The Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Prose Lancelot, the Vulgate Cycle, or the Pseudo-Map Cycle, is a major source of Arthurian legend written in French. It is a series of five prose volumes that tell the story of the quest for the Holy Grail and the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. The major parts are early 13th century, but scholarship has few definitive answers as to the authorship. An attribution to Walter Map is discounted, since he died too early to be the author.
The Vulgate Cycle adds an intriguing dimension to the King Arthur tradition, perpetuating Christian themes by expanding on tales of the Holy Grail and recounting the quests of the Grail knights. During this period, material takes on even more historical and religious overtones with tales that include and deal both in the death of Arthur and Merlin (drawing all the way back to Nennius's Historia Brittonum).
The Vulgate Cycle combines elements of Old Testament with the birth of Merlin, whose magical origins are consistent with those told by Robert de Boron, as the son of a devil and a human mother who repents her sins and is baptized. Merlin is transformed into a prophet and given the ability of seeing future events by God.
The Vulgate Cycle was subject to a 13th-century revision in which much was left out and much added. The resulting text, referred to as the "Post-Vulgate Cycle", was an attempt to create greater unity in the material, and to de-emphasise the secular love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. It omits almost all of the Vulgate's Lancelot Proper section, but includes characters and scenes from the Prose Tristan. This version of the cycle was one of the most important sources of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
The work is divided into five sections. The last three were actually the first to be written, starting in the 1210s. The first two came later, around the 1230s.
- The Estoire del Saint Grail (The History of the Holy Grail), about Joseph of Arimathea and his son Josephus bringing the Grail to Britain (mostly derived from Robert de Boron).
- The Estoire de Merlin (also called the Vulgate or Prose Merlin), about Merlin and the early history of Arthur (mostly derived from Robert de Boron).
- To this section is added the Vulgate Suite du Merlin (Vulgate Merlin Continuation), adding more of Arthur's early adventures.
- The Lancelot propre (Lancelot Proper), the longest section, making up half of the entire cycle. It concerns the adventures of Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table, and the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.
- The Queste del Saint Graal (Quest for the Holy Grail), about the Grail Quest and its completion by Galahad.
- The Mort Artu (Death of Arthur), about the king's death at the hands of Mordred and the collapse of the kingdom.
The work was soon followed by the Post-Vulgate Cycle, a work based on the Vulgate but differing from it in many respects.
The Lancelot-Graal project website (see External links) lists close to 150 manuscripts in French, some fragmentary, others, such as British Library, Additional MS 10292-4 containing the entire cycle. The earliest copies are of French origin and date from 1220–30, soon after the estimated date of composition of the work. Numerous copies were produced in French throughout the remainder of the 13th, 14th and well into the 15th centuries in France, England and Italy, as well as translations into other European languages. Some of the manuscripts are beautifully illuminated: British Library, Royal MS 14 E III, produced in Northern France in the early 14th century contains over 100 miniatures with gilding throughout and decorated borders at the beginning of each section. It was once owned by King Charles V of France. Other manuscripts were made for less wealthy owners and contain very little or no decoration, for example British Library MS Royal 19 B VII, produced in England, also in the early 14th century, with initials in red and blue marking sections in the text and larger decorated initials at chapter-breaks. Very few copies of the entire Lancelot-Grail Cycle survive. Perhaps because it was so vast, copies were made of parts of the legend which may have suited the tastes of certain patrons. For instance, British Library Royal 14 E III (see above) contains the sections which deal with the Grail and religious themes, omitting the middle section, which relates Lancelot's chivalric exploits.
Digital images of a number of manuscripts of the Lancelot Grail are available online at the following locations:
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France "Gallica" website lists 10 Lancelot-Grail manuscripts of this work and others containing Arthurian texts, with links to each manuscript.
Other manuscripts with images online are:
- BNF MS Français 117
- BNF MS Français 118
- BNF MS Français 119
- BNF MS Français 120
- BNF MS Français 749
- BNF MS Français 1430
- 5 manuscripts at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal :
Other libraries in France
- Tours Bibliothèque Municipale MS 951
- Le Mans Bibliothèque Municipale MS 354
- Dijon Bibliothèque Municipale MS 527
- Amsterdam, Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica MS 1
- Geneva: Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 105 (105a, 105b, 105c, 105d)
- Geneva: Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 147
Two British Library manuscripts are fully digitised:
For other manuscripts in the British Library collections, descriptions and images are available in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:
- British Library MS Egerton 2515
- British Library MS Harley 4419
- British Library MS Lansdowne MS 757
- British Library MS Royal 19 B. vii
- British Library MS Royal 19 C. xii
- British Library MS Royal 19 C. xiii
- British Library MS Royal 20 A. ii
- British Library MS Royal 20 B. viii
- British Library MS Royal 20 C. vi
- British Library MS Royal 20 D. iii
- Bodleian Library Digby 223
- Bodleian Library Douce MS 178
- Bodleian Library Douce MS 199
- Bodleian Library Douce MS 215
- Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS Q.b.6
Norris J. Lacy
The first full English translations of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles were overseen by Norris J. Lacy. Volumes 1–4 contain the Vulgate Cycle proper.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.). Lancelot–Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, New York: Garland.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (2000). The Lancelot–Grail Reader. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8153-3419-2.
- Kennedy, Elspeth (1986). Lancelot and the Grail: A Study of the Prose Lancelot. Clarendon Press.
- Kennedy, Elspeth (1980). Lancelot Do Lac, the Non-Cyclic Old French Prose Romance, Two Volumes. Oxford.
- Corrie, Marilyn. “Self-determination in the post-vulgate suite du Merlin and Malory’s le Morte d’Arthur.” Medium Aevum. 73.2 (2004): 273–89.
- Goodman, Jennifer R. The Legend of Arthur in British and American Literature. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.