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

06 February 2023

Alexander the Great, scientist?

The British Library’s current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, explores the entangled web of legends associated with the famous Macedonian ruler. One of the most surprising is Alexander's transformation into a physician and scientist, as we explore in this blogpost.

Image of eight men kneeling on cushions in a semi circle. Each figure is bearded and wearing a white turban. The central figure is dressed in green.

Alexander and the Seven Philosophers, in Nizami, Iqbalnamah (Book of Fortune), from his Khamsah (Five Poems) (Herat, Afghanistan, 1494–95): Or 6810, f. 214r (detail)


The sources for Alexander’s life, historical and legendary alike, agree that he was educated by Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and scientist. It is now hard to reconstruct exactly what Aristotle may have taught the young Alexander, but legends fill this gap abundantly.

A man dressed in blue seated in a chair while children study from books

Aristotle instructing Alexander in the schoolroom, in The Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail)

A surprisingly large number of texts, in various languages, purport to be written either by Aristotle to Alexander or vice versa. One of the earliest is a Greek rhetorical manual claiming to be by Aristotle, and known as his Rhetoric to Alexander.

manuscript page with decorative border

Beginning of the Rhetoric to Alexander (3rd quarter of the 15th century) Harley MS 6322, f. 267r (detail)

This treatise probably dates from Alexander’s lifetime and provides instructions for public speaking. It was only in 1548 that a Renaissance scholar, Pietro Vettori, discovered that other works refer to this text as a book written by another theorist of the 4th century BC, a certain Anaximenes of Lampsacus, whose work it is usually considered today.

two figures facing each other, both bearded, the younger man (on the left of the image) wheres a hat. Both hold one hand up to the faces

Aristotle on the right and his pupil, possibly Alexander, on the left, in Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals) (Baghdad?, c. 1225): Or 2784, f. 96r

The intimate relationship between the philosopher and the young conqueror has fascinated Middle Eastern scholars. Many texts preserved in Arabic claim to have been used in Alexander’s early education. One of these is a treatise on falconry known as The Book of Hunting with Birds of Prey, Written by the Ancient Sages for the King Alexander the Greek. It is a wondrous book, fit for kings, since every king must go hunting with one of these birds of prey.

manuscript page written in black and gold. There is also writing down the left hand margin

Kitāb al-bayzarah (Book of Hunting with Birds of Prey) (1 April 1787): Or 8187, f. 3r

Another Arabic treatise on talismans and magic is called 'The Treasury of Alexander'. Its preface says it was originally written in Greek, dictated by the god Hermes to the philosopher Apollonius, who passed it on to Aristotle, who in turn dedicated and donated it to Alexander the Great. The preface explains its miraculous discovery 'in a copper box covered with Hematite which contained a box made of red gold, locked with a golden key hanging from a golden chain. On the box, there was writing in Greek script, and inside it was a 360-page golden book whose pages were also made of red gold. Every page had twelve lines, written sometimes in Greek and sometimes in Latin script and this was the treasury of Alexander.' (translated by Liana Salif, ‘A Preliminary Study of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica’, Al-ʿUsur al-Wusta: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists, 29 (2021), p. 34).

Soon after its discovery, the 9th-century Caliph al-Muʿtaṣim commissioned a translation into Arabic which became a popular magical encyclopaedia in Islamic culture, surviving in a number of  illuminated copies.

manuscript page

Detail of the history of the discovery of Alexander’s Treasure from the Dhakhīrat Iskandar (Alexander’s Treasure) (17th century): IO Islamic 673, f. 1r

Of the many different texts claiming to have its origins in Alexander’s education by Aristotle, the most popular and significant is probably the 9th-century Arabic collection known as the Secret of Secrets.

The centre of the page shoes a blue square withing which is a large gold circle filled with eight smaller gold circles

The Circle of Justice from the Secret of Secrets (Herat, 1425): Chester Beatty, Dublin, Ar 4183, f. 12r

This work comprises letters from Aristotle to the young Alexander, instructing him on everything a medieval ruler was expected to master, including laws, morals, magic, health and alchemy. Widely disseminated in the Middle East, the Secret of Secrets reached medieval Spain through the Arab conquest. In the 13th century, it was translated into Latin by Philip of Tripoli, becoming an integral part of princely education throughout medieval Europe.

