Rituals at the Grail Table

by Daniele Gallindo Gonçalves (Federal University of Pelotas – Brazil)

Whether it’s the time we get up in the morning or when we eat or go to sleep, our daily routines are a form of ritual. However, can we really call such (individual) habits rituals? What is actually a ritual? As defined by Gerd Althoff, a ritual is “a formally-standardized symbolic sequence of actions that has a specific effectiveness”, since it has the capacity to (re)produce “a social, political, spiritual, etc. change of state” (Althoff; Stollberg-Rilinger 2008: 144). From this perspective, rituals are linked to conventions and “the formal correctness of the gestures, words and circumstances” (ibid.). Because they are symbolically charged, rituals stand out from ordinary daily actions. They display a performative character and, through them, all forms of power can be exercised.

But let us clarify this through an example. Have you ever heard about the Grail? Maybe you have seen it somewhere: Ready Player One? The Fisher King? Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Now the grand question: what does the Grail have to do with ritual and meals? Parzival (1200-1210) by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a Middle High German epic poet, tells the story of the eponymous knight destined to be the Grail King. Before he can ascend to the throne, Parzival needs to learn how to behave in a courtly manner and understand the symbolic court. Although Parzival’s mother is part of the Grail dynasty, she never told him about it because she feared losing him to knighthood, just as she lost her husband. Parzival doesn’t know about his genealogy but wishes to be a knight and is intend on embarking on an adventure. The first time Parzival visits the Grail castle, he doesn’t know he met his uncle, the sick king who must be replaced. His uncle wished for a lady who wasn’t chosen by the Grail. In doing so, he suffered a wound from a poisoned spear, which never heals. Finally, after years of training and learning from other figures, he encounters who he is and what the Grail expects of him and visits the Grail castle for a second time.

For the following analysis, we understand that “as an attribute of rank and lordship, noble food was every bit as important to aristocratic society of the High Middle Ages as elegant dress” (Bumke 1991: 179). To be present at the table means above all to find oneself in an environment in which communication happens, be it through individual or ritualised gestures. In other words, we assume a collectiveness of actions – collective acts that support an aspect of identity, of belonging to a certain group, while being a “place of inclusion, as well as exclusion” (Montanari 2012: 178). Therefore, at the table, “tensions and conflicts” may occur since “it is metaphorically the most meaningful, the most resonant sounding board for amplifying everything that happens in the order of things and the relationships between people – separations and betrayals, no less than friendships and alliances” (ibid.). There are two moments that show how the Grail society is structured around rituals, and both occur at the dining table.

The first meal enacted in Musalvaesche, the grail castle in Wolframs Parzival, presents a nature of demonstration, manifestation, and confirmation of status, as well as of designation of a succession. Following the showing of the blood-covered spear, four sets of female characters enter the room: first, the ones carrying the chandeliers; then the ones with the ivory pedestals, torches, the tabletop made of precious gems, silver knives – eighteen ladies are mentioned as performing this service by the narrator, to which number he later adds another six, all well-dressed (Dumitriu 2014). At last, at the center of the scene, we find Repanse de Schoye, the female keeper and guardian of the Grail. After the procession scene, the present knights are invited to the supper. One hundred tables are set up for the feast, each served by four knights. The Grail provides all the desired food.

A meal at the Arthurian Court. (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Cgm 19, fol. 50v)

The beauty of this procession and the entire supper organisation presented by the narrator clearly clashes with the previous scene regarding the bloody spear. The greatest symbol of the ruler’s fall, the spear – even though it is a way to lessen his lacerating pain – also serves as an element of remembrance that he violated the Grail’s rules, and all Grail society should be aware of it.

Parzival is thus introduced to the Grail society, but since his chivalrous education has not been completed, he is incapable of asking the question – “What afflicts thee, uncle dear?” – that would rid the wounded Grail King of his afflictions. The luxury with which the place is decorated, the absence of ladies at the tables (their sole function is to set the feast), the lending of the royal mantle to Parzival (by Repanse de Schoye), and the king gifting him with the royal sword, all of these scenic arrangements point to a crowning ceremony, in which Parzival – if he had asked the question – would have been made king: “the Grail ritual thus appears in regards to Parzival as a crowning celebration” (Bleumer 2014: 117).

