Friday, 31 October 2014

Lost Tales of the Arctic

Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part III

Arthur's Lost Men
A great black rock, the Rupes Nigra, 33 leagues across, sits at the top of the world with four indraughts, which swallowed ships, dividing four islands, one inhabited by pygmies, forming a mountain range like a wall around the Pole. This concept of the northern polar regions influenced early polar geography from Martin Behaim's globe (1492), Johannes Ruysch's world map (1507) and Gerard Mercator's wall chart (1569) persisting through to the 17th century in Peter Heylin's 'Cosmographie' (1657).

In 1577 Mercator responded to an inquiry from Queen Elizabeth's geographer John Dee in a letter in which he asserts that he extracted the concept of the Northern Regions, word for word, from Jacob Cnoyen who took it from the Gestae Arthuri and the Inventio Fortunata except, where for sake of brevity or speed, he translated into Latin, when if not his words he retained his meaning. He tells Dee that these facts and more can be found in the beginning of the Gestae Arthuri:

….part of the army of King Arthur conquered the Northern Islands and made them subject to him. And we read nearly 4000 persons entered the indrawing seas who never returned. But in AD 1364 eight of these people came to the King's court in Norway. Among them were two priests, one of whom had an astrolabe, who was descended in the fifth generation from a Bruxellensis: One I say; the eight were (descended) from those who had penetrated the Northern Regions in the first ships.

That Great Army of Arthur had lain all the winter (of 530 AD) in the northern islands of Scotland. And on May 3 a part of it crossed over into Iceland. Then four ships of the aforesaid land had come out of the north and warned Arthur of the indrawing seas. Arthur did not proceed further but peopled all the islands between Scotland and Iceland, and also peopled Grocland, where he found people 23 feet tall. When those four ships returned there were sailors who asserted they knew where the magnetic lands were.

On May 3 the following year Arthur then sent 12 ships with 1800 men and 400 women northwards. Of these 12 ships, five were driven onto the rocks in a storm but the rest made their way between the high rocks on June 18, forty-four days after they had set out.1

Dee's transcript of Mercator's letter is now fire damaged with several missing lines, but the absent text can be reconstructed from it's inclusion in Dee's work Limits of the British Empire, recently discovered and acquired by the British Library in 1976. Dee's account of Mercator's letter is all that survives of the correspondence between the two geographers and we have no way of knowing if either man was responsible for any interpolations to the original text. Cnoyen would appear to be our only known source for the Gestae Arthuri, which only survives in these extracts copied by the geographer Gerard Mercator and included in his letter to Dee. From what we have of Cnoyen's text it would appear to describe in detail King Arthur's northern conquests. Yet, the story of Arthur's northern adventures is a maze of lost texts and interpolations.

Three years later, in 1580, the English writer Richard Hakluyt, who through his works promoted the English settlement of the Americas, being familiar with Dee's works inquired of Mercator for further details but received no further information in the geographer's reply:

“The historie of the voyage of Iacobus Cnoyen Buschoducensis throughout al Asia, Affrica, and the North, was lent me in time past by a friend of mine at Antwerpe. After I had vsed it, I restored it againe: after many yeeres I required it againe of my friend, but hee had forgotten of whom hee had borrowed it.”2

Ice Dwellers by William Bradford
However, the Gestae Arthuri of Cnoyen's text, indirectly through Mercator's letter, was not the only source known to Dee that described Arthur's conquests in the northern polar regions. In his marginal notes to Mercator's letter, Dee mentions another work De Priscus Anglorum Legibus. Here Dee is referring to William Lambarde's Archaionomia sive de Priscus Anglorum Legibus libri (1568), of which he held a copy in his library at Mortlake and used in writing “Limits.” Lambarde's text describes an Imperial Arthur ruling over the whole of the northern polar regions in much the same vein as the Gestae Arthuri suggests.

Hakluyt also knew of Lambarde's work and referenced it in his 16-volume work on the history of English exploration and seafaring, 'Principal Navigations' (1598-1600), quoting a passage that claims Arthur subdued Norway and all the islands beyond, as well as Greenland and Iceland with Lapland forming the eastern boundary of his empire. The people of these lands were wild and savage but there were certain Christians living in secret.

A Lost Tale
In turn, Lambarde's source was an Arthurian section taken from the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae. This massive Latin collection of English laws was compiled in the first decade of the 13th century,  produced as part of the criticism of the reign of King John (1199 - 1216) leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runymede in 1215, and includes interpolated versions of Quadripartitus, the Leges Henrici Primi, and the Leges Edwardi Confessoris.

The Arthurian section of the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae inserted into the Leges Edwardi Confessoris adds extensive material concerning the law-making and empire-building of previous British and English kings, including the legendary King Arthur, building on the portrait of an Emperor of Northern Europe presented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie. The earliest 13th century version of  Leges Edwardi Confessoris noted that Arthur introduced a law calling upon all great men, knights and freemen of Britain to swear to defend the realm against foreigners and enemies.

The Leges Anglorum section containing Arthur's northern exploits has been dated to c.1210 AD showing that Arthur's conquests of the northern polar regions was not simply Dee's invention for the purposes of Elizabethan propaganda. The concept of Arthur as an Arctic conqueror is exceptional in the Arthuriad but as it is common to both the Leges Anglorum and the Gestae Arthuri it is a reasonable assumption that both texts were derived from a common original. Alternatively, both texts may represent mid to late 12th century independent elaborations of Geoffrey's Historia regum Britannie.3

Further, a fragmentary text of late 12th century or early 13th century date known as the Insule Britannie, apparently pre-dating the Leges Anglorum, lists a number of northern islands as "British" possessions without mention of Arthur, all but one of which are also named (in similar spellings) as parts of Arthur's British Empire in the Leges Anglorum.4

It is argued that the concept of these islands as "British" possessions must derive from an acquaintance with the adventures of Arthur in the northern polar regions. The early date strongly supports the contention that there was indeed an earlier source from which at least the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie surely derive. As Adam of Bremen's 11th century text Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesia Pontificum provides the names of the northern countries and islands that Arthur conquered it may well have been the common source.5 It is of course entirely possible that the Gestae Arthuri was the lost 12th century source which inspired both the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie.6

However, as Cnoyen appears to have been in Bergen in 1364, the same time as the priest with the astrolabe 7 combined with the fact that he mentions the Polo-derived "province of Bergi" near a reference to the Gestae suggests the text must post-date Polo's Travels, c.1300. 8 Thus, the Gestae Arthuri is likely to be of a 14th century date, and therefore an elaboration of a lost 12th century text concerned with the Arthurian conquest of the northern polar regions, which underlies both the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie, suggesting it may have its origins in a pre-Galfridian Welsh tale of an Arthurian attack upon a frozen Otherworld fortress in the northern polar regions.9


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk


Notes & References
1. EGR Taylor, A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, Imago Mundi 13, PP.56–68, 1956.
2. Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries, 1599.
3. Thomas Green, John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic, The Heroic Age, Issue 15, October 2012.
4. Lynette Muir, King Arthur's Northern Conquests in the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae, Medium Ævum 37:pp.253–262, 1968; quoted in Green, 2012.
5. Green, 2012.
6. Muir, Op.cit.
7. Kirsten Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500, Stanford University Press, 1996.
8. Taylor, Op.cit.
9. Green, Op.cit.


