The Legend of Troy in Medieval Manuscripts
Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are two superb images of the legend of Troy in medieval manuscripts from our collections – Stowe MS 54 and Harley MS 4376 – both shown below. We thought this would be a good opportunity to re-discover how the familiar stories of the Greek and Trojan wars, the abduction of Helen by Paris, the Trojan horse and the Odyssey were viewed in the Middle Ages.
The Greeks attacking Troy from the Sea, with the Greek and Trojan soldiers equipped as medieval chivalric knights from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, France (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v-83r
History mingled with chivalric romance was a very popular subject with medieval aristocrats, and they were fascinated by accounts of the heroes of ancient world, some of whom were real, like Alexander the Great, some fictional, like Oedipus and Ulysses. Fact and legend became entangled in works such as the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César, an account of the history of the ancient world from Genesis to the Roman empire, including the stories of Jason and the Golden Fleece, tales of Thebes and the adventures of Aeneas.
Paris and Helen meeting Priam outside Troy from the ‘Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne’, France, N. W. (Normandy, Rouen), 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 4376, f. 90r
The later Chronique d’Histoire Ancienne or Chronique de la Bouquechardière was written by the Norman knight Jean de Courcy just after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V.
Theseus and Hercules jousting against the two sisters of Queen Antiope, from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), before 1291, Add MS 15268, f. 103r
The British Library has nine out of a total of almost forty surviving manuscripts of the different versions of the Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César. The work was first compiled and adapted from Latin into French in the early thirteenth century. One of the earliest copies in our collections was made in the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, perhaps for Henry II de Lusignan as a gift for his coronation in 1286. Medieval knights far from home in the Holy Land must have identified with these ancient heroes and studied the accounts of their military campaigns. This glorious image on a gold background shows Theseus and Hercules jousting against women. Yes, two of our most illustrious ancient heroes took on Queen Antiope and the Amazon women in order to seize the royal girdle. They arrived with nine warships and captured two of Antiope’s sisters, Melanippe and Hippolyte, along with the girdle.
Detail of a column miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy, with the rubric 'Ci commance la vraie hystoire de troies' from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France (Paris), 1340-1350, Add MS 12029, f. 22v
A version of the text omitting Genesis and beginning with the history of King Ninus and Queen Semiramis of Persia was copied in Paris about 50 years later, and contains 46 framed miniatures by four different artists. This image is at the beginning of the Troy legend, and shows the Greeks attacking Troy for the first time.
Detail of a four-part miniature of (1) the death of Hector, (2) Achilles and Polyxena on Hector's grave, (3) Achilles with Hecuba in the temple, and (4) the death of Achilles, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, France, N., 1250-1275, Add MS 19669, f. 84r
The earliest French Histoire Ancienne manuscript in our collections – Add MS 19669 – was made in Northern France in the mid-thirteenth century. It contains a series of miniatures in three or four parts, including this one of the deaths of Hector and Achilles. In the first scene (top left), Hector, the Trojan prince, is killed by the Greek hero Achilles as he bends to retrieve a jewelled helmet from a fallen knight; in the second (bottom left), Achilles visits Hector's grave, catches sight of Hector’s sister, Polyxena, and falls in love; in the third (top right), Hecuba tricks Achilles into coming to the Trojan temple to marry Polyxena; finally (bottom right), he is killed by Paris, Hector’s brother.
Miniature of the Sack of Troy, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 169r
Different scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey are portrayed in a series of tinted drawings and illuminations in a copy of a later version of the text of the Histoire ancienne – Royal MS 20 D I – produced by Italian artists for the French monarchs of the house of Anjou, who ruled Naples from 1266-1435. The Trojan Horse is shown in this extravagant full-page depiction of the sack of Troy, reminiscent of a large wall-painting. The 297 images are all available online in Digitised Manuscripts.
Detail of a bas-de-page miniature of Ulysses in Crete, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César’, Naples, 1330-1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f.181v
Here, Ulysses is shown arriving in Crete on his homeward journey from Troy, as related in the accompanying text, though this is not in the original version of the Odyssey.
Do you have any favourite scenes from these manuscripts? Let us know on Twitter @BLMedieval!
- Chantry Westwell