Messenger of Saint Anthony

The Real Sword in the Stone

An exclusive interview with Professor Mario Moiraghi, the scholar who claims that the story of Saint Galgano and his sword was the origin of the myth of King Arthur and Excalibur

Renzo Allegri
The Real Sword in the Stone The Sword in the Stone bathed in a ray of light inside the Rotonda of San Galgano, Montesiepi, Italy

THE IMAGE of the sword in the stone has impressed itself deeply into the collective mind of western humanity through that romantic stream of literature which, since the 12th century, has brought to us the wonderful saga of Merlin the Magician, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the associated tales of Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

These highly suggestive and immensely popular stories have taken their starting point from the figure of King Arthur, the self-effacing youngster who became a great military leader when he turned out to be the only man capable of extracting the magical sword Excalibur from a rock, in this way proving that he had been chosen by God to lead his people against the pagan armies aiming to overthrow Christianity in Britain. The setting of these episodes are Brittany in France, and Wales and Cornwall in Britain, and have conferred fame on that beautiful corner of Europe.

The historical validity of that legend however, has long been called into question by historians. The details of Arthur’s story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur’s name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.

The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest only after these writings, and  largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful and imaginative 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). How much of Geoffrey’s Historia (completed in 1138) was adapted from these earlier sources, rather than invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown.

Though Geoffrey’s Arthur possessed the magic sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from Avalon according to the early tradition, it wasn’t until Robert de Boron wrote Merlin (c. 1200) that the image of Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone was introduced, though in this work it was embedded in an anvil on top of a stone.

Professor Moiraghi

Lately, Mario Moiraghi, an Italian engineer and university professor, has advanced the idea that the source of de Boron’s inspiration was a real historical figure living in Italy in the second half of the 12th century: Galgano Guidotti.

Professor Moiraghi, a specialist in great emergencies and catastrophes, has a passion for historical research, particularly the medieval period, and has authored a number of books on the subject. One of his latest is L’enigma di san Galgano (The Enigma of Saint Galgano – not translated into English). In this publication Professor Moiraghi claims that the episode of the sword in the stone in the Arthurian cycle originated in Tuscany, Italy, and not in the Celtic fringes of Britain or France, as many believe, and that it was added to the legend of King Arthur later on. Saint Galgano was born in Chiusdino around 1148, and died in his thirties in 1181, which was well before Robert de Boron’s account of the sword episode.

Worldly knight

As a young man Galgano was a worldly knight who led a rowdy and dissolute life. However, the Archangel Michael appeared to him one day and convinced him to repent. Sir Galgano announced his intention to become a hermit and live in a cave, but his friends and family made fun of him. His mother Dionisia convinced him to wear his noble robes and go to Civitella Marittima to see his fiancée Polissena Brizzi for the last time, but along the way Sir Galgano’s horse reared, and the knight fell. He suddenly felt some force helping him to get back on his feet. The knight heard a seraphic voice which he was unable to resist, and this led him to Montesiepi, a rugged hill near Chiusdino. There he had the vision of a round temple, and of Jesus and the Holy Virgin Mary with the Apostles.

The voice guided Sir Galgano to the top of the hill and invited him to give up his sinful life, but the knight was hesitant, and wittily replied that, even if he thought he should indeed change his life, changing would be as hard as splitting rocks with his sword, and in saying this, he drew his weapon and thrust at a stone, fully expecting the blade to snap. To his great surprise, the sword cut the stone and entered into the rock to the hilt.

Galgano died a saint, and was canonised four years after his death. Devotion to Saint Galgano spread rapidly, especially among knights, and on the hermitage where he had spent his last days a round chapel was built, the Rotonda of Saint Galgano.

The saint’s followers then erected a stately Gothic cathedral in the vicinity which reached its maximum splendour in the 16th century, but which later fell into disuse. The roof was removed, and what remains of it today are only the walls and an intense aura of mystery.

“Undisputed historical evidence,” Moiraghi affirms, “prove not only that Galgano really existed, but also that the sword visible in the Rotonda was plunged into the rock by him, and that this episode found its way into the Arthurian cycle”.

Moraghi’s thesis was initially given a cold reception, but it is now gaining increasing support, and in 2003, The Times published a review of his book.

The Arthurian saga

We interviewed Mario Moiraghi at his home in northern Italy, an ancient villa hidden behind a thick patch of chestnut trees. Tall, imposing and elegant, the 67-year-old university professor sports a shortly-trimmed white beard around his chin.

