from Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (1920)—on “the Black Hand”

CHAPTER XIII :The Perilous Chapel


Students of the Grail romances will remember that in many of the versions the hero—sometimes it is a heroine—meets with a strange and terrifying adventure in a mysterious Chapel, an adventure which, we are given to understand, is fraught with extreme peril to life. The details vary: sometimes there is a Dead Body laid on the altar; sometimes a Black Hand extinguishes the tapers; there are strange and threatening voices, and the general impression is that this is an adventure in which supernatural, and evil, forces are engaged.

Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle.[1] He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is bare, with no cloth, or covering, nothing is thereon but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain's horse shies for terror, and the knight, making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel, to find the storm abated, and the great wind fallen. Thereafter the night was calm and clear.

In the Perceval section of Wauchier and Manessier we find the same adventure in a dislocated form.[2]

Perceval, seeking the Grail Castle, rides all day through a heavy storm, which passes off at night-fall, leaving the weather calm and clear. He rides by moonlight through the forest, till he sees before him a great oak, on the branches of which are lighted candles, ten, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five. The knight rides quickly towards it, but as he comes near the lights vanish, and he only sees before him a fair little Chapel, with a candle shining through the open door. He enters, and finds on the altar the body of a dead knight, covered with a rich samite, a candle burning at his feet.

Perceval remains some time, but nothing happens. At midnight he departs; scarcely has he left the Chapel when, to his great surprise, the light is extinguished.

The next day he reaches the castle of the Fisher King, who asks him where he passed the preceding night. Perceval tells him of the Chapel; the King sighs deeply, but makes no comment.

Wauchier's section breaks off abruptly in the middle of this episode; when Manessier takes up the story he gives explanations of the Grail, etc., at great length, explanations which do not at all agree with the indications of his predecessor. When Perceval asks of the Chapel he is told it was built by Queen Brangemore of Cornwall, who was later murdered by her son Espinogres, and buried beneath the altar. Many knights have since been slain there, none know by whom, save it be by the Black Hand which appeared and put out the light. (As we saw above it had not appeared.) The enchantment can only be put an end to if a valiant knight will fight the Black Hand, and, taking a veil kept in the Chapel, will dip it in holy water, and sprinkle the walls, after which the enchantment will cease.

At a much later point Manessier tells how Perceval, riding through the forest, is overtaken by a terrible storm. He takes refuge in a Chapel which he recognizes as that of the Black Hand. The Hand appears, Perceval fights against and wounds it; then appears a Head; finally the Devil in full form who seizes Perceval as he is about to seek the veil of which he has been told. Perceval makes the sign of the Cross, on which the Devil vanishes, and the knight falls insensible before the altar. On reviving he takes the veil, dips it in holy water, and sprinkles the walls within and without. He sleeps there that night, and the next morning, on waking, sees a belfry. He rings the bell, upon which an old man, followed by two others, appears. He tells Perceval he is a priest, and has buried 3000 knights slain by the Black Hand; every day a knight has been slain, and every day a marble tomb stands ready with the name of the victim upon it. Queen Brangemore founded the cemetery, and was the first to be buried within it. (But according to the version given earlier she was buried beneath the altar.) We have here evidently a combination of two themes, Perilous Chapel and Perilous Cemetery, originally independent of each other. In other MSS. the Wauchier adventure agrees much more closely with the Manessier sequel, the Hand appearing, and extinguishing the light. Sometimes the Hand holds a bridle, a feature probably due to contamination with a Celtic Folk-tale, in which a mysterious Hand (here that of a giant) steals on their birth-night a Child, and a foal.[3] These Perceval versions are manifestly confused and dislocated, and are probably drawn from more than one source.