From Ritual to Romance



   In previous chapters I have referred to the part played by the Doctor in a large number of the surviving 'Fertility' ceremonies, and to the fact, noted by other writers, that even where an active share is no longer assigned to the character, he still appears among the dramatis personae of these Folk-plays and processions1. We will now examine more closely the role allotted to this mysterious personage; we shall find it to be of extreme antiquity and remarkable significance.
   In the interesting and important work by Professor von Schroeder, to which I have already often referred, we find the translation of a curious poem (Rig-Veda, 10. 97), a monologue placed in the mouth of a Doctor, or Medicine Man, who vaunts the virtue of his herbs, and their power to cure human ills2. From the references made to a special sick man von Schroeder infers that this poem, like others in the collection, was intended to be acted, as well as recited, and that the personage to be healed, evidently present on the scene, was probably represented by a dummy, as no speeches are allotted to the character.
   The entire poem consists of 23 verses of four lines each, and is divided by the translator into three distinct sections; the first is devoted to the praise of herbs in general, their power to cure the sick man before them, and at the same to bring riches to the Healer - the opening verses run:

"Die Kräuter alt, entsprossen einst
Drei Alter vor den Göttern noch,
Die braunen will Ich preisen jetzt!
Hundert und sieben Arten sinds.

"Ja, hundert Arten, Mütterlein,
Und tausend Zweige habt ihr auch,
Ihr, die ihr hundert Kräfte habt,
Macht diesen Menschen mir gesund.

Ihr Kräuter hört ihr Mütterchen,
Ihr göttlichen, das sag ich euch:
Ross, Rind und Kleid gewänn' ich gern
Und auch dein Leben, lieber Mann!

Wenn ihr ihn rettet diesen Mann."
   He then praises the power of all herbs:
"Vom Himmel kam der Kräuter Schar
Geflogen, und da sprechen sie;
Wen wir noch lebend treffen an
Der Mann soll frei von Schaden sein."
   Finally the speaker singles out one herb as superior to all others:
"Die Kräuter viel in Soma's Reich
Die hundertfach verständigen,
Von denen bist das beste du
Erfüllst den Wunsch, und heilst das Herz."
   He conjures all other herbs to lend their virtue to this special remedy:
"Ihr Krauter all' in Soma's Reich
Verbreitet auf der Erde hin,
Ihr, von Brihaspati erzeugt,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!

"Nicht nehme Schaden, der euch gräbt,
Noch der, für Welchen Ich euch grub!
Bei uns soll Alles, Mensch, und Vieh,
Gesund und ohne Schaden sein.

