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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Important Arthurian Works: The Vulgate Cycle

The Vulgate Cycle consisted of five French prose volumes written in the early 13th century (c. 1225-1240) by an unknown author or authors, although they are sometimes attributed to Walter Map, a clerk for King Henry II. There is also speculation that one person may have outlined the cycles but several authors (possibly the Cistercian monks) wrote them.

The Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, makes Lancelot and the story of the Holy Grail the main focuses. The stories expanded on ideas introduced by French poet Chr├ętien de Troyes and may have derived from other sources as well, including Geoffrey of Monmouth. They are a major influence on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

book cover from The History of the Holy Grail, image from Amazon.com

The five volumes are:
  • Estoire du Graal (History of the Grail), c. 1240. This is a reworking of French poet Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea (c. 1200), which keys in on the story of Joseph of Arimathea taking the Holy Grail to Britain.
  • Estoire de Merlin (History of Merlin), aka Vulgate Merlin or Prose Merlin, c. 1240. This is a prose adaptation of Boron’s Merlin. It tells stories of Arthur’s early years, such as the circumstances of his birth, how he was raised by Sir Ector, educated by Merlin, and how he becomes king via the sword in the stone. The book ends with the death of Merlin at the hands of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.
  • Lancelot Propre (Lancelot Proper), c. 1225. The story focuses on Lancelot instead of King Arthur. Among the stories are the knight’s birth, how he was raised by the Lady of the Lake, how his befriending of the giant Galehaut, his rescue of Guinevere from abduction, and the birth of Lancelot’s son, Galahad.
  • Queste del Saint Graal (Quest of the Holy Grail), c. 1230. Sir Galahad is introduced as the one pure knight who can sit at the Siege Perilous, the designated seat at King Arthur’s Round Table for the one who will lead the Grail quest.
  • La Mort de roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur), c. 1235. This volume details the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere and how Mordred (introduced here as Arthur’s son for the first time) destroyed Camelot and killed Arthur.

Following the five volumes of the Vulgate Cycle were a collection which is known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle. Written between 1230-1250, these were essentially a reworking of the Vulgate Cycle with parts omitted (much of the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere), other parts emphasized more (Holy Grail), and some additional stories added (Tristan).


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