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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Hidden Realms of Darkness

Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part II 

As we have seen in Part I – The Age of Discovery John Dee was, among many other things, a learned geographer commissioned by Elizabeth I to establish the boundaries of the Queen's Empire. Dee is credited with bringing the term the “British Empire” into common usage and in so-doing produced a number of works for this purpose including “The Limits of the British Empire” and “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries”.  Dee's works fed the aspirations of  the Tudor crown and argued that Queen Elizabeth could claim sovereignty over a vast tract of the Northern polar regions and significantly areas of the New World.

For this Dee used sources that identified discoveries of these areas of the globe by Brendan the Navigator, John Madoc and King Arthur, the Tudor's own Welsh ancestor. Dee claimed that in times past King Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland in addition to the Northern Polar regions. The credibility of Dee's sources have been the subject of much debate.

In the 9th century Arthur was known to the Britons as a mighty warrior, the dux bellorum, the leader of battles of the Historia Brittonum rallying the Britons against the Anglo Saxons in Post-Roman times. But here he was no King, the text merely states he fought alongside the kings of Britain. According to the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum, Arthur's military successes, twelve in all, culminated at the Battle of Badon, also named by Gildas, and accepted as a historical event dated to around 600 AD.

By the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century work Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur had became a King and Emperor who's dominion stretched across northern Europe. In Book 9 of Geoffrey's opus Arthur after conquering the whole of Ireland adds to his government Iceland, Gothland, and the Orkneys and goes on to subdue Norway, Dacia, Aquitaine, and Gaul. Geoffrey's sources have generated as much debate as Dee's; he claimed he based his tale of Arthur on a certain book written in the British tongue, given to him by Walter Archdeacon of Oxford, that he then translated into Latin. We are left to ponder if Geoffrey invented his account of Arthur as ruler of an European Empire stretching to the far northern polar regions, or whether he had based his story on another work, perhaps now lost to us? Similarly, Dee's claims of Arthur as a conqueror of the northern polar regions is also based on lost works.

Geoffrey's account of British history was largely unchallenged for four centuries until Polydore Vergil published his Anglica Historia in 1534 AD in which he denounced the entire history of the Britons, claiming there is “....nothinge more obscure, more uncertaine, or unknowne then the affaires of the Brittons from the beginninge” notably adopting an anti-Arthurian position.

In his Limits of the British Empire, Dee claimed there were indeed many proofs of Arthur's conquests but Polydore had burnt them all. Dee argued there was evidence of King Arthur's conquests in the northern polar regions as he demonstrated in his works Of Famous and Rich Discoveries which included the transcript of a letter of 1577 from the Flemish cartographer Geradus Mercator, a summary of which he included in Limits.

In 1569 Gerard Mercator published an 18-sheet world map, titled Ad usum
navigantium, using the projection that, to this day, still bears his name. He depicted the northern polar regions as a small inset map in the lower left-hand corner of his large wall map. Mercator depicted the polar region as being made up of four surrounding islands, separated by four strong flowing rivers, which carried the oceans of the world towards a giant whirlpool at the pole where there stood a large rock. These northern islands had not appeared on Mercator’s world map of 1538.

In January 1577 Dee had written to Abraham Ortelius the Flemish cartographer and creator of the first modern atlas, inquiring as to what authority he had used in inserting the names of Cape Paramantia, Los Jardinos and others on the north coast of North America, names which appeared on no other known map. Dee was obsessed with the notion that the whole northern shore could be circumnavigated to reach the Eastern Ocean. There is no record of Ortelius's response to Dee but he is known to have visited England in the following spring when he met Richard Hakluyt and William Camden in London and visited Dee at Mortlake on 12th March. Just weeks later Martin Frobisher departed on his second voyage, officially to search for the Northwest Passage but secretly commissioned to find gold ore.1

The legend on Mercator's 1569 map claimed the information he based his representation of the northern (Septentrional 2) regions was gleaned from the accounts of James Cnoyen who quoted historical facts of Arthur the Briton, and from a priest who served the King of Norway in 1364, who was a descendant of those whom Arthur had sent to live in these isles. The priest said that in 1360 an English friar from Oxford with an astrolabe 3 who had reached these isles and then pushed on further by magical arts.

Subsequently, Dee wrote to Mercator in 1577 inquiring as to his sources. In his reply Mercator explained the source of his ideas regarding the geography of the far north was the Itinerarium of the Flemish traveller Jacob Cnoyen, which he quoted from in his correspondence to Dee, but now lost. Cnoyen's source was cited as the Res gestae Arturi britanni (or Gestae Arthuri), also lost, and a book written by an English Minorite, a mathematician from Oxford, who had travelled in the far north in 1360 and recorded what he saw in a work called the Inventio fortunata, also now lost.

Influence of the Inventio on later maps
It would appear other cartographers of the time were also working from the Inventio fortunata for description of the northen polar regions. Martin Behaim produced a globe between 1491-93, on the eve of Columbus's journey to the New World, which incorporated the discoveries of the later Middle Ages, such as the voyages of Marco Polo, and the legendary Isle of St Brendan. The Behaim globe shows the northern polar regions as depicted in the Inventio fortunata.

Fifteen years later, in 1507, Johannes Ruysch produced a world map, included in the Rome publication of Ptolemy's Geographia, which in addition to accounts from Marco Polo's travels included information from Columbus and the voyages of John Cabot of Bristol. Ruysch's depiction of the northern polar regions claimed it was based on the account found in the Inventio fortunata; in the legend to his map he states, “We read in the book 'De Inventio Fortunatae' that beneath the Arctic Pole there is a high rock of magnetic stone 33 German miles in circumference. The indrawing sea surrounds this rock flowing as if in a vessel that let's water down a hole. There are four surrounding islands....bordered by huge mountains. Here the indrawing sea begins. Here the ship's compass does not hold, nor can ships containing iron turn back.4

The configuration of the Arctic regions continued to be reproduced on later maps such as Orontius Finaeus’ Nova et Integra Universi Orbis Descriptio, published in 1534-6 and Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570.

Mercator died in 1594; a year later a map of the northern polar regions, Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio, very similar to the inset map of the northern polar region Mercator had made on his world map of 1569, was printed by his son and widely reproduced thereafter.

Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio
map of the Arctic 1595 by Gerard Mercator 
Mercator’s 1595 map shows a North Pole that is very unfamiliar to us today in modern times. Mercator’s notes inform us that the waters of the oceans are carried northward to the Pole through these rivers with great force, such that no wind could make a ship sail against the current. The waters then disappear into an enormous whirlpool beneath the mountain at the Pole, and are absorbed into the bowels of the earth. Mercator also tells us that four-foot tall Pygmies inhabit the island closest to Europe. This concept of the northern polar regions appears to have been lifted directly from Mercator's earlier correspondence with Jacob Cnoyen, who took it from the Gestae Arthuri and the Inventio Fortunata, which Mercator claims he faithfully copied word for word as described in his letter to John Dee in April 1577:

“In North Norway, which is called 'Dusky Norway' there are three months of darkness during which there is no sunlight but perpetual twilight. From North Norway you cannot reach the Indrawing sea which lies further northward beyond Grocland. The North Norway stretches as far as the mountain range that encompasses the north pole......It is well known that beyond 70' or 78' latitude there is no human habitation. Moreover, this 78th parallel goes in a circle around the Arctic pole in the form of a high mountain range.

