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The Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Vulgate Cycle or the Pseudo-Map Cycle, is a literary cycle of interconnected prose volumes of chivalric romance, originally written in Old French by authors unknown in the early 13th century. A major source of Arthurian legend, the Vulgate Cycle is centered around the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail, along the way telling of the lives and deaths of Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table. Having expanded on the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and others, the series itself was soon followed by a major rewrite known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle.


Composition and themesEdit

Scenes of Lancelot's adventures from the cycle as depicted in a Polish 14th-century Siedlęcin Tower fresco

The Lancelot-Grail cycle perpetuates Christian themes in the King Arthur tradition by expanding on tales of the Holy Grail and recounting the quests of the Grail knights to add more religious overtones. It combines elements of the Old Testament with the story of Merlin and Arthur as told by Robert de Boron in his Little Grail Cycle, and further elaborates on the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere in Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes. As in the original work attributed to Robert, the Merlin section attributes its own source to a supposed book titled the "Livre dou Graal" described as written by Merlin himself through his scribe Blaise [fr]; a book supposedly written at the court Arthur of Camelot in order to chronicle the feats of Lancelot is also mentioned within the narrative.[1][2]

Its actual authorship is unknown, but most scholars today believe it was a group of multiple authors. There might have been either a single master-mind planner, the so-called "architect" (theorized by some to be Eleanor of Aquitaine[3]), who could had first wrote the main part Lancelot and was then overseeing and directing the work of multiple anonymous original scribes, each with their own style.[4][5] Otherwise, each part could have been composed separately and then arranged gradually through rewrites aimed at connecting them and removing contradictions (especially seen in the condensed "short version"), while adding or removing elements from other works such as the Prose Tristan.[6] The self-attribution to the Welsh Latin author Gautier (Walter) Map (c. 1140-1209), as found in notes and even illustrations in some manuscripts describing his supposed discovery of an archive of documents at Salisbury and then being ordered to translate them from Latin to French by King Henry II of England,[7] is discounted, as Map died too early to be the author and the work is distinctively continental.[8][9][10]

The entire cycle can be divided into three[11] main units (some categorizations have either the Mort or both the Queste and the Mort regarded as separate sections independent of the Lancelot for the total of five branches[12]). The last one (or the last three in the other system) was actually the first to be written, beginning c. 1215.[13] The first two, serving as prequels, joined them later before c. 1235.[14]

  • The Vulgate Estoire del Saint Grail (The History of the Holy Grail), about Joseph of Arimathea and his son Josephus bringing the Holy Grail to Britain. It is largely directly derived from Robert de Boron's poem Joseph.
  • The Vulgate Estoire de Merlin (The History of Merlin) or just the Vulgate Merlin, concerns Merlin and the early life of Arthur. It is a redaction of the Prose Merlin, a conversion of Robert de Boron's poem by the same title. It can be divided into:
    • The Vulgate Merlin propre (Merlin Proper), directly based on Robert's Merlin.
    • The Vulgate Suite du Merlin / Suite Vulgate du Merlin (The Story of Merlin), also known as Les Premiers Faits [du roi Arthur][15] or the Vulgate Merlin Continuation, adds more of Arthur's and Gawain's early deeds in which they are being aided by Merlin, in particular in their early wars of internal struggles for power and against foreign enemies (Saxons and Romans), ending in Arthur's marriage with Guinevere and the restoration of peace, as well as the disappearance of Merlin caused by the Lady of the Lake. It is roughly four times longer than the first part.
  • The Prose Lancelot, the longest section, making up fully half of the entire cycle.[14] It follows the adventures of Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table. It is made of three main parts, of which tone the first (composed c. 1215-1220) can be characterized as colorful, the second (c. 1220-1225) as pious, and the third (c. 1225-1230) as sober:[7][16]
    • The Vulgate Lancelot propre (Lancelot Proper), or the Roman de Lancelot or just Lancelot du Lac, primarily deals with the early life of Lancelot and his and Guinevere's courtly love (inspired by, and in part based on, Lancelot by Chrétien de Troyes[6]), as well as his deep friendship with Galehaut, interlaced with the adventures of Gawain and other knights such as Yvain, Hector, Lionel, and Bors. Due to its length, modern scholars often divide this part into various sub-sections such as the [Conte de la] Charrette (meaning "Tale of the Cart", an incorporation of the prose version of Chrétien's poem), the Galehaut including the Charrette (or Charette), its follow-up the Suite[s] de la Charret[t]e, the Agravain (named after Gawain's brother Agravain), and the Preparation for the Quest linking the previous ones.[17][18][19][20]
    • The Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest for the Holy Grail) relates how the Grail Quest is undertaken by various knights including Percival and Bors, and achieved by Lancelot's son Galahad, who here replaces both Lancelot and Percival as the chosen hero.[14] It is purported to be narrated by Bors, the witness of these events after the deaths of Galahad and Percival.[21]
    • The Vulgate Mort le roi Artu (The Death of King Arthur), or just the Vulgate Mort Artu / La Mort Artu, a tragic account of further wars culminating in the king and his illegitimate son Mordred killing each other. The ruin of Arthur's kingdom is here presented as disastrous direct consequences of the sin of Lancelot's and Guinevere's adulterous affair.[14] Lancelot dies too, as do the other protagonists who did not die in the Queste, leaving only Bors as a survivor.