Moiraghi ushers us kindly into his study. The roof stands high above us, and is supported by a series of wooden beams projecting out of massive stone walls. In the middle of the study lies a thick wooden table with books strewn all over its surface, along with a few bookstands supporting illuminated manuscripts. It is like being in a novel by Ellis Peters, were it not for a laptop lying next to these antique paraphernalia, which promptly brings us back to the 21st century.

“That’s one of my hobbies,” Moiraghi tells us while indicating the pages of an illuminated manuscript. “In my free time I write as the monks once did, using these quill pens which I myself have made”.

Why does a scientist like yourself dedicate so much time to medieval legends?

My research into the history of the Arthurian cycle is closely connected to my university lessons on the history of great natural catastrophes and their consequence for mankind.

The wonderings of the errant knights in their quest for the Holy Grail takes them through wastelands, just like as in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which describes humanity’s eternal wandering as a consequence of events and cataclysms which drive her to new lands and adventures. An engineer is not only someone who creates mechanical objects or buildings, a good engineer is also someone who tries to find a rational explanation for what is around him.

When did you first begin to suspect that the ‘sword in the stone’ episode of the Arthurian saga originated in Italy?

When I learned that the canonisation process of Saint Galgano occurred before the publication of the Grail novels, and half a century before the legend of the sword in the stone.

It all began through a chance meeting with the story of Galgano when I was visiting Montesiepi during a trip to Tuscany. It was struck by the similarity between the sword in the stone in the round chapel at Montesiepi and the story as recounted in the later Arthur stories.

There is, however, an all-important difference. Saint Galgano thrust the sword into the stone to say good-bye to violence, thereby transforming the sword into a cross, while the literary Arthur pulled a cross out of a stone, thereby transforming it into a sword.

The Holy Grail

Professor Moiraghi, are you therefore saying that Galgano is the prototype for the legends in the Arthurian cycle?

No, not quite. The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Geoffrey’s work predates the birth of Galgano. Moreover, some Welsh and Breton tales and poems relating the story of Arthur date from even earlier than Geoffrey’s work. Both Geoffrey and these earlier works make no mention, however, of the sword episode, nor of any quest for the Holy Grail.

Historians simply cannot say whether a war leader of that name ever existed in Britain. All we know for certain is that these stories of Arthur originated in Persia, and not in the British Isles or in Brittany, and reached Europe around the end of the first millennium.

Galgano Guidotti, on the other hand, is clearly a historical figure. He is the first saint of the Church to receive a regular process of beatification, which included a public debate and a collection of the testimonies from various witnesses.

Now, when these exotic tales of King Arthur arrived in Europe, they needed a credible protagonist, one familiar to our culture, so those who translated these stories came up with the idea of fusing Arthur with Galgano, and decided to copy the Acts of the beatification process of Saint Galgano into the fictional story of Arthur.

The Acts, which include the story of the sword in the stone, are dated 1185, at least ten or twenty years before Chrétien’s Perceval, but the story of Saint Galgano’s life, in more than 30 specific points, is identical to Parsifal’s story.

As a second stage of this process, the whole story was set in Brittany and Britain. This last phase was the work of writers living at the French court.

Did Galgano Guidotti really exist?

His existence is historically proven and certain. The material, literary, religious, historic, archaeological and anthropological sources and traces cannot be put into doubt.

Galgano’s sword

What is the origin of the sword embedded in the stone which can be see in the round chapel of Montesiepi?

The characteristics of that sword are identical to the one described in the Acts of the beatification process.

Was it scientifically examined?

Theoretically, that sword could have been forged after Galgano’s death, but the physical and chemical tests conducted on it at the University of Pavia have confirmed that we are dealing with an object produced in the 12th century, so it really may have been Galgano who thrust it into the rock.

What spiritual message has Saint Galgano left us?

Galgano belongs to that series of saints who have made a radical option for non-violence, peace and love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”, says Jesus in Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel. The sword which, having being plunged into the stone becomes a cross is a true symbol of the Christian life – the transformation of violence into love.

I believe that when one loses one’s moral compass one should draw inspiration from the past. It is only when we remember where we come from that we will know where we are going.

Saint Galgano has much to teach to our world, plagued as it is by violence and hatred, yet modern society has chosen to ignore this saint. This sad phenomenon, is, however, by no means restricted to modernity because a few decades after the saint’s death an entirely fictional king Arthur was created, an Arthur that, instead of burying his sword in a rock, thereby renouncing violence, decides to pull it out.

May Galgano’s message win over the hearts and minds of contemporary humanity!


© 2015 - Il Messaggero di S.Antonio Editrice