The islands adjacent to the north pole were formerly called Cilliae (perhaps Thule) and now the Septentrionales: among them is North Norway. And near here, towards the north, those Little People live whom there is also mention in the Gestae Arthuri. And there borders on it a beautiful open land which lies between the Province of Darkness and the Province of Bergi. Between these provinces and these lands lie an Indrawing Sea, so called because the current flows so strongly northwards that no wind can make a ship sail backwards against it.  And here it is all ice from October to March.

The priest with the astrolabe related to the King of Norway that in AD 1360 there had come to these Northern Islands an English Minorite from Oxford, who was a good astronomer. The priest received the astrolabe from this Minorite in exchange for a testament. Leaving the rest of the party the Minorite journeyed further through the whole of the North and put into writing all the wonders of these islands which he presented as a book to King Edward which he called in Latin the Inventio Fortunata, which began at the last climate, 54' continuing to the Pole. The Minorite has journeyed to and fro five times on business for the king.

This monk said the mountain range goes round the north like a wall, save for nineteen places where the indrawing channels flow through into four innermost seas. The mountain range is surrounded by sea except at North Norway. Inside the mountain range there is no habitation except in the eastside where there were 23 people not above 4 feet tall. This monk said that in two other places further inland he found a great piece of ship's planking and other balks which had been used in big ships besides many tree trunks that had been hewn down at some earlier date; so with certainty he could saw there was formerly habitation but the people had now gone.”5

At this time no explorer had been anywhere near the North Pole, and today we view the ring of islands shown surrounding the North Pole on this map as a mythical concept; it would seem the author of the Inventio fortunata may have travelled northwards from latitude 54' but cannot have actually reached the North Pole; the Arctic world he describes is far from reality. Yet his concept of the northern polar regions persisted for a remarkable length of time.


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk


Notes & References
1. EGR Taylor, A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, Imago Mundi 13: pp.56–68, 1956
2. The Septentrionales, named after the seven stars of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) or Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) featuring the current northern pole, or North Star (Polaris): James Robert Enterline - Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. In Homer's Iliad it is called "the Bear, which men also call the Wain."
3. An astrolabe modelled the daily rotation of the star map throughout the seasons and included a graduated scale for measuring the elevation angle of a star above the horizon yielding the observer's latitude: Enterline, Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. EGR Taylor, op.cit.


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Saturday, 11 October 2014

King Arthur and the Northern Enchantment

Deep within the Arctic Circle lies the fabled Northwest Passage, the most dangerous place on earth to navigate a ship. A labyrinth of islands and drifting ice where channels open without warning and close again just as fast. Stretching for 1,000 frozen miles across the Canadian Arctic, the passage was the holy grail of exploration for more than 400 years. 

Part I - The Age of Discovery
It started in the early 15th century, or so they tell us. The Age of Discovery, European exploration led to the first contact between the Old and New Worlds. Pioneering Portuguese and Spanish long-distance maritime travels had culminated in the discovery of a uncharted continent in 1492.

Following the discovery of the Americas by Columbus The Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up in 1494 which effectively split the world into two regions of exploration with the newly discovered lands outside Europe divided between Portugal and Spain, effectively leaving France, the Netherlands, and England without a sea route to Asia by rounding either Africa or South America. The French and English entered the race three years after Columbus had arrived in the West Indies, defying the Iberian monopoly on maritime trade by searching for new routes, first to the north, and into the Pacific Ocean around South America.

Mercator's 1569 World Map
In 1497 an Italian named John Cabot under the commission of Henry VII of England sailed across the Atlantic from Bristol hoping the voyage to the "West Indies" would be shorter from a  more northerly latitude. Cabot made landfall somewhere in North America, possibly Newfoundland, becoming the first European to encounter mainland North America since the journeys of the Norsemen to Vinland in the 11th century.

When it became apparent that there was no route through the heart of the American continent, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters. With Spain concentrating on Central and South America it left the French and English unhindered to explore North America; Cabot's being the first of a series of expeditions to find a northerly marine route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans opening a lucrative trade route to Asia.

The search for a northern sea route inspired many fanciful theories, such as The Strait of Anian, accepted by explorers and mapmakers as marking the eastern end of Asia ever since the name first appeared on an obscure Spanish map. The origin of the name of the strait is thought to have come from 'Ania', a Chinese province mentioned in Marco Polo's book. This semi-mythical strait was thought to connect the northwestern Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic by an oceanic channel between northeastern Asia and northwestern North America,  across the top of America. To early British geographers this route was known as the fabled Northwest Passage, a passage repeatedly sought by maritime explorers for over four centuries, from the first attempt in the late 15th century to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen's famous voyage of 1903-1906.

In 1537 the Frisian cartographer Gemma Frisius produced a terrestrial globe in collaboration with Gerardus Mercator which depicted northeastern Asia joined to northwestern Europe by a land bridge across Greenland with America shown as an island separated from the polar land bridge by the 'Fretum Arcticum sive Fretum Trium Fratrum' ('Arctic Strait' or 'Strait of the Three Brothers'). This strait broadens westward into a gulf whose southern shores are described as 'Terra per Britannos Inventa' ('Lands Discovered by the British') suggesting the existence of a passage discovered by Cabot.

German cartographer Sebastian Munster was one of the first to depict this Arctic Strait on a map in 1540 who noted simply that the passage led "to the Moluccas". Giacomo di Gastaldi, a Venetian cosmographer, produced two maps having a bearing upon the subject of the Asia-American connection. His first map of the world, dated 1550, shows a continuous body of land uniting the two continents,  but his second, dated 1561, shows the name 'Ania' as a province in the extreme northern part of the map. The Strait of Anian was first mentioned in a 1562 pamphlet published by Gastaldi, within five years, it featured on maps with the name 'Anian' first appearing on Zaltieri's map of 1566.

Gerardus Mercator
The Flemish cartographer Mercator, famous for his system of map projection still widely used today, included the 'El Streto de Anian' on his 1569 map which other 16th century mapmakers incorporated it into their charts; hence, The Strait of Anian came in to general use and appeared on many maps for the next 240 years, located anywhere from northern Alaska to the coast of Washington, although it is almost certain none of these cartographers had first hand knowledge of this mythical strait.

These maps encouraged British belief in the existence of a northwest passage and there can be little doubt that they were instrumental in the promotion of the voyages of discovery in the Elizabethan period. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the concept of The Strait of Anian was the Elizabethan geographer John Dee who believed the New World to be the island of  Atlantis, the mythical continent mentioned by Plato.

