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17 February 2023

Alexander, a medieval super-hero

Alexander the Great is a hero who transcends time and space, as our wonderful exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, demonstrates. In the Middle Ages, he was revered as a member of the Nine Worthies (Neuf Preux), a select group of illustrious heroes who represented the pinnacle of glory, courage and military leadership. The French word preux translates into English as ‘worthies’ but it is related to prouesse, equivalent to ‘prowess’ or ‘valour’. This virtue encompasses a host of chivalric qualities that were first associated with Olivier, hero of the French national epic, the Chanson de Roland.

An army marches out of a castle behind their king. A trumpeter leads the procession

Alexander leading his army, in the Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1445) Royal MS 15 E VI f. 9r

The Nine Worthies are divided into three groups, each containing three famous men. The first group comprises three classical or ‘pagan’ heroes, among them Alexander the Great.

Classical Heroes: Alexander, Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar

Coronation scene. A man wearing red robes and fur is seated on a throne as two bishops lowers a crown onto his head

The coronation of Alexander the Great, in Le livre et le vraye histoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 14r          

Horseriders meet, most are wearing armour, the man without armour wears a crown, a white dog plays by the feet of the horses.    An army of mounted knights moves through a landscape of cliffs. They are led over a river. One knight is on the bridge. Another has already crossed.

Hector with Priam, in L'Épître Othéa (Paris, c. 1410): Harley MS 4431, f. 136 

Julius Caesar leading his army, in Bellum Gallicum (Lille or Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 147v

The second group is made up of three biblical heroes from the Old Testament.

Old Testament Kings: Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus

A man in armour kneels in prayer. His helmet is on the grass in front of him. He holds a spear, the top of which is behind held by a depiction of God A crowd watched a coronation taking place of a raised stage. The king kneels as two other lower a crown onto his head An army capturing a prisoner. A city in the background

Joshua receiving a lance from God, in Bible moralisée (Bruges, c. 1455): Add MS 15248, f. 54v

Coronation of David, in ‘Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile’ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 124r

Judas Maccabeus capturing a city, in Bible Historiale (Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 15 D I, f. 134r

The third group consists of Christian monarchs, including more contemporary figures.

Medieval Christian monarchs: Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon, the crusader king

Man wearing red robes, holding an orb and septre and wearing a crown rides into a city Two armies on horseback charge at each other. A man wearing a crown and holding a sword sits on a chair with a blue canopy behind it. Seven people are gathered around him
Arthur at Camelot, in Guiron le Courtois (Napes, c. 1360): Add MS 12228, f. 221v Charlemagne leading his army, in the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 181v Godfrey in his palace, in Histoire de Godefroy, roy de Jerusalem (Bruges, late 15th century): Royal MS 17 F V, f. 3r

All nine exceptional characters were endowed with the attributes of a perfect medieval knight, as portrayed in these manuscript illuminations.

The earliest written description of the Nine Worthies is in Jacques de Longuyon’s Voeux du Paon, a French legend of the late 14th century linked to the Alexander Romance. Allegedly, while on a detour from Alexander’s final journey to Babylon, his young companions took the ‘Vows of the Peacock’ at a feast where roast peacock was served. By fulfilling these vows, they attempted to live up to the exceptional deeds of the nine greatest heroes of all time: ‘les ix millors qui fussent puis le commandement que Diex ot fait le ciel et la terre et le vent’ ('the nine best of all, since the sky, the earth and the wind were created by God’s commandment'). 

Eight figures behind a banqueting table. They are talking in pairs. A woman carries in a platter with a peacock on it

The roast peacock is brought to the table and vows are made, in Les Voeux du Paon (?England, c. 1390–1400): Add MS 30864, f. 1r

The deeds of each hero are listed, including those of Alexander, who is praised for his victories and conquests.

Apres fu Alixandres preus merveilleusement

 Il vainqui Nicholas et Dairon le persant

Et occist la vermine des desers d’Oriant

Il saisi Babyloine la fort cite plaisant

Ou il morut apres par empoisounement

En xii an il conquist tres viguereusement

Quanques on puet conquerre desous le firmament

'Then there was Alexander, marvellously valiant

He defeated Nicholas and Darius the Persian

And killed the vermin of the deserts of the Orient

And captured Babylon, that most pleasant city

Where he died afterwards by poisoning

In 12 years he strenuously conquered

As much as can be conquered under heaven.'

(Transcription based on Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 264 and Paul Meyer ‘Les Neuf Preux’ (1883); my translation.)

An army use tools to break snow and ice in order to cross a frozen river

Alexander and his army crossing a frozen river in Persia, in Des faiz du grant Alexandre (Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 15 D IV, f. 101v 

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the concept of the Nine Worthies spread throughout Europe. Tapestries were made for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and the Duc de Berry, and pageants and parades on this theme were staged to mark important occasions. Panel paintings, medallions and engravings survive, and coats of arms were attributed to each of the heroes. 

Nine coats of arms arranged in three rows of three

The arms of the Nine Worthies (late 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Later, nine ‘most illustrious ladies’ were chosen to be placed alongside the famous men. One of these, Penthesilea of the Amazons, is reported to have met Alexander. (You can read more about them in our blogpost on the Nine Worthy Women.)

A King, wearing a crown, is seated on a throne. A group of women are led by their Queen toward him. The Queen wears a crown and is holding up keys to the king

Queen Penthesilea and the Amazons surrendering to Alexander the Great, in Histoire universelle (Acre, late 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 203r

You can see this depiction of Queen Penthesilea and much more in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. The show ends soon, on 19 February, so don't delay!

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

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