ROBERT DE BORRON was imbued, and even deeply, with the religious spirit of his period. I think also that in him there was a spiritual tincture which must have been a little rare at that epoch among courtly minstrels. He had seen, according to his story, some part at least of the Great Book of the Legend, and perhaps it had changed his life. After the manner of his time, he was attached to a patron, and he wrote his poem for the preux and noble chevalier Walter Montbéliard--a crusader when the Temple was at its glory. The poem opens with an account of the circumstances which led ultimately to the incarnation of Christ and is based on the fact that prior to this event, and prior indeed to the descent of Christ into Hades, good and bad were alike in Hell and less or more in the power of the evil hierarchy. The root-matter of the story can be expressed in a few words, and may be so offered to simplify the issues which are important to our purpose and must be dealt with therefore more fully. The vessel in which Christ prepared His sacrament, according to those words of the text with which we are already acquainted, was taken from the house of Simon by a Jew and delivered into the hands of Pontius Pilate.
[paragraph continues] Joseph of Arimathæa, with the assistance of Nicodemus and by permission of Pontius Pilate, took down the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. The permission was a reward asked by Joseph in return for years of military service, and Pilate gave him in addition the vessel which the Jew had brought him. In that vessel Joseph received the Blood, which was still flowing from the wounds of Christ when the body was being prepared for burial. He laid the body in a sepulchre prepared for himself, and he concealed the vessel in his house. After the Resurrection the Jews sought Nicodemus, who eluded them by flight, and Joseph, whom they seized and imprisoned in a dark tower; the only issue therefrom was at the summit, and this was sealed effectually by a heavy stone. Christ came to Joseph in the tower, brought him the Sacred Vessel and communicated to him certain secret words which were the grace and power thereof. Joseph remained for forty years in his prison and was sustained by the Blessed Vessel, as if in a condition of ecstasy and apart from any normal consciousness concerning the flight of time. Towards the end of that period, Vespasian, the son of Titus, being afflicted with leprosy--and a pilgrim who reached Rome having recounted the wonderful miracles of Jesus of which he had heard in Palestine--a commission was sent to Jerusalem to bring back some relic of the Master, if the report of His death were true. The commission in due time returned with St. Veronica, who carried the Volto Santo, or Sacred Face-cloth, and this effected the desired cure immediately. Titus and Vespasian proceeded with an army to Palestine to avenge the death of Jesus. It was in this manner that Vespasian found Joseph still alive in the tower; the stone was removed from his sepulchre, and he who had been entombed, like Christ, like Christ also arose; after this rescue was effected, the Emperor's son was converted by Joseph.
The vengeance on the Jews being in fine accomplished, Joseph collected his relatives and many companions who had embraced Christianity at his instance, and by the will
of God the party started westward, carrying the Holy Graal. For a considerable period they took possession of a certain district and placed it under cultivation. At length a part of the company fell away from grace, with the result that a scarcity followed in the land, and the vessel was used to separate the good from the evil within the ranks of the people. For this purpose a table was dight after the manner of that which served for the Lord's Supper, and the vessel was set thereon. Before it there was placed a single fish, which the Divine voice of the Graal had directed Brons, who was the brother-in-law of Joseph, to catch in a neighbouring water. Between Joseph and Brons there was left a vacant seat corresponding to that which had been made void by the defection of Judas Iscariot. Under circumstances which remain vague in the story, a certain part of the company, being those who had kept in a state of grace, sat down at the table, and the rest who gathered about were of those who had lapsed into sin. The good people experienced all spiritual delight and inward refreshment, but the evil were not filled, and they beheld nothing. When a question, put to them by one who was named Petrus, had elicited this fact, they were denounced as those who were guilty, and they departed in shame. It is indeed quite clear that they seem to have separated from the company once and for all. The exception was a certain Moses, who manifested great sorrow, though he was really an unbeliever at heart. His prayers in fine obtained him permission to take a place at the table, but the void seat was the one which alone was available, and when he sat down thereon, the Siege and its occupants were both swallowed by an abyss which opened beneath them. Meanwhile the office of the table had become a daily, as it were, a divine service, and so continued till the company was divided further to continue the journey westward in successive parties. Alain, the son of Brons, and his eleven brothers under his guidance were the first to start, he carrying a certain proportion of what must be termed the revealed knowledge of the