John Dee (1527-1608) had powerful social and academic connections in Britain and on the continent. In recent years Dee's name has become synonymous with occult practices and he is often described as a magus, after he began to turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge in the 1580's. In his own time he was much better known as a learned and practical geographer. In the 1550's Dee had studied geography and related sciences under Gerardus Mercator and Gemma Frisius, the leading geographers of the time, at the University of Louvain. The enigmatic Dee seemingly had fingers in many scientific pies in Elizabethan England; cartography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, along with the more unconventional disciplines of astrology, alchemy and necromancy.

John Dee
It is generally accepted that Dee brought the term the “British Empire” into common usage but his writings are regarded by some as simply imperialistic propaganda derived from antiquarian conceptions. However, in his day Dee established himself as an expert through these writings and was commissioned by the Crown to present a series of works in support of British claims on the New World. In 1577-78 he prepared this works as Bryantici Imperii Limites (The Limits of the British Empire) which he presented to Queen Elizabeth, a work in which Dee defined the outer boundaries of her empire and the Queen's legal rights to establish sovereignty over these regions.

Dee predicted the western entrance to the fabled Strait of Anian would be found in the vicinity of Hudson Bay which matched Mercator's location of Anian. He prepared maps and instructions for several explorers during the Age of Discovery, including Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Ralegh.

Dee's map for Gilbert showed an open passage around the North American coast but also another linking the St Lawrence River with the Gulf of California. He is rumoured to have been involved with early discussions, notably about traversing the Strait of Anian, concerning Drake's voyage circumnavigating the globe in 1577-80. In 1579 John Davis had discussed the possibility of a northwest discovery voyage with Adrian Gilbert, Walter Raleigh and John Dee and eventually set sail from Dartmouth in June 1585.

Dee was certainly involved with Frobisher's first Arctic expedition in which the explorer was convinced he had discovered an open sea channel which would lead to Cathay (China) and the South Sea; a speculative map of 1578 shows Frobisher Strait extending all the way across Canada and ending at the Strait of Anian. Frobisher made three voyages searching for the Northwest Passage. On his second voyage he thought he had discovered gold ore and transported 200 tons back to England. This mineral turned out to be worthless iron pyrite. Gilbert and Frobisher established the first English colonies in the New World.

Arthur, King of the Polar Regions
Dee owned two of Mercator's globes and shared many correspondences with the Dutchman particularly with concern to the northern regions. Mercator urged England to explore the Arctic region, encouragement which seemed to fuel Dee's obsession with a northwestern passage which he transformed into the concept of a northern oceanic empire. The legend to Mercator's map of 1569 provided information that fitted perfectly with Dee's assertion that the English had legitimate claims to sovereignty of the polar regions.

Mecator's map legend "On the Septentrional (northern) regions" included the following:

“On the matter of the representation, we have taken it from the Travels of James Cnoyen of Bois le Duc, who quotes certain historical facts of Arthur the Briton but who gathered the most and the best information from a priest who served the King of Norway in the year of Grace 1364. He was a descendant in the fifth degree of those whom Arthur had sent to live in these isles; he related that, in 1360, an English minor friar of Oxford, who was a mathematician, reached these isles and then, having departed therefrom and having pushed on further by magical arts, he had described all and measured the whole by means of an astrolabe somewhat in the form hereunder which we have reproduced from James Cnoyen.

The northern polar regions from Mercator's 1569 map.
Dee inquired as to the sources for the northern polar regions, in particular Arthur's Arctic conquests. The first half of Mercator's letter to Dee dated 20 April 1577 mentions King Arthur four times with an assumed fifth mention in a missing line, regarding an expedition to the polar regions in 530 AD. Mercator claims the information regarding  Arthur's Arctic conquests is taken from the accounts of a Flemish traveller named Jacobus Cnoyen, who gave his sources as the Gestae Arthur, and a book written by an English Minorite from Oxford, the "priest with the astrolabe", who had  travelled to the far north in 1360 and recorded his experiences in a work entitled the Inventio fortunata. Unfortunately, all three quoted works are now lost.

Within a year Dee had written “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries”. The final chapter is entitled:

"That all these Northern Iles and Septentrional Parts are lawfully appropriated to the Crown of this Brytish Impire: and the terrible adventure and great loss of the Brytish people and other of King Arthur his subjects perishing about the first discovery thereof. And the placing of Colonies in the same Iles and Regions by the same King Arthur. And an entire and general Description of all the part of the world within 12 degrees of the North Pole and somewhat more."

In the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to write of Arthurian conquests in Iceland and Norway. Were these tales of King Arthur as a conqueror of the Arctic regions simply medieval invention to serve the claims of British sovereignty or based on an earlier tradition?


>> Part II: The Hidden Realms of Darkness


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk



All images: Wikimedia Commons


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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Uplands of Hell

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!1


On the 19th May 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin set sail from England on an expedition on two ships, Terror and Erebus, to traverse the last un-navigated section of the Northwest Passage.

Explorers have ventured into the icy Arctic regions in search of the fabled Northwest Passage since Columbus and before, seeking a navigable channel connecting the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, providing a lucrative trade route to the wealth of the Orient. The search for a Northwest Passage is said to have begun in the late 15th century with the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot, who made the first recorded landfalls on the North American continent since the Norse voyages of the 11th century. The quest would continue for more than 400 years, with tales of heroism and tragedy, until the Norwegian Roald Amundsen would successfully traverse the Northwest Passage in 1903-05.

From the Illustrated London News of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, 1845
Franklin's two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in September 1846 and never sailed again. The expedition over-wintered on King William Island, northern Canada, after the ice failed to thaw in 1847. In April 1848, Erebus and Terror were abandoned after a year and seven months locked in the ice. Several of the crew, including Franklin had already died, the remaining crew planned to march south toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland and perished in the frozen northlands. The entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost.

In 1848, following two years with no news from Franklin, the Admiralty launched five ships to find the missing expedition, prompting one of largest searches in history, running from 1848 to 1859. Numerous rescue expeditions were launched in the years following and throughout the 19th century, eventually discovering just a small number of bodies. While surveying parts of the Northwest Passage in 1854 John Rae was presented with items from the Franklin expedition by the local Inuit who told him the men starved to death, after resorting to cannibalism. In 1992, forensic investigations on bodies confirmed that "de-fleshing" had taken place.

The disappearance became one of the great mysteries of the age of Victorian exploration with Franklin becoming what has been termed a "celebrity ghost" after reports of people experiencing psychic visions of him. One such psychic was a girl, known as the “seeress of Bolton”, who could transmit herself to the Arctic to communicate with Franklin. He became a popular request at seances and his wife, Lady Franklin, regularly attended sittings in London.

The supernatural element of the Franklin mystery seems to reflect the Otherworldly atmosphere of the polar regions experienced by many explorers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recalls his own experiences on the whaling ship Hope to the Arctic in 1880, when he spent seven months at sea in the cold icy waters of the Arctic, an experience which remained a vivid memory all his life:

“The peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions - a feeling so singular that that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life - is due largely to the perpetual daylight. Night seems more orange-tinted and subdued than day, but there is no great difference.

