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

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

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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

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29 January 2023

Locating the earthly paradise

Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by the serpent with a female torso; in the architectonic border is a scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v

As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers drawn on the central upper part of the Psalter Map.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r

The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.

Latin text of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies with a diagram of the T.O map: Asia at the top, 'Europa' on the lower left and Africa on the lower right.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v

Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Alexander visiting the gates of earthly paradise receiving a golden apple as a tribute.

Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r

According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.

An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:

‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,

Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –

For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’

(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)

Three lines from the Buik off King Allexander the Conqueroure, quoted in the blogpost text above in Scots.

Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).

Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise, an angel flies overhead.
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v

Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.

Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, 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.

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on @BLMedieval