[paragraph continues] Holy Graal, but it did not include apparently the Secret Words. The communication which had been made to Alain was because when the time came for Brons and his wife to seek for their twelve boys some kind of settlement in life, the eleven had elected to marry and were therefore provided with wives, but he who was the youngest of all chose a life of celibacy; he was therefore put over his brethren, and was taken by Joseph into his heart after a special manner. This party was followed by that of Petrus, whose connection with the family of Joseph, if any, is not stated; but he was favoured in another manner which would seem to be more distinctive, since he carried a brief or warrant sent down from heaven itself, but of its contents or their purport there is no account given. His destination was the Vaux d’Avaron. The last to depart was Brons, apparently with the remnant of the people, and to him Joseph, by the divine ordination, delivered the Sacred Vessel and communicated the Secret Words. Joseph of Arimathæa seems to have remained behind--though the text is corrupt at this point--his mission being accomplished, and it would follow in this case that shortly after he was taken into la joie perdurable of the Paradise which is above.
The theology is in part of the popular legendary character and may seem a little fantastic even within these limits. For the early church and the writers thereto belonging in places remote from the centre, the world of Christian doctrine was a world not realised, and Rome might well have been astonished at certain things which were said and sometimes taught with all innocence of intention on the verges of the horizon westward. It would be easy to furnish examples of elements in De Borron which are not less than heretical from the doctrinal standpoint, but there are indications also of curious learning and traces of strange sympathies. Among the latter may be mentioned a certain tenderness towards Pontius Pilate, the difficulty of whose position as the Procurator of Judæa, when acting almost under the
compulsion of a Jewish faction, was from any point of view undeniable. The important point, however, is that the sympathy reflects at a far distance the apocryphal legends which represent Pilate as one who was converted ultimately, who became a bishop of the Church and sealed his testimony with martyrdom. More noticeable than this, perhaps, for the ordinary reader is the writer's seeming ignorance concerning the Jewish doctrine of rest in the bosom of Abraham for those at least of the faithful departed who died in the peace of Israel.
In the kind of research with which we are concerned here, we must be careful not to mistake the unintended blunder for the express statement. As a rule, it is easy to distinguish the simple errors, but occasionally a specific point may puzzle the most careful reader. While De Borron seems wholly unconscious of opposition to the claims of Rome, there is, of course, very full indication of a secret which inheres in the Graal and some ground for thinking that the rumour of this secret had gone forth abroad in the world prior to his poem. It is, however, a verbal formula, not apparently a doctrine. "Those who can learn and retain these words," says Christ to Joseph, "shall be virtuous among people and pleasant unto God; they shall not be forejudged in court, nor conquered in battle, so only that their cause is just." There is, however, a particular point which is a little opposed to my general view herein. Speaking of the common hell into which all souls went prior to the coming of Christ, De Borron says: "It was necessary that the ransom of our first fathers should be provided by the Three Divine Persons who are one only and the same substance." Now, the identity of the Three Persons in Christ is unquestionably a heresy, but, as it so happens, this is the express teaching of Swedenborg, for whom Christ was the manifested Trinity. It is curious to recall the analogy, but such a notion could at no time have formed part of any secret doctrine, supposing that this were otherwise to be found or expected in De Borron.
[paragraph continues] So also we must not interpret as a trace of any secret doctrine the implicit of his comparison between the conception of Eve and the most Holy Virgin. He says in effect that Eve conceived in suffering, that the posterity of our first parents were, like them, doomed to die, and that the possession of their souls was claimed by the demon as his right. To purchase them from hell our Saviour was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and in this manner the sin of generation according to the common course of Nature was annulled by a virginal conception. But in the analogy there is no ulterior motive, no arrière pensée.