...After a month or two the eyes grow weary of the eternal light and you appreciate what a soothing thing darkness is.

....Your sense of loneliness also heightens the effect of the Arctic seas. 

....The perpetual light, the glare of the white ice, the deep blue of the water, these are the things which one remembers most clearly, and the dry, crisp, exhilarating air, which makes mere life the keenest of pleasures. And then there are the innumerable sea-birds, whose call is forever ringing in your ears....2


Owing to melting Arctic ice the Northwest Passage has recently become accessible to shipping enabling the Canadian government to begin searching for Franklin's ships, carrying out six major searches since 2008. Now they believe they have found one of the two lost ships from the failed Arctic expedition.

Sonar images from 11 metres below the waters of Victoria Strait, just off King William Island, clearly show the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor, claimed as the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition. The ship appears to be remarkably well preserved in the iced waters. A sonar image shows the deck relatively intact. Search team leader Ryan Harris believes the rest of the contents of the ship will also be in good condition.

British archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the find as "the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered news of the discovery of the ship from the tragic expedition, revealing on 9th September 2014 that the vessel had been identified as HMS Erebus, the ship on which Sir John Franklin himself sailed and may even have perished.3

Off topic? Read on.


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk


Notes & References
1. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798.
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Whaling in the Arctic Ocean in Memories and Adventures : an Autobiography.
3. Sir John Franklin: Fabled Arctic ship found – BBC News 09 September 2014



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Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Night at the Abbey

The annual spectacle of lights, music and entertainment took place at Glastonbury Abbey last Friday evening on 12th September (6-10 pm).


Money raised on the night will go to support the abbey’s Rescue Our Ruins Appeal which is funding the vital conservation work currently underway.


Started in 2010 the Night at the Abbey event provides opportunity to see the stunning ruins as never seen before - spectacularly lit with coloured lights. The dazzling coloured lights bring the abbey to life after dark with  greens, oranges and purples to create a stunning setting. A glass or two of Glastonbury Abbey cider, made exclusively with apples from the abbey orchard, completed the surreal atmosphere.


Local musicians performed throughout the night, across the abbey in five different locations. For me the highlight was Tim Pitman, the Voice of Somerset, singing in the Lady Chapel. His dramatic tenor voice didn't need amplification and it would have been good just to hear him singing unaccompanied in the crypt. Tim works closely with many charities such as the Royal British Legion and has performed with numerous military orchestras.


Glastonbury Abbey Appeal - Rescue Our Ruins
The Rescue Our Ruins appeal was launched in May 2012 with the aim of raising £500,000 to save the ancient abbey ruins. The money is needed to fund conservation work and enhance the visitor experience to the Abbey in the following areas:


The Abbot's Kitchen
An iconic building and a very rare survival in Europe of a medieval monastic kitchen

The North Wall
The oldest standing part of the Abbey dating to the Norman period

The Lady Chapel, Crypt & Galilee
A rare example sited at the West end of a church.
The Crypt beneath, known as St Joseph's Chapel, is sited beneath the most sacred part of the Great Abbey Church. Its presentation needs to be greatly improved to be more meaningful and attractive.



Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk



www.rescueourruins.com
www.glastonburyabbey.com
www.nightattheabbey.co.uk
www.timpitman.com


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Monday, 1 September 2014

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

Today Joseph of Arimathea is venerated as a Saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches. The traditional Roman calendar marked his feast day on 17 March, but he is now listed on 31 August in the official Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church, the same day as his companion at the Deposition, Saint Nicodemus.

The Gospels provide very little information on Joseph; he is one of the more mysterious figures in the New Testament, mentioned only briefly by the four of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The story of Joseph of Arimathea as told in the gospels reveals that he was a wealthy man who came from Arimathea in Judea. He was both a member of the Sanhedrin and, being a secret supporter of Jesus, had not agreed to their plan or action. In the evening after the Crucifixion, Joseph asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus' body and bury it properly. Pilate agreed and the body was taken down. Joseph, helped by Nicodemus, associate of Jesus according to John's Gospel, wrapped the body in a linen cloth with spices and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid, that Joseph had intended for himself. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

Joseph and Nicodemus feature in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, including the Acts of Pilate, which was omitted from the New Testament but is the major source of early, non-canonical information regarding Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel of Nicodemus is unique in naming the soldier who speared Jesus on the cross as Longinus and thereby sparked a further body of legend. It was claimed to have been derived from an original Hebrew work written by Nicodemus himself but few scholars today would regard this account as actually written by him and generally assign the text to the middle of the 4th century. Writing in the 6th century, Gregory of Tours certainly makes reference to this gospel.

Joseph was a popular figure in Arthurian Romance. The legend of Joseph's arrival in Britain has its roots firmly in Robert de Boron's History of the Grail in which his family left for Britain, but it does not actually say Joseph accompanied this party. At the beginning of the 13th century Robert de Boron wrote two poems; the Joseph d'Arimathe and the Merlin, the latter work surviving only in fragments; he was the first writer to make a connection between the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Matter of Britain; in some accounts he is a relative of King Arthur. Drawing heavily from The Gospel of Nicodemus, Robert's Joseph d'Arimathie provides the first history of the Grail and is the first author to give a Christian dimension to the legend in which it becomes the Chalice of the Eucharist. According to Robert, the Grail was the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and then used by Joseph to catch the Holy blood at either the Crucifixion or the Deposition. While imprisoned Joseph was sustained by the Grail and the true meaning of the cup was revealed to him by Christ himself. Joseph's family then brought the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, the valleys of Avaron, in the west, interpreted by later writers as Avalon and subsequently identified with Glastonbury.

Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury
Glastonbury is one of those places which retains a certain mystique, a unique atmosphere that is easy to get wrapped up in. The little Somerset town was been taken over by the New Age since John Michell first wrote about the place in the late 1960s presenting it as a centre for earth mystery buffs. But it's unique history goes back much further than that. The Abbey gates open onto the High Street with the haunting remains of the stone walls dominating views from the town centre; on a still, misty morning it is without doubt a moving site. The Abbey was established on the site of the first church which legend claims was erected in the first century AD by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus, and endured for 1,500 years before being pulled down under direction of the king Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

Indeed, most of what we know of Joseph comes from legend:

Joseph was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip, and established the first Christian church at Glastonbury, offering the possibility of an alternative line of Apostolic descent, a tradition that would prove disastrous for the Last Abbot of Glastonbury.

He was also Mary's uncle, and thus, Jesus' great-uncle. This story may originate from the tradition that the senior male relative of a crucified person was obliged to deal with the body. Jesus' father appears to be no longer present, so if Joseph of Arimathea did volunteer for the task it suggests that he was related to Jesus in some way.

One of the most enduring legends of early English Christianity is that Joseph of Arimathea visited the West Country of England accompanied by the young Jesus. Both Somerset and Cornwall claim to have been visited by Joseph and Jesus in ancient times. Local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael's Mount; Joseph being a merchant who visited south west England to buy Cornish tin and took the young Jesus with him on his trips to England.

