Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

04 February 2023

And did those feet: did Alexander the Great visit Britain?

As our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, demonstrates, Alexander has been the protagonist of countless legends across the world and from the time of his birth to the present. Perceforest, a mysterious and dramatic 14th-century romance, conceivably the longest in all medieval French literature, is a prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain. It provides a dynastic link between two great legendary figures, as Alexander the Great fathers an ancestor of King Arthur with Sibile, the Lady of the Lake.

Woodcut showing knight on horseback fighting in front of a castle

Alexander and his army arrive in Britain, in La Treselegante, Delicieuse, Melliflue et tresplaisante hystoire du tres-noble, Victorieux et excellentissme roy Perceforest (Paris: Nicolas Cousteau for Galliot du Pré, 1528): British Library, 85.k.5–6, vol. 1

Perceforest takes in a vast sweep of British history and tradition from the mythical founder, Brutus, through Alexander and up to Joseph of Arimathea’s arrival, bearing the Holy Grail that became the subject of the famous quest in Arthurian legend. The six volumes, each the length of a thick novel, contain an entertaining mix of scenes of love, horror and action infused with the merveilleux. Across 530 chapters, successive generations of kings, knights and ladies take part in wild adventures that include fording a magic river, giving birth to a marvellous child with a crossbow in his hand and fighting, a beast of many colours.

The first printed edition was produced in Paris in 1528, a beautifully bound set of volumes containing detailed woodcut images, borders and initials, and with a space left for the coat of arms of a potential owner to be inserted. Because of the immense undertaking, modern editions and translations in French and English have been lacking until relatively recently, meaning that previous scholars had to use this 16th-century edition.

An armoured knight on horseback standing before a large multicoloured monster. It has four legs, a long tail, a long neck and plumage on it's head

The gilded knight meeting the beast of many colours in Perceforest, vol 3 (Bruges, late 15th century): Royal MS 19 E II, f.. 166r

The enchanted island of Britain in Perceforest is a land of amazing beauty and awesome marvels, home to the Sheer Mountain, the Temple of the Noble Guard, and the Passage of Three Rivers. It is ruled by the descendants of Brutus, who came from Troy to found a new dynasty, although a succession of weak and treacherous rulers have allowed the forces of evil to dominate. But help is at hand: Alexander the Great, his ships blown off course by a storm en route from Epheson to attend the coronation of Porus in India, lands on the shores of Britain with his companions. The great conqueror establishes his two protégés, Betis and Gadifer as kings of England and Scotland, holding extravagant coronation ceremonies with magical crowns, dancing and the first ever chivalric tournament. He then leaves them to rule and continues his journey towards his final destination, Babylon, where he will soon die.

Two knights on horseback fight with swords in a tournament. Ladies watch from raised stands behind

A tournament with ladies watching: Royal MS 19 E II, f. 305r

Soon after Alexander’s departure, darkness intrudes in the form of the enchanter, Darnant and his clan, who rule over the beautiful English forest. Betis rides out to confront them, earning the name Perceforest by freeing the forest from the evil sorcerer. The brothers, Perceforest and Gadifer, set out to restore freedom and order throughout their kingdoms, fighting off the forces of evil with the help of local knights, but suffering various setbacks. Perceforest falls into a deep depression when he hears of Alexander's death at Babylon, Gadifer is seriously wounded while hunting a monstrous wild boar and chaos threatens once again, but eventually the pair emerge stronger to create a just, chivalric society.

Two horse riders. One fides a brown horse and wears armour. The other is a lady in a red dress and hat. She rides a grey horse.

Gadifer of Scotland and the damsel Pierrote riding on the adventure of the Sheer Mountain, in  Perceforest, vol 2: Royal MS 19 E III, f. 275v

Sadly, Perceforest’s son falls under the spell of a treacherous Roman woman, who helps Julius Caesar to invade Britain. It is left to Ourseau, the grandson of Gadifer, and his wife, the Fairy Queen, to take revenge by arranging Caesar’s assassination. Gallafur, another of Gadifer’s grandsons, marries Alexander the Great’s granddaughter, and a new dynasty is established. Gallafur casts out evil forces from Britain and again restores order, placing his magical sword in a stone. A new invasion once more leaves a void of good rulers until, many generations later, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king.

