An Explanation Of The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Cycle (early 13th century) form part of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The other part of Lancelot-Grail Cycle is the Post-Vulgate romances written around the mid-13th century. Both Vulgate and Post-Vulgate romances had influenced Sir Thomas Malory into writing his own Middle-English version in mid-15th century, called Le Morte d’Arthur.
The Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles also provided us with alternative legend of Arthur that was told earlier by Geoffrey of Monmouth (fl. 1130-1155) and Wace (fl. 1155-1165). Most scenes had changed from the earlier tales, where the Vulgate romances had either elaborated it or added completely new adventures. There are also new characters that are not found in the earlier legends, while characters such as Arthur and Gawain had being altered drastically to allow heroes such as Lancelot, Galahad and Tristan to come to the centre stage. You will find the earlier legend of Arthur in the page called the Life of King Arthur.
This page included an introduction and background of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles, general information that may interested the scholars.
In Timeless Myths, Lancelot-Grail Cycle had being broken until into four different pages.
- Legend of Excalibur (the sources come from the Vulgate Prose Merlin and the Post-Vulgate Merlin’s Continuation (Suite du Merlin). This is the alternative version of the early life of King Arthur).
- Lancelot (which was called Lancelot Proper, recount the tale from the time of the hero’s birth to just before the next story began (ie. the Grail quest). Lancelot became the greatest knight in the world, due to his love for Guinevere, Arthur’s Queen).
- Quest of the Holy Grail (which of course, belong to the Galahad’s tradition, which the French Queste del Saint Graal. The disappearance of the Grail from Britain, heralded the ending of Arthur and his kingdom).
- The Death of King Arthur (also known as Mort de roi Artu or simply as Mort Artu, tell of the destruction of Arthur’s world, caused by the disappearance of the Grail and the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere).
If you want read more about some background of the Vulgate Cycle, then click on Background.
The White Knight
I do recommend that you read these pages in the order listed above.
|Post Vulgate Cycle|
|Le Morte d’Arthur|
|During the twelfth and thirteenth century, the French authors were major contributors to the Arthurian legend. Perhaps the most influential of these works in the 13th century was the Vulgate Cycle (and later Post-Vulgate cycle).
The Vulgate Cycle was sometimes known as “Prose Lancelot“, was now commonly called the “Lancelot-Graal” cycle.
The whole purpose of the cycle was to combine three themes: the quest of the Grail, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the death of King Arthur. The authors of the Vulgate Cycle had attempted into interwoven these three themes together.
The Vulgate Cycle originally comprised mainly of three core works: Lancelot Proper (or “Lancelot”), the Queste del Saint Graal (“Quest of the Holy Grail”), and the La Mort le Roi Artu (“Mort Artu” or “Death of King Arthur”). It was written in the Old French, in the second half of thirteenth century (c. 1225-1237).
Two additional works were included into the Vulgate Cycle. Both of these works were influenced by the work of a French poet named Robert de Boron. One of these was called L’Estoire du Graal (“History of the Holy Grail”, c. 1240). This work deals with the history of the Grail, when Joseph of Arimathea took his family and the Grail to Britain. Rather than translating from verse to prose, the L’Estoire du Graal is actually a rework of Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea, c. 1200. Boron’s version is quite simple and different from the Vulgate Grail’s history. You will only find Boron’s version of Joseph of Arimathea in the Grail Legends, titled the Origin of the Holy Grail. Though, I have read L’Estoire du Graal, I have not written the Vulgate version of the Grail’s history.
The second additional work was called the Prose Merlin or the Vulgate Merlin. This was prose adaptation of another work by Robert de Boron also called “Merlin”. This had the episodes of Arthur’s birth and how he was raised by Sir Anton (Sir Ector) and educated by Merlin, and how Arthur became king by drawing the magic sword out of stone. The story ended with the death of Merlin through the magic of the Lady of the Lake. Most of the Prose Merlin can be found in Legend of Excalibur.
(Notice the third work of Boron, titled Perceval, was ignored, because they had introduced a new hero into the Grail romance – Galahad.)