"lhr, die ihr höret dies mein Wort,
Ihr, die ihr in der Ferne seid,
Ihr Pflanzen all', vereignet euch,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!"
   And the herbs, taking counsel together with Soma their king, answer:
Für Wen uns ein Brahmane braucht
Den, König, wollen retten wir,"
a line which throws a light upon the personality of the speaker; he is obviously a Brahmin, and the Medicine Man here, as elsewhere, unites the functions of Priest and Healer.
   Professor von Schroeder suggests that this Dramatic Monologue formed part of the ceremonies of a Soma feast, that it is the Soma plant from which the heavenly drink is brewed which is to be understood as the first of all herbs and the curer of all ills, and the reference to Soma as King of the herbs seems to bear out this suggestion.
   In a previous chapter3 I have referred to a curious little poem, also found in the Rig-Veda, and translated by von Schroeder under the title A Folk-Procession at a Soma-Feast, the dramatis personae of the poem offering, as I pointed out, a most striking and significant parallel to certain surviving Fertility processions, notably that of Värdegötzen in Hanover. In this little song which von Schroeder places in the mouth of the leader of the band of maskers, the Doctor is twice referred to; in the opening lines we have the Brahmin, the Doctor, the Carpenter, the Smith, given as men plying different trades, and each and all in search of gain; in the final verse the speaker announces, "I am a Poet (or Singer), my father a Doctor." Thus of the various trades and personages enumerated the Doctor alone appears twice over, an indication of the importance attached to this character.
   Unfortunately, in view of the fragmentary condition of the survivals of early Aryan literature, and the lack of explanatory material at our disposal, it is impossible to decide what was the precise rôle assigned to the 'Medicine Man'; judging from the general character of the surviving dramatic fragments and the close parallel which exists between these fragments and the Medieval and Modern Fertility ceremonies, it seems extremely probable that his original role was identical with that assigned to his modern counterpart, i.e., that of restoring to life or health the slain, or suffering, representative of the Vegetation Spirit.
   This presumption gains additional support from the fact that it is in this character that the Doctor appears in Greek Classical Drama. Von Schroeder refers to the fact that the Doctor was a stock figure in the Greek 'Mimus4' and in Mr Cornford's interesting volume entitled The Origin of Attic Comedy, the author reckons the Doctor among the stock Masks of the early Greek Theatre, and assigns to this character the precise rôle which later survivals have led us to attribute to him.
   The significance of Mr Cornford's work lies in the fact that, while he accepts Sir Gilbert Murray's deeply interesting and suggestive theory that the origins of Greek Tragedy are to be sought in "the Agon of the Fertility Spirit, his Pathos, and Theophany," he contends that a similar origin may be postulated for Attic Comedy - that the stock Masks (characters) agree with a theory of derivation of such Comedy from a ritual performance celebrating the renewal of the seasons5. "They were at first serious, and even awful, figures in a Religious Mystery, the God who every year is born, and dies, and rises again; his Mother and his Bride; the Antagonist who kills him; the Medicine Man who restores him to life6."
   I would submit that the presence of such a character in the original ritual drama of Revival which, on my theory, underlies the romantic form of the Grail legend, may, in view of the above evidence, and of that brought forward in the previous chapters, be accepted as at least a probable hypothesis.
   But, it may be objected, granting that the Doctor in these Fertility processions and dramas represents a genuine survival of a feature of immemorial antiquity, a survival to be traced alike in Aryan remains, in Greek literature, and in Medieval ceremony, what is the precise bearing upon the special subject of our investigations? There is no Doctor in the Grail legend, although there is certainly abundant scope for his activities!
   There may be no Doctor in the Grail legend today, but was there never such a character? How if this be the key to explain the curious and persistent attribution of healing skill to so apparently unsuitable a personage as Sir Gawain? I would draw the attention of my readers to a passage in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, where Gawain, finding a wounded knight by the roadside, proceeds to treat him:
"Et Mesire Gauvain savoit
Plus que nuls homs de garir plaie;
Une herbe voit en une haie
Trop bonne pour douleur tolir
De plaie, et il la va cueillir7."
   Other MSS. are rather fuller:
"Et Messires Gauvain savoit
Plus que nus hons vivant de plaies,
Unes herbe voit les une haies
Qu'il connoissoit lonc temps avoit
Que son mestre apris li avoit
Enseigniee et bien moustree,
Et il l'avoit bien esgardee
Si l'a molt bien reconneue8."
   We find reference to Gawain's possession of medical knowledge elsewhere. In the poem entitled Lancelot et le cerf au pied blanc, Gawain, finding his friend desperately wounded, carries him to a physician whom he instructs as to the proper treatment9.
"Ende Walewein wiesde den Ersatere mere
Ene const, die daertoe halp wel sere10."
   In the parallel adventure related in Morien Gawain heals Lancelot without the aid of any physician11:
"Doe was Walewein harde blide
Ende bant hem sine wonden ten tide
Met selken crude die daer dochten
Dat si niet bloden mochten12."
   They ride to an anchorite's cell:
"Si waren doe in dire gedochten
Mochten sie daer comen tier stont
Datten Walewein soude maken gesont13."
   The Dutch Lancelot has numerous references to Gawain's skill in healing. Of course the advocates of the originality of Chrétien de Troyes will object that these references, though found in poems which have no connection with Chrétien, and which are translations from lost French originals of an undetermined date, are one and all loans from the more famous poem. This, however, can hardly be contended of the Welsh Triads; there we find Gwalchmai, the Welsh Gawain, cited as one of the three men "To whom the nature of every object was known14," an accomplishment exceedingly necessary for a 'Medicine Man,' but not at first sight especially needful for the equipment of a knight15. This persistent attribution of healing skill is not, so far as my acquaintance with medieval Romance goes, paralleled in the case of any other knight; even Tristan, who is probably the most accomplished of heroes of romance, the most thoroughly trained in all branches of knightly education, is not credited with any such knowledge. No other knight, save Gawain, has the reputation of a Healer, yet Gawain, the Maidens' Knight, the 'fair Father of Nurture' is, at first sight, hardly the personage one might expect to possess such skill. Why he should be so persistently connected with healing was for long a problem to me; recently, however, I have begun to suspect that we have in this apparently motiveless attribution the survival of an early stage of tradition in which not only did Gawain cure the Grail King, but he did so, not by means of a question, or by the welding of a broken sword, but by more obvious and natural means, the administration of a healing herb. Gawain's character of Healer belongs to him in his role of Grail Winner.
   Some years ago, in the course of my reading, I came across a passage in which certain knights of Arthur's court, riding through a forest, come upon a herb 'which belonged to the Grail.' Unfortunately the reference, at the time I met with it, though it struck me as curious, did not possess any special significance, and either I omitted to make a note of it, or entered it in a book which, with sundry others, went mysteriously astray in the process of moving furniture. In any case, though I have searched diligently I have failed to recover the passage, but I note it here in the hope that one of my readers may be more fortunate.