The apostolic priority of Peter seems to underlie the following statement, which is put into the mouth of our Saviour: "I leave this example to Peter and to the ministers of the Church." Comparatively early criticism looked upon this as equivalent to an acknowledgment of St. Peter as the official chief of the Catholic Holy Assembly, and remarked that no such admission is found in the Book of the Holy Graal, which, it should be said, is however untrue. If we pass now to the consideration of the Sacred Vessel and to the question what De. Borron designed to signify thereby, we may note in the first place that, by the hypothesis of the poem, it is not visible to evil-livers, though it is evident that they encircled the table at which they could not sit on the occasion when it was first manifested to the elect. The correspondence of this will be found much later on in the Parsifal of Wolfram, wherein the object which corresponds to the Graal was invisible to a pagan, though he was a man of noble life and a kinsman of the Secret House. De Borron speaks (a) of a vessel, not otherwise named, in which Jesus washed the feet of His disciples; (b) of that passing fair vessel, already described, in which Christ made His sacrament, but the institution of the Eucharist is not mentioned more specifically; (c) of the use by Pilate either of this vessel or another--for the text seems doubtful--when he washed his hands to
signify that he was not responsible for the judgment which he had pronounced unwillingly. As regards (b) I have explained in the summary that a Jew carried it from the house of Simon, when Jesus had been led forth therefrom, and brought it to Pilate. At a later stage Pilate took the vessel, and remembering thereof that it was beautiful, he gave it to Joseph, saying: "Much hast thou loved this man." Joseph answered: "Thou hast said truly." But the gift was less an instance of generosity than of the procurator's desire to retain nothing which had belonged to Jesus, whereby it was possible that he might be accused. Either the present state of the text or the poet's method of expression leaves things so much in confusion that a further question has arisen whether the piscina used for the washing of the feet was identical with that vessel which became ultimately the Graal. It has been suggested that for the last word in the line
what was written and intended originally was the word lavement, but this is extremely unlikely in view of the general content and is not countenanced certainly by the Lesser Holy Graal. It has been suggested further that (1) St. John does not mention the Institution of the Eucharist and is the only Evangelist who does describe the washing of the Apostle's feet; (2) Robert de Borron knew only the Fourth Gospel, possibly through that of Nicodemus in the Christian Apocrypha. But all these questions are settled by the text itself in the discourse of Christ to Joseph at the beginning of his imprisonment in the tower. It is there said (1) that at the Last Supper on the Thursday Christ blessed the bread and the wine and told His disciples that they partook in those elements of His flesh and blood; (2) that the table of that Supper should be represented in many countries; (3) that the sacrament should never be consecrated without commemoration of Joseph, who had taken down the Divine Body from the
[paragraph continues] Cross and laid it in the Sepulchre; (4) that this tomb should be signified by the Altar; (5) that the winding-sheet in which the Body was wrapped should be called the corporal; (6) that the Holy Vessel in which Joseph received the Blood should be called the chalice; (7) that the stone with which the sepulchre was sealed should be signified by the paten. Nothing can be more express, both as to the Mass and the Eucharist. Unfortunately, nothing can be clearer also in the mind of the poet than the content of the Palladium of his legend--being the blood of Three Persons in one God. And this, I think, is all that need be said in this place concerning the Cup of the Holy Graal in Robert de Borron.
That Christ had in nowise forgotten one who had at need befriended Him was shown by Him bringing it into the prison, holding it in the hands of Him, while the whole tower was illuminated by its great light, for it was all full of the Holy Spirit.