The Old Church
Following on from Robert de Boron's account, legend claims that Joseph and his companions came to England and established the first Christian community there. After landing in England, Joseph made his way to Glastonbury. When he stuck his staff into the ground at Wearyall (Wirral) Hill overnight it turned into a flowering thorn tree. The Glastonbury Thorn is said to flower on Christmas Day every year, and blossom from the plant in the churchyard of St John's Church in Glastonbury is said to be used to decorate the Christmas breakfast table of the Queen each year. St John's Church has a stained glass window commemorating Joseph of Arimathea. A late tradition claims he brought the Holy Grail to England, washing the relics of the Passion in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.

Joseph of Arimathea, stained-glass window
in St. John's, Glastonbury.
It begins in the 12th century when William of Malmesbury was invited to Glastonbury to write the history of the Abbey to establish the very ancient and very venerable origins of the site. His completed work was entitled De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae (Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury).

At this time many Celtic saints were venerated at Glastonbury, William tells us that the collection of relics at Glastonbury was so fabulous that it was a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”. But in his original work he cites relatively few saints at rest there; perhaps as few as six are clearly original to William, and significantly he does not list Joseph of Arimathea among them.

William called this first wattle structure "the oldest church in England," (vetusta ecclesia) and, henceforth, it was known simply as the Old Church, serving as a symbol for the ancientness of the establishment of Christianity at Glastonbury. However, by William's time the story of the origins of the Old Church had been completely lost to history. Legend, though, was able to supply the missing information, attributing its construction to two early missionaries sent from Rome.

In the 8th century the Venerable Bede had wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that the British king Lucius sent a letter to the holy Eleutherius who ruled the Roman Church asking to be made a Christian. Bede tells us that the request was quickly granted, and the Britons held the Faith until the time of the Emperor Diocletian. Eleutherius, was Bishop of Rome from c.174 until his death in 189 AD. However, Lucius is a legendary 2nd-century King of the Britons, traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain, first mentioned in the 6th century Liber Pontificalis.

William's "De Antiquitate” concurs with Bede and tells us that in response to King Lucius' request, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel sometime in the 2nd century AD.

However when historians looked at the evidence, they could find no mention of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury until the 13th century. There are now no extant copies of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate," but what we know of its original text comes from another of William's writings, the "Gesta Regis Anglorum" (Deeds of the Kings of England) into which large sections of the "De Antiquitate" had been transcribed. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which makes significant additions not present in the original document as attested by the "Gesta". By about 1230 AD William's work had been completely refashioned. A further revision took place later to accommodate the emerging story of Joseph of Arimathea into the Abbey's history.

The interpolated version states that Phagan and Deruvian came to Britain, as the Charter of St. Patrick and the Deeds of the Britons attest, but they were not the original builders of the Old Church at Glastonbury, they merely restored an existing church that they had found there, thereby pushing the date of the beginning of Glastonbury's first Christian community years earlier than previously claimed. Another interpolation, not in William's original work, moved that date back a hundred years by claiming that in 63 AD Philip the Apostle sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of the Lord and appointed  Joseph of Arimathea, the man who had buried Jesus, as their leader.

Joseph had never been mentioned in any of the Abbeys early writings and seemed an odd choice for the founder of the first Christian community at Glastonbury. However, as there was little historical information on Joseph outside the Bible the monks of Glastonbury had a certain amount of freedom to construct their own history around him. Combined with the writings of Robert de Boron which suggested his family came to the west as guardians of the Grail he was the perfect choice. Yet, despite late claims that several monks fled Glastonbury with the Cup of the Last Supper (The Nanteos Cup) the night before the Abbey was 'surrendered' to Henry VIII's commissioners in 1539, the house never claimed to possess the Holy Grail.

Therefore we can conclude that there appears to be no genuine tradition of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury until the later interpolations during the 12th and 13th centuries into William of Malmesbury original work. Around 1343 AD John of Glastonbury, a monk of the Abbey, wrote Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church) which enhanced the Joseph of Arimathea tradition added to Williams work.

In the prologue to John of Glastonbury's Cronica, it becomes clear that John was dependant upon an augmented version of William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate; one containing an account of Glastonbury from the coming of St Joseph, outlining the location and extant of the 12 hides. John then writes of Joseph's imprisonment, taken from the Gospel of Nicodemus. He recalls how the Apostle Philip sent Joseph and his son Josephes to Britain with 150 men, all miraculously flying to Britain on Josephes' shirt.

Joseph, his son and ten others travel through Britain in 63 AD spreading the word, however, the pagan King Arviragus is unwilling to convert but provides the twelve men with somewhere to settle, an island known a Ynsywytryn, the 'glass island.' He places his staff in the ground on Wearyall Hill, and a hawthorn bush (Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora') sprouted on the very spot. This bush grows into the 'Holy Thorn.'

Combining material from the expanded version of William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate and the Charter of St Patrick, John describes how a vision of the Archangel Gabriel inspires the twelve to build a wattle church at Glastonbury dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, known as the vetusta ecclesia. The site will later become the great Benedictine monastery of Glastonbury.

When they died the twelve were buried there with Joseph buried on a 'divided line'. The area is then neglected until the legendary papal missionaries Faganus and Deruvianus arrive in the 2nd century and restore the church.

John's Cronica included the first reference to the Prophecy of Melkin a 6th century bard. This prophecy claimed that Joseph lies on a forked line and brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus:

"Avalon's island... 
Amid there Joseph in marble, 
Of Arimathea by name, 
Hath found perpetual sleep: 
He lies in a two-forked [bifurcated] line 
Next the south corner of an oratory 
Fashioned of wattles 
For the adorning of a mighty virgin 
By the aforementioned sphere-betokened 
Dwellers in that place, thirteen in all. 
For Joseph hath with him 
In his sarcophagus 
Two cruets, white and silver, 
Filled with blood and sweat 
Of the prophet Jesus."

The meaning of the Prophecy has been the subject of much debate but to this day Joseph's tomb has not been located.


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk


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Thursday, 28 August 2014

The First Grail Maiden

In Arthurian tradition the Holy Grail appears in many forms but the image most popular with people today is that of the Chalice of the Last Supper. This image comes from Arthurian Romance of the 12th and 13th centuries based on Robert de Boron's History of The Holy Grail (Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal) where the objects of the Grail procession are identified as relics of the Passion.

