Nutmeg and the Holy Grail

There are many stereotypes of the Middle Ages in Europe — so many, in fact, that there are several competing typologies of the various medievalisms found in modern media. Some of these medievalisms, including the ones perhaps most familiar to TV audiences in 2021, emphasise barbarity and dirt, with gruff hairy men eating red meat off the bone and cracking crude sweary jokes, with nary a hint of Christian religion or Gothic aesthetics to be seen. Everyone is stoic and unromantic; only the weak cry. Dungeons and sometimes even goblins may be involved. The colour palette centres on greyish-brown, brownish-grey, and blood-red (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 — You know the sort of thing. h/t Niels Vergouwen.

I have to say that that isn’t my medievalism. Well — of course — we shouldn’t let modern medievalisms get in the way of our understanding of Afro-Eurasia in the Middle Ages, and personally I’ve disciplined my own brain into thinking about the few centuries before c.1500 in ways rather different from those found in contemporary pop culture. I no longer recognise a distinct ‘medieval Europe’, and I find it much more interesting to think about a greater Afro-Eurasian Middle Ages characterised by multifarious economic and cultural interknittings pre-1492 (and all the other things I’ve talked about in many posts on this blog).

To the extent that pop culture and non-academic modern life have influenced my view of ‘medieval Europe’ specifically, though, gruff-hairy-red meat medievalism hasn’t had much of an impact. I spent most of my childhood in the south of England, in a small town between Winchester (capital of Wessex and then England pre-1066, with lots of lovely medieval architecture surviving about the place) and Southampton (home to extensive medieval fortifications). My favourite movie when I was a kid was the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and the late Olivia de Havilland. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, and the only fantasy films I’ve ever seen are the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings ones. (Aside from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian, but that isn’t much inspired by medievalism.)

My reflexive pre-academia medievalism was of a more Victorian kind, I suppose. If you had asked me to think of characteristically ‘medieval’ phenomena before I went to university, I would have mentioned, among other things, the longbow, Perpendicular Gothic, Christianity, castles, stained glass windows, the Black Death, Robin Hood, illustrated manuscripts, and, pertinent to this post, Arthurian romances — a very English view of the Middle Ages, I think, essentially comprising everything featured in and skewered by Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

I hasten to add, again, that this isn’t the way I view the ‘Middle Ages’ in the round now. But it seems to me that it is a common view, and one that used to dominate Hollywood before the gruff-red-men-meat-mud-blood thing came along. And in this sort of medievalism, it doesn’t get much more classically medieval than stories of the Holy Grail.

Real life seldom conforms to pop cultural expectations, and it turns out that the earliest grail stories have much less to do with Victorian medievalist stereotypes and much more to do with a broader and more interesting Afro-Eurasian hemispheric Middle Ages than you might expect. In this post, we’re going to look at references to eastern Indonesian spices in two of the earliest surviving grail tales. As usual in these sorts of posts, I’m going to include a transcription and English translation of the relevant text with a small amount of commentary. Some background information on the grail is required beforehand, though.

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail is typically envisaged these days as a chalice or cup, one that supposedly held the blood of Christ and thus one with healing powers beyond the ordinary (as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [1989]). In the earliest surviving stories, though, the grail was not a cup at all, but a sort of serving dish (Old French graal, from medieval Latin gradalis ‘dish’), and it is typically accompanied by a spear of equal importance. The grail certainly has no profound healing powers of its own, as it is in the possession of the Fisher King, a monarch afflicted with terrible wounds that permit him only to sit and, on occasion, to go fishing (hence the epithet). The Fisher King is the last in a line of kings entrusted with the grail; to be healed of his wounds, a noble knight must arrive and ask the right questions (specifically ‘ooh, what’s that grail thingy over there?’).

This non-cuppish Holy Grail and its royal keeper appear in Perceval, the first (unfinished) grail romance, written by Chrétien de Troyes in French in the 1180s, and also in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a Middle High German elaboration and continuation of Chrétien’s work written not long afterwards, at the very beginning of the thirteenth century (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 — A picture of Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of “Parzival”, in the “Codex Manesse” — Heidelberg, Heidelberg University Library (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg), Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 149v. Copied c.1304. Again, I’m not sure it really gets more quote-unquote “””medieval””” than this.