Two figures seated against a gold background, one wears a crown. Each are gesturing towards eachother with their hands

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the heavenly spheres, from the Latin translation of the Secret of Secrets by Philip of Tripoli (England, 1326–1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v (detail)

As the Secret of Secrets became ever more popular, different versions and translations of the text appeared. A famous excerpt in English and Welsh was Aristotle’s letter to Alexander about physiognomy, known as ‘Certeyne rewles of phisnomy, to knowe by onely thoght when men lokes on any man, of what condicions he es’.

part of a manuscript folio. Writing is in black and red ink. A large letter A is in blue

The Physiognomy of Aristotle to Alexander (England, c. 1400): Sloane MS 213, f. 118v (detail)

The spread of the Secret of Secrets and its Latin and vernacular versions in Europe prompted the creation of new works. A 14th-century Latin manuscript from England preserves a text by Aristotle to Alexander about the secret doctrine of the philosopher’s stone, by which anything can be turned into gold and one can achieve immortality.

exctract of a manuscript. Writing in black and red, a capital A is in blue

The Doctrine of Aristotle to Alexander (on the philosopher’s stone) (England, 1474): Add MS 15549, f. 97r (detail)

By the end of the 16th century, the tradition of Alexander’s involvement in science and alchemy was so strong that in one of the most important printed collections of Latin alchemical texts he is credited to have written treatises himself. This book contains letters allegedly written by Alexander about the philosopher's stone. The appearance of such texts shows the extraordinary range of Alexander’s transformation from a young disciple of Aristotle into a philosopher, scientist and magician.

extract of a printed book. Black ink on white

Alexander’s Letter on the Philosophers’ Stone, from the Artis auriferae, quam chemiam vocant (Basel: C Walkircher, 1610): Cup401b6, p. 245. (detail)

To discover more, visit the British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023.

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.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval 

05 February 2023

Magnificent margins in the Alexander Romance

One of the greatest achievements of medieval manuscript illumination, as well as one of the highlights of the British Library’s current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is the Bodleian Library's MS Bodley 264. Completed in Tournai (modern-day Belgium) in 1344, it contains the fullest version of the interpolated Old French Roman d'Alexandre, with some of the most vivid illustrations in any medieval romance. Perhaps most well-known are the border illustrations, remarkable for their panorama of medieval society and fantastic imagination.

Four miniatures. The top two both show armies on horseback. The lower left shows an army on horseback. The lower right shows a city under attack

Alexander’s campaigns against Darius, with musicians, jongleurs and archers in the upper and lower borders (Tournai, Flanders, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS Bodley 264, f. 51v

Manuscript page. Two miniature. Left: a group of people holding hands in a circle. Right: six people standing in conversation, the central figure has a golden bird perched on his forearm

Alexander’s companions dance and make merry, with musical notation; in the lower border figures in chivalric dress with animal heads dance a carole with maidens: MS Bodley 264, f. 181v

Sometimes the subjects in the borders mirror the action in the Alexander stories, but mostly there is little or no connection.  The subjects vary from medieval sports and games to daily activities like cooking and bathing, to sport and entertainment.

Left: a couple kiss. Right: a couple sit with a box between them

Romantic interludes in the border: MS Bodley 264, f. 76v

Miniature showing men in armour being eaten by sea monsters

Alexander’s army is attacked by ‘ypopatamos’; beneath, a dog chases a stag and people watch a puppet show remarkably like Punch and Judy: MS Bodley 264, f. 54v

Two children walking on wooden stilts

Children walking on stilts: MS Bodley 264, f. 65r

A man plays on a drum. A stag stands before him. Right: a woman gestures towards to children

A youth with a pipe and a drum plays to a pantomime stag with pointed slippers on its hind feet; a mother calls two children to watch: MS Bodley 264, f. 70r

Left: blind men holding each others shoulders as they are led by a child. Right: the blind men have clubs, one has been hit on the head by another while the wild boar remains unharmed

Blind men being led to a yard, where they try to kill a pig with clubs: MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

Nude figure walk towards a changing hut. Right: a servant carries water to a bathing tub in which two people are sat

Bathing: MS Bodley 264, f. 75r

left: a horse-drawn card with barrels and shields in it. right: a large pot over a fire, two men roast meat above the fire

A horse-drawn cart and roasting carcasses on an open fire: MS Bodley 264, f. 83v

Many of the border images are wildly improbable and difficult to categorise. We leave the following to our readers to interpret.

left: nude figures carry a spear and approach a target. Right: a man bed over with robes raised. A woman kneels a short distance away from him and shields her eyes from the view using her hands

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 56r

A furry, horned beast is seated in a chair. The chair is being pulled, using ropes, by a man towards a castle

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 68r

left: a man holds a stick for a dog. Right: a king on hoseback charges at a stag. The stag has a maiden seated on his back. Behind the maiden a furry and bearded human figure is seated, he is raising a club towards the horserider

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 69v

Two bearded figure riding donkeys.

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 72v

left: a man carries a drum while two men hold open the kings cloak. Right; two men carry a pole between them, Another follows with a nude figure carried over his shoulder

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 74r

Lastly, there are the ever-popular vengeful rabbits.

Manuscript page. Miniature showing soldiers with raised swords fighting winged beasts. Marginalia showing rabbits, or hares, with weopans attacking humans

Alexander and his army fighting griffins; in the lower border, rabbits wreak revenge on humans: MS Bodley 264, f. 81v

You can see this manuscript for yourself in our Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition, until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or on the door (subject to availability).

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

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