A curious weapon associated with the Grail, appearing first in the Grail Procession of the pre-Robert de Boron Grail romances. Some stories call it the Avenging Lance. In Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, the lance follows the Grail Sword and precedes the Grail. Described as pure white, the lance continually dripped blood from its tip.
The Welsh Peredur likewise describes a
spear of incalculable size with three streams of blood running from the sockets to the floor.
Even before Robert de Boron turned the enigmatic Grail into the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, the Bleeding Lance became identified with the Lance of Longinus – the Roman soldier who, in the Apocrypha, stuck a spear in Christ’s side as he hung on the cross. This assertion is found first in the continuations of Perceval and the Didot-Perceval. In the Christian Grail romances, the blood dripping from the lance’s tip is Christ’s blood.
According to the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Bleeding Lance to Britain, and it was kept at Corbenic with the Grail. In one version of the Dolorous Stroke, Balin the Savage used it to wound King Pellehan, turning Listenois into the Waste Land. Similarly, Chrétien de Troyes said that it would one day destroy the entire realm of Logres. Galahad later used the blood flowing from the tip to heal Pellehan, the Maimed King. These two properties of the lance – destruction and healing – mirror the two attributes of the Lord in the scriptures.
Galahad brought the Bleeding Lance to Sarras at the conclusion of the Grail Quest, and it was drawn into heaven along with the Grail. It is similarly taken to heaven in the Third Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval.
Later, the young King of Escavalon sends Gawaine in search of the bleeding lance, identifying it as the weapon prophesied to demolish the realm of Logres. Curiously, the Escavalon people make no mention of the Grail, apparently regarding the lance strictly in its own right; and, whatever the object of the Grail quest – to see a vision, to bring the artifact back for safekeeping, or (as it appears in Chrétien’s romance) simply to ask the right questions – the object of Gawaine’s quest is definitely stated to be bringing the bleeding lance back to the king of Escavalon … who will, however, accept a year’s honest but unfruitful searching as fulfillment of Gawain’s vow, in lieu of the lance itself.
The romances also claim for the Lance the power of healing (e.g. Estoire, Queste) as well as the role of avenger (e.g. Estoire, Merlin Continuation), which led J.D. Bruce to ascribe to it in the Vulgate Cycle the twofold attributes of God: wrath and mercy. Originally, this was not the same weapon as that which wounded the Fisher King, but it became so identified in Wolfram’s Parzival, in the various romances of the Vulgate Cycle, and in Malory. Though in Chrétien the blood issuing from the spear tip does not seem to flow into the Grail, as a result of Robert de Boron’s equating of the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper the blood became the Blood of Christ, emblem of the Real Presence (e.g. Perlesvaus, Queste). Upon the death of Galaad in the Queste (Perceval in the Manessier Continuation), the Lance and the Grail were removed by a hand from heaving, never to reappear.
A second Bleeding Lance (perhaps a symbol for the first) appears in the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal. Josephus, the son of Joseph of Arimathea, is converting some pagans to Christianity when he learns that another group of pagans, who have refused to convert, are being murdered by their king. He rushes to stop the slaughter, and an angel strikes him through the thighs with a lance to punish him for abandoning the conversions to save the lives of the pagans. Josephus removes the spear from his thighs, but the lance head remains embedded in his flesh. The angel eventually re-appears to remove the point and heal Josephus with some of the blood that drips from its tip.
Proponents of a Celtic origin for the Grail theme have suggested, with marginal success, a connection between the Bleeding Lance and the Luin of Celtchar, a marvelous weapon from Irish legend that supposedly had to be quenched in blood after battle in order to render it safe.
Longinus’ Spear | The Legend of King Arthur
Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal | 1220-1235
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Peredur | 13th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470