   It is perhaps not without significance that a mention of Peredur (Perceval) in Welsh poetry may also possibly contain a reference to his healing office. I refer to the well-known Song of the Graves in the Black Book of Carmarthen where the grave of Mor, son of Peredur Penwetic, is referred to. According to Dr G. Evans the word penwedic, or perfeddyg, as it may also be read, means chief Healer. Peredur, it is needless to say, is the Welsh equivalent of Perceval, Gawain's successor and supplanter in the role of Grail hero.
   I have no desire to press the point unduly, but it is certainly significant that, entirely apart from any such theory of the evolution of the Grail legend as that advanced in these pages, a Welsh scholar should have suggested a rendering of the title of the Grail hero which is in complete harmony with that theory; a rendering also which places him side by side with his compatriot Gwalchmai, even as the completely evolved Grail story connects him with Gawain. In any case there is food for reflection in the fact that, the possibility of such an origin once admitted, the most apparently incongruous, and inharmonious, elements of the story show themselves capable of a natural and unforced explanation.
   In face of the evidence above set forth it seems impossible to deny that the Doctor, or Medicine Man, did, from the very earliest ages, play an important part in Dramatic Fertility Ritual, that he still survives in the modern Folk-play, the rude representative of the early ritual form, and it is at least possible that the attribution of healing skill to so romantic and chivalrous a character as Sir Gawain may depend upon the fact that, at an early, and pre-literary stage of his story, he played the rôle traditionally assigned to the Doctor that of restoring to life and health the dead, or wounded representative of the Spirit of Vegetation.
   If I am right in my reading of this complicated problem the mise-en-scène of the Grail story was originally a loan from a ritual actually performed, and familiar to those who first told the tale. This ritual, in its earlier stages comparatively simple and objective in form, under the process of an insistence upon the inner and spiritual significance, took upon itself a more complex and esoteric character, the rite became a Mystery, and with this change the rôle of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer; and his task involved more than the administration of the original Herbal remedy. In fact in the final development of the story the Pathos is shared alike by the representative of the Vegetation Spirit, and the Healer, whose task involves a period of stern testing and probation.
   If we wish to understand clearly the evolution of the Grail story we must realize that the simple Fertility Drama from which it sprung has undergone a gradual and mysterious change, which has invested it with elements at once 'rich and strange,' and that though Folk-lore may be the key to unlock the outer portal of the Grail castle it will not suffice to give us the entrance to its deeper secrets.