In both stories, the Fisher King is encountered by Perceval/Parzival, a handsome young knight — strong, upright, but immature. He spends the night in the palace of the Fisher King (who is known in Eschenbach’s version, incidentally, as Anfortas) and sees a mysterious procession during the evening meal. This is where the grail and the spear appear. Perceval/Parzival remains silent during these remarkable events, and after spending the night in the Fisher King’s palace he resumes his travels. He later finds out from a mourning girl that he was supposed to have inquired about the grail to cure the Fisher King’s affliction.

It is during this stint in the palace of the Fisher King that the reader encounters references to nutmeg (and sometimes also cloves) and other exotic luxuries. As you will see in the extracts below, in Perceval these spices are eaten as part of the meal; in Parzival they form part of the furniture of the palace, being used to scent the air and cover up the smell of the Fisher King’s wounds. Nutmeg is far from the only luxury to appear in these sections, but it features prominently in both.


Nutmeg is the aromatic seed of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans. Before the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain invaded the Dutch possessions in what is now Indonesia and transplanted economically valuable plants to their own colonies elsewhere in the world, M. fragrans grew exclusively in the Banda Islands, a tiny archipelago just south of Seram, about 1750 kilometres east of Java and 770 north of Australia (Figure 3). All the nutmeg in medieval Afro-Eurasia was grown and harvested by the people of these islands, and there’s every indication in the ethnohistoric sources that much of the initial transportation from Banda to Java and points further west was undertaken in local Bandanese craft. (Most of these ethnohistoric sources are sixteenth-century accounts in Portuguese, but there are earlier descriptions of the islands themselves in Chinese and Latin.)

Fig. 3 — A map showing the location of the Banda Islands.

In 1621 a Dutch army under the command of Jan Pieterszoon Coen massacred many of the islands’ inhabitants in a deliberate act of genocide, deporting and enslaving most of the rest. There is little evidence of a local Bandanese written tradition before this, and we have no reliably early texts giving us an indigenous Bandanese perspective on the world. References to nutmeg and mace in medieval texts from elsewhere in greater Afro-Eurasia constitute the principal documentary evidence of Bandanese lives and labour before the sixteenth century — lives and labour which would otherwise be invisible in the historical record.

The Bandanese were not Christians or Muslims, and they were politically divided when the first Portuguese expedition turned up in 1513. The people of the Banda Islands were, of course, not white, and the islands they inhabited were small, volcanic, replete with palms, and situated a few degrees south of the equator. The men practised headhunting — a common phenomenon in parts of eastern Indonesia into the twentieth century. I imagine it would be hard to find a greater contrast with the romantic Victorian Christian Holy Grail-y Middle Ages than this. It is therefore rather interesting to see references to things from these islands, harvested by their darkly pigmented non-Christian inhabitants, at the very heart of some of the texts that inspired this whitened Christian image of the medieval world.

Of course, if you’re familiar with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s conception of the grail story in particular, you’ll know that darkly pigmented non-European non-Christians actually play very important roles in the narrative, and that Parzival himself has a non-Christian half-brother whose mother was a black woman, Queen Belacane of Zazamanc (Figure 4). The white Christian Arthurian thing has always been an invention, one unjustified by the medieval literature on which it is supposed to have been based.

Fig. 4 — “entwapent mit swarther hant / wart er von der kvnegin” ‘The Queen disarmed him [Parzival’s father, Gahmuret] with her own black hands’. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 857, p.17. Translation adapted from Arthur Hatto’s (1980:34). (Hatto uses ‘dark’ here, which is another example of that odd phenomenon of modern translators avoiding using the word ‘black’ in reference to beautiful people, even when the word in the original means ‘black’ — as if to be black is to not be beautiful.)

In any case, here my focus is on Indonesian spices. Below I’ll share an extract from Chrétien’s Perceval and then one from Eschenbach’s Parzival. They are, as I say, slightly different in context and content, but both mention nutmeg prominently in descriptions of the palace of the Fisher King.

Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (1181–1190)

Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (1181–1190) is the earliest surviving story to feature the motif of the Holy Grail. Perceval is a long unfinished narrative in Old French verse, and its unfinished nature and widespread influence mean that it has a complicated textual history. The text here is taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 794, a manuscript copied at some point between 1230 and 1240 (Figure 5). You can find a transcription of the entire section here and a complete English translation of the work (based on an edition with text different to that presented below) here.

