Just a wooden cup?
A fascinating account of how local stories can develop into a full-grown myth
The Nanteos Grail
The Evolution of a Holy Relic
John Matthews, Ian Pegler & Fred Stedman-Jones
Amberley Books 2022
Pb, 264pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781398106222
The Nanteos Cup, a fragmentary mediaeval wood drinking bowl or mazer, is an artefact with a curious history. It was kept and displayed by the owners of Nanteos, a country house near Aberystwyth, until recently. Since at least the 19th century, local stories told of the healing properties of water drunk from the cup; in the 20th century, these tales expanded, claiming that the cup was, or at least may have been, none other than the Holy Grail itself.
In The Nanteos Grail, John Matthews and Ian Pegler, working partly from research conducted by the late Fred Stedman-Jones, painstakingly reconstruct the history of the cup and its story, charting the ways in which it has changed over the years. The opening section outlines the basic facts about the cup, although some of the more extreme claims are treated a little uncritically.
The most valuable part of the book is the central section, which focuses on the origin and development of the stories of the cup’s healing powers, as well as their subsequent transformation into a legend about the Grail.
Detailed research into family history and a wide range of textual sources provide a vivid image of an ever-changing Grail discourse. The authors’ research paints a convincing picture of a local story growing into something more through tales told and retold by mystical Christians, antiquarians, smalltime journalists, travel writers and others.
The whole thing is a fascinating case study of how a belief can change and spread.
The Nanteos Grail is a valuable read because of this detailed, thorough presentation of the life cycle of a legend, including its many contributors and the ways in which it has changed over time.
The rest of the book is less satisfying, including discussions of both the cup and its significance that often don’t go into needed detail. Extreme claims are accepted without much investigation – when the same is very much not true of the discussions of the cup’s history – and alternatives are proposed without being investigated.
Part of the problem seems to be that the consensus view, that the cup is a mediaeval mazer that may have come from the nearby monastery of Strata Florida, can’t be conclusively proven, but there doesn’t appear to be much reason to doubt it. This seems to be a little unsatisfying to the authors, who close with some reflections on the eternal quest for the Grail inside all of us.
Unwillingness to grasp the nettle of its own research aside, The Nanteos Grail is a detailed and fascinating account of the ways in which a story changes over time. For anyone interested in the methods of story transmission and change, this is an invaluable read.