A crowd watches as a figure in red pulls a sword out of a large stone

Arthur draws the sword from the stone, in the Lancelot-Grail (northern France, c. 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 99r

The original romance of Perceforest was composed shortly after the marriage of King Edward III of England to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, probably in the Low Countries, to emphasise the links between the two royal houses. An elaborate story tells how a book of chronicles in Latin was found by William of Hainault in a secret cupboard and how he had it translated into French. Only four manuscript copies survive; the three large volumes in the British Library are an incomplete printer’s copy of David Aubert’s version, adapted for the Duke of Burgundy and illuminated in Bruges. Together, they are the size of a small suitcase, and this is only the first half of the story! The opening page shows Aubert presenting his work to a patron, probably the Duke.

A king sits on a throne as he is presented by a large red book by a man wearing grey robes

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, receiving a book from David Aubert, author of the preface with a dedication to the duke, from Perceforest, vol. 1: Royal MS 15 E V, f. 3r

You can explore Perceforest in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth , open until 19 February 2023, or discover more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 January 2023

Alexander the Great versus the elephants

Have you ever wondered how to defeat an army or a herd of wild elephants? Alexander the Great knew how, to judge by accounts (both historical and legendary) of his campaigns in the East. Elephants feature most prominently in Alexander's famous battle with King Porus of Inda in 326BC, as described by Plutarch, Arian and the later Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. Curtius’ Historia was translated into French, and illuminated copies were produced in considerable numbers in the 15th century, notably for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477), who modelled himself on Alexander.

Soldiers in armour with spears confront elephants with castles containing soldiers with arrows on their backs.  A castle in the background.

A battle between Alexander and Porus with elephants, in Quintus Curtius Rufus. Historia Alexandri magni, translated by Lucena: Burney MS 169, f. 165v

Curtius describes how Alexander and his men faced a terrifying force of 300 chariots, 30,000 foot soldiers and 85 elephants with castles on their backs, on the opposite bank of the river Hyaspedes. King Porus himself was mounted on a huge elephant that towered above the rest, decorated with silver and gold armour. Fortunately, Alexander and his troops were already familiar with these terrifying creatures, as he had earlier been presented with 56 elephants by King Omphis of Taxila.

Using his characteristic strategic genius, Alexander sent troops to cross the river further down in order to surprise his opponents. By attacking on two fronts, he restricted the elephants’ room to manoeuvre. Alexander’s great victory over Porus soon became the stuff of legend. The French Roman d’Alexandre en prose tells that he employed ‘ymages de laiton’ (bronze models of soldiers) filled with red hot coals, which he placed in iron chariots and sent in among the elephants. When they saw the burning embers and felt the scorching heat, the elephants fled in terror. A manuscript made in Bruges manuscript illustrates the burning soldiers in chariots facing the elephants.  

Two groups of soldiers on horseback with spears raised ride towards each other, model soldiers on fire standing on chariots, and elephants with towers and soldiers on their backs

The battle between Alexander and King Porus, with the elephants and bronze model soldiers filled with hot coals, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 51r

Legend has it that after another battle, a short period of friendship ensued, during which Porus took Alexander to see the wonders of India. But the truce was short-lived and Alexander finally killed Porus in single combat. Determined to continue his journey of conquest as far as the ocean, he encountered many strange and dangerous creatures, including a herd of ferocious elephants. The cunning Alexander, aware that elephants were afraid of the sound of squealing of pigs, sent into their midst a troop of horsemen, trumpeters and all the pigs he could find. The elephants fled in terror, pursued by the horsemen, who killed 980 of them and brought back their ‘teeth and horns’. This story is illustrated in a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en prose made in Paris around 1425, perhaps for a young owner, as it has startling, colourful images on almost every page.