Fig. 5 — The dates, figs, nutmeg, pears, etc., in a manuscript of “Perceval” copied 1230–1240. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 794, f.373v.


Li mãgiers fu ⁊ biax ⁊ buens
De tel mãgier q̃ rois ⁊ cuens
⁊ emꝑeres doie avoir
fu li prodõ seruiz le soir
⁊ li uaslez ansanble luj
ap̃s le mangier ameduj
parlerent ansanble ⁊ uellierẽt
⁊ li uaslet aparellierent
Les liz et le fruit· au colchier
Q̃ il en í ot· de ml’t chier
dates· figues· ⁊ noiz mugaces
⁊ poires· ⁊ pomes grenaces
⁊ leituaire· an la fin
⁊ gingenbre· alixandrin

‘The food was both fair and fine;
Such food as kings and counts
And emperors must have
The prudhommes were served that evening.
And the servants together with them
After eating both
Talked together and stayed awake,
And the servants prepared
Beds and fruit at bedtime.
Those they had were of great expense:
Dates, figs, and nutmeg
And pears
(1) and pomegranates
And finally electuaries
And Alexandrian ginger…’

‘Pears’ — in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1450, a manuscript containing a copy of Perceval made in Picardy in around 1240, the word here is not ‘pears’ but ‘clove’ (Giroffle — f.167v, Figure 6):

Fig. 6 — Nutmeg (nois moscades) and clove (Giroffle) in another thirteenth-century copy of “Perceval”. BnF, Français 1450, f.167v.

Cloves are, of course, another eastern Indonesian spice. They’re mentioned in other Grail texts, including Parzival, as you’ll see below. (They’re also referred to in countless other literary works from medieval Europe, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Dante’s Inferno.)

(2) ‘Electuaries’ — concoctions sweetened with honey or syrup, usually medicinal, here perhaps involving the ginger mentioned in the next line. Note the reference to Alexandria, a hugely important place in the medieval luxury trade (at the western Afro-Eurasian end, anyway).

Parzival (1200–1210)

As I said above, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is a brilliant attempt at building on Chrétien’s story, and it is the second great work to feature the Holy Grail. Parzival is immense in scope; it starts long before Parzival’s birth, with the adventures of his father Gahmuret, a legendary knight, in Africa and the Middle East, and it contains all sorts of remarkable and vivid passages (as well as some rather drier litanies of exotic substances — like a list of precious stones, a small part of which I’ve included with the extract below).

This extract is taken from Book XVI. The manuscript I’ve used is St. Gallen, Abbey Library of St. Gall (Stiftsbibliothek), Cod. Sang. 857, probably copied in South Tyrol in around 1260; the numbers in the text below refer to the line numbers and section divisions in the standard edition; and the English version is taken from Arthur Hatto’s 1980 translation for Penguin Classics (p.392). (My Middle High German isn’t that great and I doubt I can improve on Hatto’s version with a line-by-line translation of my own.) Medium formatting doesn’t approve of superscript letters, so the transcription below isn’t entirely accurate, but you can find the digitised manuscript quite easily on (Figure 7).

Fig. 7 — ‘Wherever someone trod on the carpet / Cardamom, clove, nutmeg / Lay broken under their feet’. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 857, p.277. Copied around 1260.


Swenn im div scarpf swoer not.
daz strenge vngemach gebot.
so wart der lvft gesvezet.
der wnden smach gebvezet.
vor im vfem teppech lach. (25)
Pigment vnt zerbenznîen smach.
Mvezzel vnt Aromata.
dvrch svezen lvft lag ovch da.
Driakel vñ Amber tiûre.
der smach was gehiûre. (30)
Swa man vofen teppech trat.
Cardemome Jeroffel Muscât.
lach gebrochen vnder ir fvezen.
durh den luft svezen.
so daz mit tríten wart gebert. (5)
so was da swoerr smach erwert.
Sin fiwer was Ling aloê.
daz han ich iv gesagt ovch ê.
Ame spanbette di stollen sin.
waren Vipper hornin. (10)
durch rwoen fvrz gelveppe.
von wrcen manech gestveppe.
was ûf den kvltern gesæt.
gesteppet unt niht genæt.
was da er vfe lente. (15)
pfelle von Novriente.
vnt Balmat was sin Matraz.
sin spanbette was noch paz.
gehert mit edelen steinen.
vnt anders encheinen. (20)
Daz spanbette zoch zeín ander.
strangen von Salamander:
daz waren vnder im div rich seil.
er hete an frevden chranchen teil.
ez was rîche an allen sîten. (25)
niemen darf des strîten.
daz er bezzerz ie gesæhe.
ez was tiower vnd wæhe.
von der edeln steine geslæhte.
di horet hie nennen rehte. (30)
Karfvnkel vnt Sylenites.
Balax vnt Gagâtromes.
Onix vnt Calcidon…