Parzival’s participation in the Grail supper presents itself in two inseparable dimensions: one mundane and the other spiritual. The display of regal power, even though the king’s body is corrupted, is assured by the presence of the entire Grail community and by the Grail itself, which grants life both through the food served during supper as well as by securing the dynasty through keeping the monarch alive and presenting his successor. Parzival, the future Grail king, needs to show mercy to the suffering monarch; a demand that the protagonist does not find himself ready to fulfil. Therefore, “the courtly banquet suddenly turns into a religious, almost visionary experience” (Classen 2007: 325). Dörrich’s considerations follow the same direction, which points to the fact that each of the elements described by the narrator in the Grail procession presents references derived directly from religious liturgy: choreography, purpose (objects of worship), stimulation (visual and olfactory) (Dörrich 2012: 47).

Even though the formal-normative sequence is clear to all members of the court involved in this ritual, Parzival, the guest, by not being able to decode the meaning either from the bloodied spear or from the sword that has been given to him, nullifies the effectiveness of the ritual he witnessed, learning its meaning later. In other words, the change expected by the Grail community does not happen: The Fisher King remains a deficient royal body, and Parzival leaves Musalvaesche in bewilderment; it is only when he leaves the castle that it slowly dawns on him that he has failed a test that remains mysterious to him.

By the second meal in Musalvaesche, Parzival has already made his peace with God, completed his chivalrous education and was able to ask the question. If on the first occasion grief set the tone of his participation in the Grail court festivities, the second time is characterized by joy. The procession repeats itself, exactly as the narrator had previously presented it, only this time the Grail is shown to its new keeper: Parzival. The difference is that, by virtue of it being an official crowning, there are more tables laid out in the hall. The sacred and religious aspects of the Grail are intensified when the narrator indicates that everyone, except Feirefiz (Parzival’s half-brother), may feast on the delicacies provided by the Grail. Being a heathen, the knight can see neither food nor drink nor the Grail since he has not been baptized.

As presented, displays of pain and sadness are predominant at the first meal in Musalvaesche. Rituals presuppose a symbolic communication for effectiveness. When Parzival does not understand the symbolic meaning of the objects that surround him and is unable to communicate, that is, when he fails in communicating, then the act of the ritual is doomed to fail. At the time of the second celebration, however, joy predominates, seeing as how dynastic continuity has been ensured.

Author’s note: This post is based on the following paper: https://www.periodicos.unimontes.br/index.php/caminhosdahistoria/article/view/326/360


Althoff, Gerd; Stollberg-Rilinger, Barbara. ‘Rituale der Macht in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit‘, in: Michaels, Axel (ed.), Die neue Kraft der Rituale (Heidelberg: Winter, 2008), 141-177.

Bleumer, Hartmut. ‚Poetik und Diagramm. Ein Versuch zum Mahl in mittelhochdeutscher Literatur‘, in: Bendix, Regina F.; Fenske, Michaela (ed.), Politische Mahlzeiten. Political Meals (Münster: LIT, 2014), 99-122.

Bumke, Joachim. Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

Classen, Albrecht. ‘The Symbolic Function of Food as Iconic Representation of Culture and Spirituality in Wolfram von Eschenbachs Parzival’ (ca 1205), Orbis Litterarum, 62/4 (2007), 315-335.

Dörrich, Corinna. Poetik des Rituals. Konstruktion und Funktion politischen Handelns in mittelalterlicher Literatur (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002).

Dumitriu, Liliana-Emilia. Der Gral bei Wolfram von Eschenbach und Richard Wagner. Metamorphosen eines Motivs (Mainz: Dr.-Ing.-Hans-Joachim-Lenz-Stiftung, 2014).

Montanari, Massimo. Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival. Auf der Grundlage der Handschrift D. Org. Joachim Bumke (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 2008).

Wolfram von Eschenbach. The Parzival, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel and Bayard Quincy Morgan (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures, 2020).

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