Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

13 February 2023

Magic fountains and peacocks

One of the star objects in our current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is perhaps the most famous of all western manuscripts of the French Alexander Romance. Known as Bodley MS 264 from the collections of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, this is a large volume, packed with stories and pictures. Particularly famous for its magnificent cycle of illustrations, this manuscript also contains the most complete version of the Roman d’Alexandre, a rich catalogue of Alexander’s adventures on his journeys of conquest and exploration.

In one episode from the Roman d’Alexandre, the Greeks pass through a land with three wondrous springs that, in turn, restore lost youth, confer immortality and bring the dead back to life. Much to his annoyance, Alexander is unable to bathe in the second spring and achieve immortality because Enoch, one of his companions, finds it first. As punishment for using up the spring’s power, Alexander has Enoch imprisoned in a stone pillar until the end of time.

Four miniatures. Top left: the king and 4 others gathered around a table. Top right: a city being attacked. Bottom left: And army. Bottom right: A women in a tower

One of nine full-page miniatures of Alexander’s adventures, including the episode of the three magic springs on the lower right(Tournai, Flanders, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264, f. 67v

In addition to the myriad stories in the Roman d’Alexandre itself, further accounts of Alexander’s exploits, taken from the most diverse sources, are interpolated into the main text of this manuscript, and a sequel added. Here follows a list of the additional material.

Fuerre de Gadres ('The Foray of Gadres')

In this episode, a small troop of Greek soldiers steal cattle to feed the troops besieging Tyre. They are attacked by a superior force and fight valiantly until Alexander rescues them.

Three scenes. Top: Alexander, crowned and dressed in gold, orders his army towards the knights opposite; (middle) a battle scene, knights on horseback; (bottom) Alexander receiving a message that his men are in trouble

Three scenes in Fuerre de Gadres: (1) Alexander sends out his troops; (2) a battle at Tyre; (3) Alexander hears that his men are in trouble: Bodley MS 264, f. 21v

Prise de Defur ('The Capture of Defur')

In this chivalric exploit, Alexander answers a call for help by the knight, Gratien. He slays the evil Duke of Melcis and captures his city of Defur.

Four miniatures. Top left: men on horseback talking. Top right: men on foot talking in front of a city. Bottom left: two armoured knights jousting. Bottom right: two mounted knights, the left hand knight has had his helmet knocked off.

In the Prise de Defur, Alexander meets Gratien, before he defeating the Duke of Melcis in a tournament: Bodley MS 264, f. 101v

Voeux du paon ('The Vows of the Peacock')

A series of vows are taken over a peacock that is served at a banquet attended by Alexander. Nine knights vow to perform deeds of valour, and three maidens vow to find husbands of Alexander’s choice. The deeds are accomplished and the story ends with a celebration of the marriages.

Seven figures on a gold background. The figures are behind a dining table with a white cloth on it. There are 4 women, 3 men. The central figure wears a crown

Alexander at the banquet in the Voeux du Paon: Bodley MS 264, f. 163v

Le Restor du Paon

A continuation of the Voeux du Paon legend, in which a further vow to re-make the peacock in gold is taken, and a debate is held on the merits of the vows.

Manuscript page featuring a miniature in the top right. It shows four people gathered around a golden peacock which is perched atop a tall pillar

Two knights and two maidens with the golden peacock: Bodley MS 264, f. 182r

Voyage au Paradis terrestre ('The Journey to Paradise')

This episode is on display in our exhibition. Alexander journeys to the gates of Paradise but is forbidden entry despite his show of strength.

Five men, one carrying a raised sword, gather in front of a city

Alexander’s men at the gates of Paradise: Bodley MS 264, f. 186r

Vengeance Alexandre ('The Avenging of Alexander')

In this sequel to the Romance, Alexander’s son Alior plots his revenge on those responsible for his father’s death. Alior and Candace, his mother, destroy the supporters of the treacherous Antipater (who had poisoned Alexander) and his son.

Four miniature. Top left: people listening to a king speak. Top right: two figures approach a city. Bottom left: 7 men stand in a group. Bottom right: people listen to a king speak

Alexander’s family and companions plan their revenge after his death: Bodley MS 264, f. 196v

Also transmitted in Bodley MS 264 is a unique extract from the poem known as Alexander and Dindimus, and a copy of Marco Polo’s Voyages.

 Alexander and Didymus

A fragmentary alliterative poem in Middle English consisting of five letters between Alexander and Dindimus, King of the Gymnophysists, in which they discuss their ways of life. Alexander's excessive pride in worldly deeds is shown to be misguided.

Miniature showing two men, naked, each seated in a cave. The left hand figure wears a crown

Alexander and Didymus, seated naked in caves, discuss philosophy: Bodley MS 264, f.  211r


Marco Polo, Voyages

Busy City scene. Ships and swans are on the water

Marco Polo in the land of the Great Khan: Bodley MS 264, f. 218r

Don’t miss this fascinating manuscript in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, on display at the British Library 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.


Chantry Westwell

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