‘When sharp and bitter anguish inflicted severe discomfort on Anfortas [i.e. the Fisher King] they sweetened the air for him to kill the stench of his wound. On the carpet before him lay spices (1) and aromatic terebinth, musk, and fragrant herbs. To purify the air there were also theriac and costly ambergris: the odour of these was wholesome.

‘Wherever people trod on the carpet, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg lay crushed beneath their feet for the sake of the fragrance — as these were pounded by their tread the evil stench was abated. Anfortas’s fire was a wood of aloes, (2) as I have told you before. His bedposts were of viper’s horn. To give relief from the poison, the powder of various spices had been dusted over the counterpane. The cushions on which he reclined were of brocade of Nourient, quilted, not just sewn, and his mattress was of palmat-silk. His bed was further adorned with precious — no other! — stones. The tense cross-ropes on which the bed beneath him rested were of salamander. On every side it was luxurious, this bed of a man beggared of joy! Let no one try to argue that he ever saw a better. It was elegant and costly from the nature of its gemstones. Hear their names in detail.

‘Carbuncle and moonstone, balax and gagathromeus, onyx and chalcedony…’

Pigment, here ‘spices’. Latin pigmentum (‘pigment, dyestuff’) is the source of words in various Romance languages for ‘pepper’ or ‘bell pepper’ (e.g. French piment, Portuguese pimenta, Spanish pimiento, etc.). Here it appears to refer to spices in general rather than to either pepper specifically or dyestuffs generally (as you might otherwise expect from English ‘pigment’).

(2) I’ve avoided talking much on the blog about aloeswood (aka ‘agarwood’, ‘eaglewood’, ‘lignaloes’, ‘gaharuwood’, ‘oud’, ‘oudh’ [sic], and others — here Ling aloê) on the grounds that it grew outside the archipelago as well as within it. It is a fascinating substance nonetheless; the mould-infected heartwood of a Southeast Asian tree, Aquilaria malaccensis, aloeswood incense is one of the earliest known Southeast Asian exports to western Afro-Eurasia. A large piece purportedly imported in the eighth century survives in the Tokyo National Museum in Japan. (It was formerly in the Shōsōin.) The trees do grow in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago — note the reference to Melaka/Malacca in the species name — and the wood was certainly traded from there before the sixteenth century, but it is best known as an export from the mainland, specifically from what is now Vietnam.

The idea of burning (proverbially expensive) aloeswood as firewood is a trope occasionally found in medieval literature. Here, for instance, is a couplet by the eminent Arab poet al-Ḥarīrī (cited by thirteenth-century author al-Jawbarī [2020:260–261] and translated by Humphrey Davies):

وان شدهيم فان العار فيه على من لا يميز بين العود والحطب

‘Should you nevertheless get confused, the blame must go
to him to whom agarwood and firewood are one and the same.’

In the next post we’ll have a quick look at the presentation of the Fisher King’s palace in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (specifically in the Winchester manuscript, the earliest surviving version of the work). Malory doesn’t mention nutmeg (etc.) specifically, but the idea is much the same. I was going to add it here but the post was already getting a little long.

Anyway, I find it fascinating to see these references to eastern Indonesian spices in stories of the Holy Grail — perhaps the medievalest of all medievalist things. If little pieces of island Southeast Asia can be found even here, then a Hemispheric Middle Ages incorporating Southeast Asia as an integral element hardly seems an unrealistic or overreaching notion.

A. J. West — Leiden, October 2021


al-Jawbarī, Jamāl al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥīm. 2020. The book of charlatans. Manuela Dengler (ed), Humphrey Davies (trans), S. A. Chakraborty (foreword). New York: New York University Press.

Eschenbach, Wolfram von. 1980 (1200–1200). Parzival. A. T. Hatto (trans). London: Penguin.



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Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.