Lancelot Proper is regarded to be the first part ever written, c. 1215-1220,[22] perhaps originally as a non-cyclic, independent romance that was to begin with Lancelot's birth and finish with a happy end of him discovering his identity and receiving his first kiss of Guinevere when he confesses his love for her.[4][23] Elspeth Kennedy identified a "Non-cyclic Lancelot" in an early manuscript BNF fr. 768 which is about three times shorter than other editions and corresponds with the first part before the Charrette (furthermore, the Grail Quest is actually mentioned in it as having been already completed by Percival[24][25][22] A distinct alternate revision of the Suite du Merlin found in a single manuscript (BNF fr. 337), written at the end of the 13th century, is known as the Livre d'Artus (Book of Arthur).[26]


Yvain and his lion fighting a dragon in a 14th-century Italian illumination (BNF fr. 343 Queste del Saint Graal)

As the stories of the cycle were immensely popular in the medieval France and neighboring countries between the beginning of the 13th and the beginning of the 16th century, they survived in some two hundred complete manuscripts in various forms.[12][27] The Lancelot-Graal Project website lists (and links to the scans of many of them) close to 150 manuscripts in French,[28] some fragmentary, others, such as British Library Additional MS 10292-4, containing the entire cycle. Besides the British Library, scans of various manuscripts can be seen online through digital library websites of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France's Gallica[29] (including these from the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal) and the University of Oxford's Digital Bodleian; many illustrations can be also found at the IRHT's Initiale project.[30] The earliest copies are of French origin and date from 1220–1230.

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 richly illuminated: British Library Royal MS 14 E III, produced in Northern France in the early 14th century and once owned by King Charles V of France, contains over 100 miniatures with gilding throughout and decorated borders at the beginning of each section. 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.

However, 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, with popular combinations containing either only the tales of Merlin or Lancelot.[31][32] For instance, British Library Royal 14 E III contains the sections which deal with the Grail and religious themes, omitting the middle section, which relates Lancelot's chivalric exploits.

Post-Vulgate CycleEdit

The Vulgate Cycle was subject to a 13th-century revision in which much was left out and much added. In the resulting, far shorter cycle, also known as the Roman du Graal, Lancelot no longer is the main character. It omits almost all of the Lancelot Proper section, and consequently most of Lancelot and Guinevere's content, instead focusing on the Grail Quest.[14] It also includes characters and scenes from the Prose Tristan (which itself had partially incorporated the Lancelot-Grail by copying parts of it[6][33]). This version of the cycle was one of the most important sources of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.[14]

Modern editions and translationsEdit

Oskar SommerEdit

H. Oskar Sommer published the entire original French text of the Vulgate Cycle in seven volumes in the years 1908-1916. The base text used was the British Library Additional mss. 10292-10294. It is however not a critical edition, but a composite text, where variant readings from alternate manuscripts are unreliably demarcated using square brackets.[34]

Sommer's has been the only complete cycle published,[35] but a new Pleiadés series edition is planned.[34]

  • Sommer, Heinrich Oskar (1909). Lestoire del Saint Graal. The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances. 1.
  • Sommer (1908). Lestoire de Merlin. ib. 2.
  • Sommer (1910). Le livre de Lancelot del Lac (1). ib. 3.
  • Sommer (1911). Le livre de Lancelot del Lac (2). ib. 4.
  • Sommer (1912). Le livre de Lancelot del Lac (3). ib. 5.
  • Sommer (1913). Les aventures ou la queste del Saint Graal. La mort le roi Artus. ib. 6.
  • Sommer (1913). Supplement: Le livre d'Artus, with glossary. ib. 7.
  • Sommer (1916). Index of names and places to volumes I-VII. ib. 8.

