to resist him, protecting himself with what remained of his shield.

When Lancelot saw that he had him beaten, and all who were watching saw that his opponent no longer had the means to defend himself, he drew near Sir Gawain and said to him, "Oh, Sir Gawain, it would be proper to declare me innocent of the charge you made against me, because I've defended myself well against you until the hour of vespers; and by vespers, he who accuses another of a treacherous act should have proved his point and won his battle, and if not, he has by rights lost his case. Sir Gawain, I say this so that you can save yourself, because if you continue this battle, one of us is destined to die a vile death, and our kinsmen would be blamed for it. And so that I may make whatever amends [202] you might ask of me, I beg you: let's stop this battle."

Gawain said may God help him if he ever agreed to that. Instead, he said to Lancelot, "You can rest assured that one of us will die on this field."

Lancelot was greatly saddened by that, because he certainly did not want Sir Gawain to die by his hand; he had tried him so severely that he had learned that Gawain possessed far more prowess than he had thought that morning; and Lancelot loved good knights more than anyone in the world.

Then he went toward where he saw the king, and he said to him, "Sir, I asked Sir Gawain to stop this battle, because if we go on, one of the two of us will certainly be badly beaten."

When the king, who realized that Sir Gawain was being defeated, heard Lancelot's generous statement, he answered, "Lancelot, Gawain won't give up the fight if he doesn't want to, but you can abandon it if you wish, since the hour is past and you have accomplished what you set out to do."

"Sir," said Lancelot, "if I didn't think you would consider me a coward, I'd go away and leave Sir Gawain on the battlefield."

"I assure you," said the king, "you've never done anything for which I'd be more grateful than that."

"Then I'll leave, with your permission," said Lancelot.

"May God be with you," said the king, "and save you, for you are the best and most generous knight I've ever known."

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