   While having no connection with the main subject of our study, the Grail legend, I should like to draw the attention of students of Medieval literature to the curious parallel between the Rig-Veda poem of the Medicine Man or Kräuter-Lied as it is also called, and Rusteboeuf's Dist de I'Erberie. Both are monologues, both, presuppose the presence of an audience, in each case the speaker is one who vaunts his skill in the use of herbs, in each case he has in view the ultimate gain to himself. Here are the opening lines of the Medieval poem16:

"Seignor qui ci estes venu
Petit et grant, jone et chenu,
Il vos est trop bien avenu
Sachiez de voir;

Je ne vos vueil pas deçevoir
Bien le porroz aperçevoir
Ainz que m'en voise.
Asiez vos, ne fetes noise
Si escotez s'il ne vos poise
Je sui uns mires."
   He has been long with the lord of Caire, where he won much gold; in Puille, Calabre, Luserne.
"Ai herbes prises
Qui de granz vertuz sont enprises
Stis quelque Mal qu'el soient mises
Le maus s'enfuit."
   There is no reference in the poem to a cure about to be performed in the presence of the audience, which does not however exclude the possibility of such cure being effected.
   It would be interesting to know under what circumstances such a poem was recited, whether it formed part of a popular representation. The audience in view is of a mixed character, young and old, great and small, and one has a vision of the Quack Doctor at some village fair, on the platform before his booth, declaiming the virtues of his nostrums before an audience representative of all ranks and ages. It is a far cry from such a Medieval scene to the prehistoric days of the Rig-Veda, but the mise-en-scène is the same; the popular 'seasonal' feast, the Doctor with his healing herbs, which he vaunts in skilful rhyme, the hearers, drawn from all ranks, some credulous, some amused, There seems very little doubt that both poems are specimens, and very good specimens, of a genre the popularity and vitality of which are commensurate with the antiquity of its origin17.


I Cf. supra Chap. 5, pp. 52, 54; Chap. 7, pp. 90, 91.
2 Mysterium und Mimus, p. 369, Der Mimus des Medizinmannes.
3 Cf. Chap. 5, pp. 53, 54.
4 Op. cit. p. 371
5 Op. cit. pp. 78 et seq.
6 I would draw attention to the fact that while scholars are now coming to the conclusion that Classic Drama, whether Tragedy or Comedy, reposes for its origin upon this ancient ritual, others have pointed out that Modern Drama derives from the ritual Play of the Church, the first recorded medieval drama being the Easter Quem Quaeritis? the dramatic celebration of Our Lord's Resurrection. Cf. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, where this thesis is elaborately developed and illustrated. It is a curious fact that certain texts of this, the 'Classical' Passion Play, contain a scene between the Maries and the 'Unguentarius' from whom they purchase spices for the embalmment of Our Lord. Can this be a survival of the Medicine Man? (Cf. op. cit. Vol. ii. p. 33.)
7 Bibl. Nat., fonds Français, 12577, fo. 40
8 Bibl. Nat., f. F. 1453, fo. 49. Parzival, Bk. x. Il, 413-22.
9 Lanceloet, Jonckbloet, Vol.II. Il. 22271-23126.
10 Op. cit. Il. 22825-26.
11 Op. cit. Vol. 1. Il. 42540-47262.
12 Op. cit. Il. 46671-74.
13 Op. cit. Il. 46678-80.
14 Cf. Loth, Les Mabinogion, Vol. ii. p. 230, and note. The other two are Riwallawn Walth Banhadlen, and Llacheu son of Arthur.
15 The only instance in which I have found medicine directly connected with the knightly order is in the case of the warrior clan of the Samurai, in Japan, where members, physically unfitted for the task of a warrior, were trained as Royal Doctors, the Folk Doctors being recruited from a class below the Samurai. Cf. Medizin der Natur-Völker, Bartels, p. 65.
16 Cf. OEuvres de Rutebauf, Kressner, p. 115
17 My attention was drawn to the poem by references to it in The Mediaeval Stage, Chambers.