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