Alexander and his army with trumpets and pigs with tusks facing elephants with trumpet-shaped trunks.

Alexander’s army with trumpets and pigs confronting the wild elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX  f. 57r

Alexander’s life story was incorporated into world histories such as the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, which encompassed all of human history from Creation to the reign of Julius Caesar. In this version of the Alexander legend, Porus and Alexander were exploring the far reaches of India when they made camp for the night near a forest, before finding that it was infested with fierce elephants. Porus told Alexander not to worry. He should gather together some ‘truie’ (sows), upset them so that they squealed loudly at the elephants, who would immediately flee in terror, fearing this noise more than anything.

Above, soldiers on horseback with helmets and swords and pigs beside them attack elephants

Alexander fighting with pigs against elephants (above), and meeting the talking trees of the Sun and the Moon and their Indian guardian (below), in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19699, f. 156r

Alexander on a horse with soldiers holding spears, chase pigs towards four elephants among trees

Alexander’s army with wild pigs confronting elephants in a forest, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Paris, late 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 133v

In a luxurious copy of the prose Roman d’Alexandre made for Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482), future queen of England, Alexander and his soldiers are shown attacking a group of elephants with spears; the pigs mentioned in the accompanying text are nowhere to be seen.

Alexander in armour with knights on horseback, use spears to wound two elephants standing among trees.  A starry sky.

Alexander’s army fighting elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 16v

This story must have circulated widely in England. In one manuscript of the Festial by John Mirk of Shropshire (1382–1414), the homily for the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist describes how bones and wood are used in making St John’s fire (Harley MS 2417, f. 42r). Mirk then adds a long digression on the origins of fire in ‘that countrey of grete hete’ where dragons breathe noxious gases and poison the water. This leads to a description of Alixander’s campaign in India:

...mony grete clerkes that hadden red of kyng Alysaunder how when he shulde have a batel wyth the kyng of Ynde and the kyng of Ynde browyte wyth hym mony olyfauntes beryng castels of tre (wood) on her bakkes.... Thene knewe alysau]nder the kynde (species) of olyfauntes that they dreden noo thyng moore the ȝarryng (squealing) of swyyn (swine). Therfor he made togedere all the sowes that myghte be geten and made to dryve hem so nygh the olifantes ...anoon they maden suche a ȝarryng all yfer that alle the olyfauntes flowen (fled) and casten down her castelles...

The subject then turns to dragons once again, and how they hate the stench of burning bones, so that a ‘boon fyr’ (the origin of the word, bonfire) could be used to chase them away.

Discover more about Alexander the Great by visiting the British Library's exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards this exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 January 2023

Digital Alexander

Our amazing exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, closes on 19 February 2023 – have you had time to come to see it? Or perhaps it is distance rather than time that is thwarting you? Fear not! We have you covered.

We have made a mini-version of the exhibition and put it online especially for you. It’s free to access and it features over 30 of the items that are displayed in the gallery, as well as newly-commissioned articles by the curatorial team. We've also included interviews with creators featured in the gallery, an interview with one of the curators, and a free to download game.

screenshot of a computer game. The scene shows a room with stone walls and stone floors. There are bookcases to the left of the picture. A table stands in the centre

Screenshot taken from the free downloadable interactive 

So, that’s the good news … but even better is that the website is going to continue growing after the exhibition closes. We’ll be adding more images of each of the collection items and more items from the exhibition, as well as new video content and new articles. Digital Alexander is the gift that keeps on giving! You can find the online exhibition at bl.uk/alexander-the-great. Don't forget to keep coming back to see the new additions.

screenshot of a website. The image shows a partial list of articles from the website

Screenshot of the Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth website. These are just a few of the articles featured on the website. 

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Yrja Thorsdottir

Follow us @BLMedieval