There is additional collection of works, commonly known as the Post-Vulgate romances or cycle, written between 1240-1250. The Post-Vulgate cycle comprised mainly of Suite du Merlin (Continuation of Merlin), a longer and alternative version of the Quest of the Holy Grail, and the Prose Tristan tried to introduced the legend of Tristan into the cycle. There is also the Post-Vulgate version of Mort Artu is very short. See the next article called Post-Vulgate Cycle for more detail.
Before you began reading tales from the Vulgate Cycle, I suggest reading the Legend of Excalibur first. This is sort of like a prologue to the Vulgate Cycle. My sources for the Legend of Excalibur come from Vulgate Prose Merlin, 1240, and Suite du Merlin (or Merlin Continuation, c. 1245 Post-Vulgate). I had combined the two Merlins for the Legend of Excalibur. There are difference between the Prose Merlin and Merlin Continuation. After reading the Legend of Excalibur, then I suggest that you read the Vulgate romances in the order of Lancelot, the Quest and Death of Arthur.
The Quest of the Holy Grail introduced the new Grail hero: Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine, daughter of King Pelles. Galahad with his two companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors were the only Knights of the Round Table to complete the mysterious quest. It is only Galahad achieved the ultimate spiritual enlightenment of the Grail mystery. The story ended with the death of Galahad and Perceval. With Galahad’s death, the Grail vanished.
With the disappearance of the Grail from Britain, it also meant the withdrawal of God’s grace from Britain. This led to the final work of the Vulgate Cycle, The Death of King Arthur. The story tells of the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere, which lead to the death of Gawain’s brothers and the war between Arthur and Lancelot. During Arthur’s absence, his son/nephew Mordred betrayed Arthur, led to Arthur’s final battle and death.
One of the things that is interesting is that the English writer, Walter Map, had been credited as the author of the three main works. This is highly unlikely because Walter Map had died in 1209, so the Vulgate trilogy was written at least 15 years after his death. The author or authors of these works remain unknown, but there are some speculation that the authors were Cistercian monks (particularly in regarding to the Queste del Saint Graal).
Due to the size of these three works from the Vulgate Cycle, I’ve decided to retell these stories in three separate pages.
|The Vulgate Cycle is remarkable, not only because of its size, but it had tried to take into account every aspects of the time of Arthur.
The original romances of the Vulgate Cycle had only comprised of three works, beginning with the birth of Lancelot, which included his early adventure (Lancelot Propre), following through with the Grail quest (Queste del Saint Graal) and the death of King Arthur (Mort le roi Artu). The other two additional works included the origin of the Grail (L’Estoire du Graal) at the time of Joseph of Arimathea, then in the Prose Merlin (or Vulgate Merlin) included the birth and early reign of King Arthur. So the whole life on Arthur was covered.
Yet the three main works wasn’t about Arthur at all. Lancelot was the predominant player in the drama, even in the last volume, titled the Death of King Arthur (Mort le roi Artu). The tale only ended with Lancelot’s death and how he was taken to heaven after four years of pentience.
What is remarkable is the difference between the core works of the Vulgate Cycle. In Lancelot Propre, Lancelot undertake adventures with not only to glory for himself, but because of his love for Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. Lancelot became the best knight in the world. This volume was fairly typical of knightly adventures and courtly love. Many of the adventures were magical, where the hero must defeat powerful knights, enchantreses, giants and dragons.
In Queste del Saint Graal, the tale moved away from courtly love to spiritual love. Attention is then drawn to Lancelot’s own son, Galahad become the greatest knight in the world. While Lancelot himself fell from grace, because of his sin of adultery with the Queen, Lancelot failed to achieve the Grail.
In Mort le roi Artu, Lancelot returned to the foreground of this tale. His love for Guinevere and the treachery of Mordred, would bring the fall of Arthur and the kingdom he had established. In this last volume, the adventure and tragedy seemed more real, because the magic had been kept to a minimum. Here, the tragedy is more human, the scene is more somber, yet they were also more moving.
The Vulgate romances may have dervived from many sources, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s original, yet it has bloosom.
|The Post Vulgate Cycle tried to tie together the story of Tristan with that of the Grail (c. 1240). The Post Vulgate romances include a number of works, which rework the Vulgate Cycle. Another name for the Post Vulgate Cycle was Post Vulgate Romance of the Grail or Roman du Graal.