The Divine Discourse which occurs in this tower between the visionary Christ and Joseph is remarkable from several points of view, and especially by the categorical assurance that the Risen Saviour brought none of His disciples to the conference, because none were acquainted with the great love which subsisted between Himself and His auditor. It seems, however, to have been a prototype of that love which is the immanence of Christ in the believing soul, and the palladium in Joseph's case was the symbol of the Redeemer's death, as it is the Eucharist in the external church. The specific and material explanation is that Joseph took down the body of Jesus from the Cross, and for this reason he was to be a partaker in all glory. Of the colloquy there were, in any case, no witnesses, and the Gospel narratives could offer no contradiction. I suppose that I should add an implicit which seems almost evidently to have been in the poet's mind--that Joseph had made the Resurrection more, humanly speaking, possible by preserving the body as nearly intact as the
circumstances of the Crucifixion would permit. The difficulty which seems to have been present to the subsurface mind of De Borron was perhaps not unknown to one Gospel narrative, which is careful to indicate that the bones of Christ were not broken on the Cross.
The especial direction to Joseph was that he should guard well the Sacred Vessel, committing it only to those persons who were designed thereto, and by these it should be taken as given in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The possessors were to be three and no more, because of the Trinity; they were: (a) Joseph; (b) Brons and (c) the grandson of Brons, who was to be born in the fulness of time. It must be said that this enumeration appears to omit one person who, according to the text itself, was intended for some high office. When Joseph prayed before the Cup for guidance over the future of his company, recalling an ordinance which had told him that at what time soever he desired secret knowledge, he should come into the presence of the Reliquary wherein was the glorious blood, he was answered by the Voice of the Graal that the celibate son of Brons was to be shown the Sacred Vessel so that he could see the content thereof. Now this son was Alain, and it might be supposed that the venerable charge would pass to him from his father, more especially as, in spite of his choice, he was to beget the keeper in fine, and was not dedicated therefore to permanent celibacy, but held rather in maidenhood for a marriage which was predestined already. The instruction to Petrus announced that he was to await the arrival of Alain's son, who would reveal to him the virtues of the Holy Vessel--being something omitted apparently in his undeclared brief or charter--and would make known to him what had become of Moses.
As to this ill-starred personage, who had suffered so strangely for parading a spurious election with intent to deceive those who were chosen in truth and faith, it is decreed that he shall be heard of no more in song or
fable till the knight comes who will fill the void seat. In this dubious manner it seems to be indicated that the wrath of the Graal would not be visited to everlasting.
After the departure of the several bands of pilgrims, the poem comes to its conclusion for want of written materials. The author had carried it so far on the evidence of the sacred book to which I have cited already the chief reference. He leaves it in the expectation that he will recount later on as follows:--
(b) Whither Petrus proceeded.
(c) The fate of Moses, so long lost.
(d) The destination of Brons, who, outside all inferences of the logical understanding, had received the title of the Rich Fisher, on account of that single occasion when he angled in a certain water and caught one fish.
Meanwhile, De Borron had apparently the records of the Fifth Branch, and to that he passed on, so producing a-metrical romance concerning the prophet Merlin. Let us therefore on our part conclude also as follows: (1) The formulary which incorporated the Great Secret of the Graal was, without evasion apparently, recorded in the prototypical chronicle by which the poet was guided. (2) The Secret was itself denominated the Graal, as if by a general title, the name not being applied exclusively to the Sacred Vessel. (3) The last directions to Joseph regarding Brons, the second keeper, are these: Tell him how God did communicate unto thee the Holy Words, which are sweet and precious and gracious and piteous, which are properly called and named the Secret of the Graal.
Hereto, therefore, as the obiter dicta at this still preliminary stage, the English Syr Percyvelle may be the nearest reflection of the quest-element in folk-lore, but the Metrical Romance of Joseph is the nearest and earliest reflection of all that which could have been imputed as
historical in any lost book. It is unalloyed by folk-lore admixtures, for no two things can be well less alike than the pre-Graal Feeding-dish and the Hallow of De Borron's Christian legend. The distance between the old myths and this devotional poem is too great for us to say that the latter is the archetypal state of this mythos after assumption by Christianity. There is no kinship. It is that from which the Lesser Chronicles and the Greater Chronicles draw at their respective distances, though from otherwhere they gathered many elements. Here at least there are no adventitious Hallows; it is the Graal as the one thing only. And the Holy Graal is a symbol of the Angel of Great Counsel made visible.