The First Grail Romances
Robert de Boron's account was the third of three key texts that had a major influence on the tradition of the Grail we know today. The first known literary account of the grail was produced by Chretien de Troyes writing around 1180 AD. Chretien is credited with writing five Arthurian Romances, his last, Perceval, or le Conte du Graal, the Story of the Grail, was his last last work and, for whatever reason, left unfinished. In Chretien's original work he simply described the object as 'a grail' (un graal), a serving dish. Chretien describes the Grail as part of a mysterious procession that started with a squire carrying a lance bleeding from its tip, then two squires entered with candelabras of 10 candles each followed by a maiden carrying a 'grail' from which such a brilliant light radiated from it, so bright that the light of the candles faded like the stars when the sun or moon are rising.1 Alternatively, the light may have been coming from the maiden herself.2

Chretien tells us little else about the mysterious objects of the grail procession, omitting to tell us it is the cup of the Eucharist and at no time connects it to the relics of the Passion. Surely the attraction of Chrétien's grail was that neither he nor his audience knew exactly what it represented; yet both seem to realise the importance of witnessing the procession. A suspected later interpolation into the Conte du Graal adds that the grail sustains the Grail King with a single mass wafer. The same hand is probably responsible for naming the lance as the weapon used by Longinus at the Crucifixion that pierced Christ's side in the First Continuation.3

Grail Maiden - Arthur Rackham 1917
The second great Grail Romance was penned by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet, in the first quarter of the 13th century following shortly after Chretien's work. In Wolfram's introduction to his Grail epic Parzival he claimed that Chrétien's version of the tale had failed to present the true story of the Grail and states that his source was a poet from Provence called Kyot. To Wolfram the Grail (Gral) is a heavenly stone, the lapsit exillis, an emerald from Lucifer's crown that fell to earth, with the names of those appointed to the Gral inscribed on its top edge, but as soon as the name is read it vanishes from sight. It is tempting to speculate exactly what Wolfram had in mind; his lapsit exillis may simply be a corruption of lapsit ex caelis meaning the 'stone that fell from the sky' but of course it also brings to mind the lapsis elixir, the stone of the wise, the Arabic term to describe the Philopsher's Stone or the mythological tradition of the Emerald Tablets of Thoth etched with mystical writings. However, in transforming Chretien's serving dish to a stone from heaven Wolfram diverged from most other Grail Romances.4

When he finally arrives at the Grail Castle, Perceval seeks initiation into the Brotherhood of the Gral. His initiation occurs in two stages: on two occasions he will appear before the Gral; the first time he will fail the trial.

Wolfram describes a procession similar to Chretien's account where the bleeding lance and the Gral with the addition of ivory trestles and glass vials in which balsam was burning, are paraded in front of him by twenty four maidens. Then the twenty-fifth maiden enters bearing the Gral, whereas in Chretien she is unidentified, Wolfram tells us this is the princess of perfect chastity, Repanse de Schoye, and again as in Chretien, she radiates a brilliant light: “her face shed such refulgence that all imagined it was sunrise.5

Later, Parzival is told about the Gral, how a warlike company of Templars, the Brotherhod of the Gral, dwell at Munsalvaesche (the Grail Castle). They are nourished from the Stone, the lapsit exillis, who's essence is pure. No matter how ill a mortal may be he cannot die for a week after seeing the Stone. The Gral is nourished by a Dove from heaven on every Good Friday which delivers a small white Wafer to the Stone that it leaves there.6 In a Christian context this may be interpreted as a reference to the former practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in dove-shaped receptacles (columb) suspended by chains from the canopy of the altar.

According to Chretien and Wolfram the Grail clearly possesses some religious significance, the procession is an initiation rite, but it is not to linked to the Christian rite of the Eucharist.

The Christianisation of the Grail
Robert de Boron wrote two poems at the beginning of the 13th century; the Joseph d'Arimathe and the Merlin, the latter work surviving only in fragments; the first writer to make a connection between the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Matter of Britain. These two works are thought to have formed a greater opus, Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal, with the Perceval forming the third and final part. It is likely that de Boron's final work is represented in the Didot Perceval, thought to have been written between 1190 to 1215 AD. The Didot Perceval survives in two quite dissimilar texts in two manuscripts known as the Didot (Paris) and the Modena variants. In both manuscripts containing the prose Perceval it is preceded by a prose version of the poem Joseph d'Arimathie by Robert de Boron and by a prose Merlin, a re-handling of the poem by de Boron. The prose Perceval may be the work of a continuator of the two compositions of Robert de Boron and may bear some resemblance to the lost original.

The Joseph d'Arimathie provides the first history of the Grail but does not mention the bleeding lance but it appears later in the Didot Perceval which follows Chretien in the Grail Procession: “Just as they seated themselves and the first course was brought to them, they saw come from a chamber a damsel very richly dressed who had a towel about her neck and bore in her hands two little silver platters. After her came a youth who bore a lance, and it bled three drops of blood from its head; and they entered into a chamber before Perceval. And after this there came a youth and he bore between his hands the vessel that Our Lord gave to Joseph in the prison...7

Later in the tale the Fisher King explains the mystery of the Grail to Perceval: “Dear grandson, know that this is the lance with which Longinus struck Jesus Christ on the cross, and this vessel that is called the Grail, know that this is the blood that Joseph caught from His wounds which flowed to the earth....8

The Attainment of the Grail - Sir Edward Burne-Jones 1895-96 (Wikimedia Commons)
The Didot Perceval closely follows Chretien's account but for one major detail; the Grail is carried by a youth rather than a maiden. This is further evidence that Chretien did not intend his grail procession to be symbolic of the Eucharist. Why did de Boron change the gender of the grail bearer?

The supposed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women during these times led to many prohibitions in Church Law and it was strictly forbidden to have women serving near the altar within the sacred chancel and they were prohibited from entering behind the altar rails during the liturgy. Only men and boys could serve at the altar. The presumed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women entered Church Law at the time of the flourit of the Grail Romances especially through the Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, a vital part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici and remained in force until 1916.

Women could not distribute communion, teach in church, baptise, wear sacred vestments and they certainly could not touch sacred objects. It was not until 1983 that canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law allowed local ordinaries to permit girls and women to serve the altar and touch sacred objects. If Chretien's grail had been intended as the Chalice of the Last Supper the Grail procession in his tale would have been regarded as Liturgical Abuse. In making the Grail an object of  Christian veneration de Boron had no choice but to change the gender of the Gail bearer to a male.

de Boron's work was the inspiration for the Grail Romances that followed and spawned the huge Vulgate Cycle. He was the first author to provide a complete history to the Grail and the first to give a Christian dimension to the legend, relying heavily on the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. According to de Boron, the Grail was the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and then used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the Holy blood at either the Crucifixion or the Deposition. While imprisoned Joseph was sustained by the Grail and the true meaning of the cup was revealed to him by Christ himself. Joseph's family then brought the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, the valleys of Avaron, in the west, interpreted by later writers as Avalon and subsequently identified with Glastonbury. The mention of Avalon has fuelled the argument that de Boron wrote his work after the monks of Glastonbury had discovered the grave of Arthur and Guinevere in the Abbey grounds in 1191; the inscription on the burial cross confirming that the place was indeed Avalon.9

The legend of Joseph of Arimthaea was generally known at the time with various rhymed French versions in circulation, whereas the Gospel of Nicodemus was used by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century and later translated into Anglo-Saxon, French, English and German in the 12th and 3th centuries.10 Joseph of Arimthaea was particularly venerated at Moyenmoutier in Lorraine in north east France, across the Vosges mountains from Montbeliard and the nearby village of Boron, the apparent birthplace of Robert, which may have influenced his selection of material.11

