Nutmeg and the Holy Grail — Addendum

This post is just a little add-on to the previous one on nutmeg and the Holy Grail. You may remember from that post that we looked at two early grail stories — Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes (1181–1190) and Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1200–1210) — and specifically at the appearance of nutmeg in the crucial scene introducing the grail in the palace of the Fisher King. Here I’m going to follow up by with a quick look at the same scene in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (‘The Death of Arthur’), perhaps the most famous single surviving piece of Arthurian literature (surpassed perhaps by Gawain and the Green Knight, especially after the recent film with Dev Patel — which I haven’t yet seen, incidentally). There is no nutmeg here, not explicitly at least. Still, in this work there is a link between spices and the Holy Grail, just as in the earlier grail tales.

Malory was a knight as well as a writer, and he is thought to have written Le Morte Darthur — which in spite of its garbled French title is in Middle English — when he was imprisoned between 1468 and 1470 for having taken part in a failed overthrow of King Edward IV. In this he has something in common with another fifteenth-century literary bad boy, François Villon, who was living and writing in France only slightly earlier (perhaps dying in 1463 — whether by hanging or from exhaustion brought about by years of imprisonment and torture is not known). Villon has featured on the blog in the past, as his great opus, the Grand Testament, includes a pointed reference to cloves.

Malory’s original text was lost for centuries, and Le Morte Darthur survived in the form of William Caxton’s 1485 printing. In 1934, however, an early manuscript copy was discovered in the library of Winchester College; this is usually known today as the Winchester Manuscript, although it’s now in the British Library, where its shelfmark is Additional MS 59678. (Interestingly, the sole surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe, another well-known fifteenth-century English text, was also rediscovered in the early 1930s.) It is thought that Caxton used the Winchester Manuscript when producing his edition of Malory’s work, but there are some differences between Caxton’s edition and the MS.

In Le Morte Darthur, in any case, it is Lancelot, not Perceval, who encounters the Fisher King, known in Malory’s text as King Pelles. Spices and other luxuries make notable appearances at this point in the tale. The text of this section (i.e. Book XI, Chapter II of the published work) that I’ve transcribed below is taken from f.323r-323v in the Winchester Manuscript (Figure 1). Note that here the grail is a ‘vessel of gold’; that we have a vague reference to ‘spicery’ (and not the detailed lists of fruits and spices found in the earlier works); and that Lancelot does actually inquire about the grail, unlike Perceval/Parzival. Malory seems keen to include more action and dialogue and less concrete description that his predecessors.

Fig. 1 — ‘[such a savor] as all the spycery of the worlde had bene there’ — London, British Library, Add MS 59678, f.323v.

(In the transcription below ⟨ꞵ⟩ stands for the symbol representing the word ‘sir’. ⟨þ⟩ is a dental fricative, pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘the’ or in ‘think’.)

TEXT
(f.323r)
… Sir said ꞵ launcelot, wyte you well,
my name ys ꞵ launcelot du lake And my name ys
kynge Pelles king of the forayne contre and cousyn
nyȝe vnto Joseph of Aramathy And than aythír of them
made muche of othír and so they wente ín to the castell,
to take there repaste And anone there came Jn a dove
at a wyndow and ín her mowthe þr semed a lytyll saw-
ser of golde And þrwyth all there was such a savor

(f.323v)
as all the spycery of the worlde had bene there and
furth wyth all there was vppon the table all ma-
nner of meats and drynks that they coude thynke vp-
pon So there came ín a damesell passynge fayre
and yonge and she bare a vessell of golde be twyxt
her hondis And there to the kynge kneled devoutly
and seyde his prayers and so ded all that were þr
A Jh͠u seyde ꞵ launcelot, what may this meane,, Sír
seyde the kynge this is the rychyst thynge that ony
man hath lyvynge

MODERNISED
(f.323r) ‘Sir, said Sir Launcelot, wit you well, my name is Sir Launcelot du Lake. And my name is Pelles, king of the foreign country, and cousin nigh unto Joseph of Arimathia. And then (n)either of them made much of (each) other, and so they went into the castle to take their repast. And anon there came in a dove at a window, and in her mouth there seemed a little saucer of gold. And herewithal there was such a savour
(f.323v) as (if) all the spicery of the world had been there. And forthwithal there was upon the table all manner of meats and drinks that they could think upon. So came in a damsel passing fair and young, and she bore a vessel of gold betwixt her hands; and thereto the king kneeled devoutly, and said his prayers, and so did all that were there. O Jesu, said Sir Launcelot, what may this mean? Sir, said the king, this is the richest thing that any man hath living.’

This was just an addendum to the previous post, and I really only wrote it because I rather like the Winchester Manuscript. (As I mentioned last time, I grew up not far from Winchester, although I’m too much of a pleb to have gone to Winchester College.) For the next few posts I’m going to resume the Old Sundanese 101 series I began a couple of weeks ago. Next time we’ll look at the functions of the panéléng and panolong, two important diacritics, and then we’ll probably have a look at some slightly more complex grammar and vocabulary. The series isn’t very popular but that’s okay with me. Let me know if you have any comments or questions about those or any other posts.

A. J. West — Leiden, October 2021

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