Fortean Times

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.

James Holloway


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