Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The dregs of trembling, the draught of salvation: the dual symbolism of the cup in medieval literature

Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2011, Pages 47–61
Feasts and Gifts of Food in Medieval Europe: Ritualised Constructions of Hierarchy, Identity and Community


This article examines the symbolism of the cup in Old English poetry and Old French romance. It argues that the dual symbolism of the cup in the Bible, both the cask of divine wrath and the vessel of mercy, invested the image with a particular dichotomy that was inherited by its metaphoric social functions in the literature of the middle ages. In Old English literature, the cup became a metonym for the contract for lord and thane, the conviviality and treasure exchange that united the mead-hall community. But never far beneath the surface is the fact that this contract requires the thane to die, and this unspoken yet unavoidable truth is writ large in the contagious imagery and vocabulary of the cup. In Old French romance, dichotomy crystallises into binary. The association of the cup of the Last Supper with Joseph of Arimathea, and the development of the Grail legend, made the service of the cup an exclusive loyalty, at the expense of social obligation, and its exigencies are made absolute and immediate. This article offers parallel readings of the same biblical metaphor in different literary cultures and a detailed analysis of a symbol that stands simultaneously for the positive image and its reversal, opposites that are mutually contingent: the community’s desire for unity and preservation and its concomitant fear of disintegration and death.


  • Cup;
  • Grail;
  • Fellowship;
  • Eucharist;
  • Round Table;
  • Beowulf;
  • Queste del Saint Graal;
  • Chrétien de Troyes;
  • Robert de Boron;
  • Joseph of Arimathea
Joanna Bellis read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where she attained a double first. She is now completing her Ph.D. on mimetic language in accounts of the Hundred Years War. Her interests include medieval and renaissance language theory, etymology, national identity, representation and the idea of writing history. She has articles forthcoming in Leeds Studies in English (2010) and the proceedings of the 2010 ‘Romance in Medieval Britain’ conference. For her next project, she hopes to edit John Page’s ‘Siege of Rouen’. She is co-editor of Marginalia, the journal of the Medieval Reading Group at the University of Cambridge.