The Wandering Jew may not be a well-known figure to readers of Arthurian literature, but as a significant legend, he was bound to get involved with the Arthurian legend eventually.
For readers not familiar with the Wandering Jew, one of my personal favorite literary characters, here’s a little background information.
In most versions of the legend, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to allow Christ to rest on His way to the cross. Christ punished Ahasuerus by forcing him to wander the earth without death or any form of rest until Christ’s return on the final Judgment Day. Usually, this cursed condition is interpreted to mean that Christ will eventually redeem Ahasuerus who will have atoned for his sins by his prolonged wandering. As he wanders the globe, the Wandering Jew remarkably appears without explanation at the sites of great historical events such as the sack of Rome, the crusades, the fall of Constantinople, and decisive Napoleonic battles; these appearances at great events suggest that the Jew may have supernatural powers that allow him to appear wherever he chooses and that he might also be involved in manipulating such events. The Jew’s constant wandering is enhanced by his fear that Christians will learn his true identity, so he must continually move from place to place so he is not identified and thus mistreated.
The Wandering Jew’s literary origins date back to the Middle Ages. The first recorded reference in England of the Wandering Jew was in 1228 in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Alban’s, entitled Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover. Among the other medieval depictions of him, the most notable appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” where an old man must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for his old age. The Wandering Jew’s popularity in literature increased during the seventeenth century. He is given the name of Ahasuerus in an anonymous German pamphlet of 1602 entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem juden mit Namen Ahasverus; Ahasuerus would become the favored name for the Jew, although Matthew Paris also wrote a story in the seventeenth century, naming the Jew Cartaphilus. Occasional other mentions of him appeared throughout literature but his popularity really caught on in the nineteenth century following his appearance in Matthew Lewis’s 1795 Gothic novel The Monk.
Romantic and Victorian literature is filled with mentions of the Wandering Jew, or characters who obviously owe a debt to the Wandering Jew for their own wandering and extended lives, including Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The legend of the vampire, and especially Bram Stoker’s depiction of Dracula (1897), is also indebted to the Wandering Jew.
Given the Wandering Jew’s popularity in the nineteenth century, it only stands to reason that he should end up in the Arthurian legend. The connection occurred when Richard Wagner introduced a female Wandering Jew figure in his opera Parsifal (1882). Although this woman named Kundry is not stated to be the Wandering Jew specifically, she clearly is based in his legend’s origins. Kundry is a wild and unpredictable woman who helps the Grail Knights periodically. Later she is transformed into a temptress by the evil wizard Klingsor, who calls her various names including Herodias (the woman who danced for Herod in exchange for John the Baptist’s head, implying she may be cursed to wander for that deed). Finally, when the Grail is revealed, she sinks lifeless to the ground, the curse finally lifted.
Wagner’s version of the Wandering Jew would later inspire author Susan Shwartz to write a novel The Grail of Hearts (1993), which is dedicated to Kundry’s story, including a scene set in biblical times explaining how she received her curse.
In addition, characters based on the Wandering Jew, or at least similar to the character because they equally have extended lives include Merlin and Morgan le Fay, King Arthur and the Fisher King, all of whom appear to live on well past their normal lifespans.
My interest in the Gothic and the Wandering Jew have resulted in my upcoming book The Gothic Wanderer which will explore wanderer figures in more detail and which I hope to publish in 2012. Meanwhile, I’m sure we have not heard the last of the Wandering Jew in Arthurian literature.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com