The Suite du Merlin was sort of a continuation of the Vulgate Prose Merlin. It contained the early episodes of Arthur’s life, particularly about Arthur had unwittingly committed incest with his half-sister Morgawse, who begotten Mordred. The tale also included Arthur’s early warfare against baron and lords, including King Lot, whom was killed by Sir Pellinor in battle. When Arthur’s sword broke, it tell of how Merlin brought Arthur to the Lady of the Lake, where he received a new sword called Excalibur. As well as the episode of Morgan le Fay, who tried to kill her brother by stealing his sword, by giving Excalibur to her lover Accolon. The story also included how the knight Balin de Savage wounded the Grail Keeper (Parlan) with the Dolorous Stroke, which caused his kingdom to become the Waste Land. Most of these episodes in the Suite du Merlin can be found in Legend of Excalibur.
The Prose Tristan was also called Le Roman de Tristan de Léonois (c. 1230). The Prose Tristan was notably different from the earlier accounts by Thomas and Beroul. This tale say the Tristan became a Knight of the Round Table, where in the end he was murdered by his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. I have only briefly gone over the Prose Tristan in the Tristan and Isolde page.
The other was called Le Livre d’Artu (c. 1250) which recount the origin of Arthur, his early adventure, including his early wars, and Arthur drawing the sword from rock, which proved him to be the true and rightful king of Britain.
|We can’t talk about alternative accounts (Vulgate and Post-Vulgate romances) to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”, c. 1137) without talking about the Le Morte d’Arthur.
Sir Thomas Malory was the last great medieval author of the Arthurian literature, who penned Le Morte d’Arthur, a Middle English prose writing in 1469. Le Morte d’Arthur was available in two main media: the Winchester Manuscript and the mass printed edition from Caxton printing company, in 1485.
Malory was writing at the time when England was embroiled in the long civil war and the power struggle between two powerful houses: York and the Lancaster. The war was known by a very quaint name: the Wars of the Roses. The name came from the fact that House of Lancaster was symbolised by the red rose, while the House of York used the white rose. The House of Tudor, with tainted bloodline to Lancaster, the eventual victor of the bloody conflict (Henry Tudor or Henry VII), tried to legitimatise his claim to the throne through his marriage to Elizabeth of York and uniting the white rose with the red.
Not much is known about Malory, though there are rumours that he may have being imprisoned for siding one of the two houses in the mid-1460s.
It is very clear that Malory had used a number of sources to compose his own work. Malory’s main sources come from the Old French prose romances of the early half of 13th century and the Middle English prose romances of the 14th century.
In the French Arthurian literature, Malory had used a bit of the Prose Lancelot, a substantial parts of the Queste del Saint Graal and Mort le roi Artu; all three works from the Vulgate Cycle. Malory had also used many parts of Suite du Merlin (Merlin’s Continuation) for the early part of Arthur’s reign, and the Prose Tristan, for the episodes of Tristan, both from the Post-Vulgate romances.
While his English sources were from the stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, which was written about 1350, and the alliterative Morte Arthure of 1400.
Note that Malory had selected episodes with care from his sources, however only a couple of his episodes were clearly his own invention, such as the book he had devoted on the adventure of Gareth, brother of Gawain, and the adventure of Sir Urry.
Malory had also rearranged the timeline of the episodes that were markedly different from that of the Vulgate romances. Geoffrey’s Historia and the Mort le roi Artu (Vulgate) had put Arthur’s Roman war near the end of Arthur’s reign and after the Grail, while Malory had set this episode earlier in Arthur’s reign.
In the Prose Lancelot (Vulgate), the Charrette scene where Lancelot rescued Guinevere from Meleagant, where the hero rode in a cart. This scene was set before the Grail quest began. While in Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory had placed this between the end of the quest but before the war between Lancelot and Arthur.
Another little discrepancy is that in the quest of the Grail, King Baudemagus was killed by Sir Gawain. Though we only know of the king’s death in the inscriptions of his tombstone, it is certain that they didn’t recognise one another when they fought. However in the last book of the Le Morte d’Arthur, Baudemagus was seen supporting Lancelot in the war against Arthur. (This error doesn’t occurred in the Vulgate tales.)
It is unlikely that I will do a page on the Le Morte d’Arthur, because of the similiarity to the French Vulgate and Post-Vulgate romances. However, I may retell a couple of episodes from Le Morte d’Arthur, in the future.