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.

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?’).

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.


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.
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.)

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

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).

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.

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