19 February 2023
The French Alexander Romance is a long and complex narrative, in which miraculous deeds and encounters at the edges of the known world are grafted onto the real journeys of conquest and exploration by the historical figure, Alexander the Great. This work was so popular in the 14th century that further imaginary exploits were invented to supplement it in various ways, as shown in our exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. One of these ‘spin-offs’, the Voeux du Paon (Vows of the Peacock), was composed in 1312 by Jacques de Longuyon, developing the medieval character of Alexander as a courtly figure, and inventing a new set of fictional companions for him.
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 action in the Voeux du Paon takes place during a short interlude in the city of Epheson (?Ephesus) on Alexander’s final journey to Babylon. Alexander meets an elderly knight, Cassamus, who asks for his help to relieve the city from a siege by the evil Clarus, king of Ind; Clarus wishes to kill the young princes of Epheson, Gadifer and Betis, and marry their sister, Lady Fesonas. During a battle outside the palace, Porrus, a young Indian prince fighting alongside Clarus, is captured and imprisoned in the Chamber of Venus at Epheson, where he is treated with courtesy by the young courtiers, joining in their games.
Porrus in the chamber of Venus with Fesonas and young companions at Epheson: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 264, f. 133v
While wandering through the palace gardens one day, Porrus mistakenly shoots Lady Fesonas’s pet peacock, but she forgives him. It is plucked, roasted and dressed, and a feast is arranged. Courtly vows are made over the peacock under the tutelage of Alexander, who is portrayed as a force for reconciliation between East and West. He organises a competition whereby the young men undertake feats of prowess and the ladies promise themselves in marriage to suitable candidates. The subsequent military and courtly exploits are described in some detail. In the course of these, the concept of the Nine Worthies, the nine greatest knights of all time, is introduced.
Alexander watches as Canans is unhorsed by Lyonies, in Les Voeux du Paon: Add MS 30864, f. 10v
Edeas, one the young courtiers, vows to reconstruct the peacock in gold (this sets the scene for an entire new Romance: the sequel known as the Restor du Paon, ‘The Peacock Restored’). Having arranged the marriages and enjoyed fifteen days of celebration, Alexander sets off for Babylon, where he is destined to die by poisoning.
Honouring the Golden Peacock (Paris, 1335–1340): Add MS 16888, f. 142r
The text of the Voeux du Paon was sometimes copied within or alongside the Alexander Romance, as is the case in a manuscript from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Bodley MS 264. There are also numerous independent copies of the text. It has been judged the ‘most successful of all Old French Alexander poems’ by the scholar, David Ross, with over 40 manuscripts surviving from across Europe, many of them richly illustrated and owned by important collectors like the Dukes of Burgundy.
Alexander at the banquet of the Voeux du Paon: Bodley MS 264, f. 146v
In 1381 a banquet was held at the court of Aragon in Spain, where vows were taken over a peacock, while in 1454 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, held a banquet at Lille, known as the Banquet du Faisan (Pheasant). These somewhat bizarre princely rituals involving roast poultry (albeit of the luxury variety) were probably inspired by the Alexander/Peacock legend.
Courtly pursuits in Epheson: Bodley MS 264, f. 127v
In the sequel romance Restor du Paon ('The Peacock Restored'), Edeas re-creates the peacock in gold and jewels and Alexander bestows a prize on Betis, the most worthy of the men. A second sequel, the Parfait du Paon (‘The Peacock completed’), has Alexander taking part in a literary contest by composing ballads.
Goldsmiths at work on the peacock: Bodley MS 264, f. 164v
And this was not the only ‘sequel’ to trade on the popularity of the Alexander Romance in the 14th and 15th centuries. Characters from the Peacock cycle, including Betis and Gadifer, reappear in Perceforest, a tale that supposedly takes place in pre-Arthurian Britain. Taking a detour by ship while on his journey to Babylon, Alexander is blown off course by a storm and (with a certain geographical licence) lands in the British Isles, where he founds a new dynasty and invents the medieval tournament.
A tournament in ancient Britain, in Perceforest (Bruges, c. 1500): Royal MS 19 E II, f.305r
You can learn more about the Alexander Romance on our website: 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.
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