At one time the Abbey of Moyenmoutier claimed to possess the relics  of Joseph of Arimthaea. According to the early 13th century Chronicles of Senones during the time of Charlemagne (king of the Franks 768 - 814 AD), Fortunat, patriarch of Grado, made a pilgrimage to the East and brought back the body of Joseph of Arimathea from the Holy Land to the monastery of Moyenmoutier. At a later date, but before the end of the 10th century, the body of Joseph was taken away by 'strange monks.'12 Although this is a late tradition it may have contributed to the persistence of the Glastonbury tradition whose monks were suspected of the crime.13

In Chretien's story de Boron seems to have recognised elements of the Grail procession as relics of the Passion; the Holy Lance of Loginus and the Chalice bearing Christ's blood as the cup of the Last Supper. Yet it is doubtful that this is what Chretien intended for his unfinished story of the grail. Key to de Boron's thinking must have been the recognition of the Grail Maiden bearing the chalice in the Grail Romances as Ecclesia a figure depicted in Christian iconography as the person holding the chalice and catching the Holy Blood at the Crucifixion in illuminated manuscripts, for which, as we have seen above, he substituted a youth. There is evidence that the Grail legend, at least in the form of the Chalice at the Cross, was known in the Rhine regions from at least the early 6th century.14

The First Grail Maiden
Ecclesia usually appears with Synagoga in Crucifixion scenes from the early 9th century. Ecclesia is shown receiving the Holy blood in the chalice on the 9th century ivory cover to Henry II's early 11th century book of Pericopes. Ecclesia is said to represent the new church as the Virgin, Mary The Church, and is often depicted in Crucifixion scenes with a blindfoled female companion who's head is bowed standing on the opposite side of the cross bearing a broken lance and holding law tablets that are slipping from her grasp. This figure is said to depict Synagoga, the Synagogue, the Jewish Church that turned its back on Christ at the Crucifixion.

Detail from cover of the book of Pericopes 820-830 AD
However, the earliest depiction of Ecclesia is from the beginning of the 5th century where she is shown as a veiled woman offering a wreath to St Peter while another figure of her crowning St Paul in the apse mosiac at Santa Pusenziana in Rome dated c.400 AD.

The Gellone Sacramentary, dated 790-804 AD, has a Crucifixion scene showing a bleeding Christ without any earthly attendants, a scene which does not appear to have any precedents and was done perhaps to avoid distracting from the scene on the opposite page. This page (folio 144r) represents a head with long hair, forming the top of an initial I for the section of Te igitur that begins Inprimis quae which asks for blessing on the church. In this context the head may represent Ecclesia.

The 8th century Gellone personification seems to be without precedent and predates both the 9th century Utrecht Psalter and the Drogo Sacramentary, the latter showing an unmistakable depiction of Ecclesia catching Christ's blood in a chalice which is possibly the earliest depiction  of this theme.

In the Utrecht Psalter depiction of Psalm 115 is the first in the West of Christ hanging dead on the cross. To the left are Mary and John, to the right a mysterious male figure in a loin-cloth holding a paten with bread in his right hand and in his left the chalice held to Christ's side. These images are unique to the Ultrect Psalter, Other psalters of the period such as the Stuttgart Psalter, c.820 AD, do not show this.

The unidentified figure receiving blood in the chalice appears only in the illustration to Psalm 115, folio 67 recto illustrating Psalm 115 verse 4: "I will take the chalice of salvation and I will call upon the name of the Lord" which was recalled during the Mass liturgy. This may be the earliest extant use of this image and earlier than the first depiction of Ecclesia at the Crucifixion scene and is the only scene in the Psalter with an overtly Eucharistic reference, connecting the chalice to the cup of the First Mass.15

It is therefore without doubt that the maiden collecting Christ's blood in a chalice at the Crucifixion is intended as the Chalice of the Eucharist and in this Robert de Boron saw the Grail Maiden of Chretien's Conte du Graal. But what is the significance of the Grail bearer being a virgin?

The Virgin and the Grail
Representations of the Virgin Mary holding a chalice are to be found in the Pyrenees mountains of north west Spain. Some fifty years before Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first known story of the Grail, images of the Virgin Mary with a simple bowl (called a “grail” in local dialect) containing radiant red blood appeared in St Clement, Taull, and eight churches in the Spanish Pyrenees. Historian Joseph Goering argues that they were the original inspiration of the Grail legend, in his view these wall paintings are "the historical origins of the Grail."16

In early 12th century Catalonia the church of St Clement was visited by the master painter who made beautiful frescoes of Christ in Majesty and seated with the apostles is an enigmatic representation of the Virgin Mary holding a Grail, a shallow bowl exuding radiant light, perhaps so hot she covers her hand with her cloak. Other churches in the Catalonia region had similar pictures (and in one case, a damaged statue) with this Grail motif that is found nowhere else in Christendom. The first was commissioned at St Clement in 1123 AD, these paintings bearing testament to the existence a local tradition, or cult, some fifty years before the earliest date for Chretien's Conte du Graal. To add to the mystery of the Grail, in these paintings the lips of the Virgin (Sancta Maria) are shown stitched together as if sealed to safeguard some great secret.17

St Peter (with keys) and St Mary with radiant vessel.
Detail from the main apse of St Peter of El Burgal.
(Wikimedia Commons)
In one painting from the main apse of St Peter of El Burgal the Virgin is seated next to St Peter and She is holding a ciborium, of similar construction to the Chalice of Dona Uracca, with a central container mounted between two cups or bowls, the lower one inverted to form the base. The ciborium from St Peter's, as with all other representations from these nine churches in the Catalonia region, emits a radiance from the blood within.18

In can be of little coincidence that the Grail romances appeared just as Eucharistic devotion was gaining favour at the same time as the recovery of relics of the Passion from the Holy Land became the driving theme of the Crusades.

In addition to its use at the Last Supper, the cup of the First Mass, the Holy Grail was said to have been used to catch the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion. The “Chalice at the Cross” motif that had emerged at the end of the first millennium showing the Chalice in the hands of Ecclesia as the first representation of the Grail Maiden was in existence several hundred years before the first Grail Romances were written.



Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk



Notes & References
1. William Kibler and Carleton Carroll, trans. Chretien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Penguin Classics, 1991.
2. DDR Owen, The Evolution of the Grail Legend, University of St Andrews, 1968.
3. Ibid.
4. Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, trans. A. Hatto, Penguin Classics, 1980.
5. Ibid p.125.
6. Ibid p.240.
7. Dell Skeels, Didot Perceval or, The Romance of Perceval in Prose: A Translation, University Of Washington Press, 1966. >> Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective.
8. Ibid.
9. Nigel Bryant, trans. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Arthurian Prose Romances attributed to Robert de Boron, D.S.Brewer, 2008.
10. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998.
11. Ibid.
12.  John Matthews, ed. Sources of the Grail: An Anthology, Floris Books, 1996, p.351.
13. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, p.344 (fn.15).
14. Linda Malcor, The Chalice at the Cross, 1991.
15. Ian Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall, editors, A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, BRILL, 2011.
16. Joseph Goering, The Virgin and the Grail, Yale, 2005.
17. How else would you paint sealed lips? – see Urgell and the Holy Grail.
18. Goering, op cit.



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