Penguin ClassicsEdit

Penguin Classics published a translation into English by Pauline Matarasso of the Queste in 1969,[36] followed in 1971 with a translation by James Cable of the Mort Artu.[37]

Norris J. LacyEdit

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.
    • Volume 1 of 5 (December 1, 1992). ISBN 0-8240-7733-4: Estoire del Saint Grail and Estoire de Merlin.
      • Chase, Carol J. (trans.) (1992). The History of the Holy Grail. and Pickens, Rupert T. (trans.) (1992). The Story of Merlin.
    • Volume 2 of 5 (August 1, 1993). ISBN 0-8153-0746-2: Lancelot, parts 1 and 2.
    • Volume 3 of 5 (March 1, 1995). ISBN 0-8153-0747-0: Queste.
    • Volume 4 of 5 (April 1, 1995). ISBN 0-8153-0748-9: Post-Vulgate part 1.
    • Volume 5 of 5 (May 1, 1996). ISBN 0-8153-0757-8: Post Vulgate part 2.



  1. ^ Sunderland, p. 96-97.
  2. ^ Chase & Norris, p. 23.
  3. ^ Matarasso, Pauline Maud (1979). The Redemption of Chivalry: A Study of the Queste Del Saint Graal. Librairie Droz. ISBN 9782600035699.
  4. ^ a b Lacy, Norris J. (2005). The Fortunes of King Arthur. DS Brewer. ISBN 9781843840619.
  5. ^ Lie, p. 13-14.
  6. ^ a b c "What is the Lancelot-Grail?". Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  7. ^ a b Smith, Joshua Byron (2017). Walter Map and the Matter of Britain. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812294163.
  8. ^ Brandsma, p. 200.
  9. ^ Chase & Norris, p. 21-22.
  10. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691020754.
  11. ^ "Vulgate cycle | medieval literature". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  12. ^ a b "The Story: Outline of the Lancelot-Grail Romance". Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  13. ^ "Lancelot-Grail Cycle - Medieval Studies - Oxford Bibliographies - obo". Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Chase & Norris, p. 6.
  15. ^ Sunderland, p. 63.
  16. ^ Chase & Norris, p. 8.
  17. ^ Lie, p. 14.
  18. ^ Brandsma, p. 11.
  19. ^ Lacy, Norris J.; Kelly, Douglas; Busby, Keith (1987). The Legacy of Chrétien de Troyes: Chrétien et ses contemporains. Rodopi. ISBN 9789062037384.
  20. ^ Chase & Norris, p. 26-27.
  21. ^ Archibald, Elizabeth; Johnson, David F. (2008). Arthurian Literature XXV. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 9781843841715.
  22. ^ a b Dover, p. 87.
  23. ^ Brandsma, p. 15.
  24. ^ Sunderland, p. 98.
  25. ^ Brandsma, p. 4.
  26. ^ Bruce, James Douglas (1974). The Evolution of Arthurian Romance from the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300. Slatkine Reprints.
  27. ^ Dover, p. 219 (a chapter by Roger Middleton).
  28. ^ "Lancelot-Grail Manuscripts- Chronology and Geographical Distribution". Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  29. ^ "BnF - La légende du roi Arthur: Manuscrits numérisées". (in French). Retrieved 2019-06-12.
  30. ^ "Initiale". Retrieved 2019-06-12.
  31. ^ Sunderland, p. 99.
  32. ^ Chase & Norris, p. 14.
  33. ^ Sunderland, p. 6.
  34. ^ a b Speer, Mary B (2013). Abbreviation in La Mort le roi Artu. Text and Intertext in Medieval Arthurian Literature. Routledge. p. 221.
  35. ^ Burns, E. Jane (1995), Kibler, William W. (ed.), "Vulgate Cycle", Medieval France: An Encyclopedia, Garland, pp. 1829–1831
  36. ^ "The Quest of the Holy Grail by Anonymous | Books". Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  37. ^ "The Death of King Arthur". Retrieved 2019-06-09.


External linksEdit