05 February 2023
Magnificent margins in the Alexander Romance
One of the greatest achievements of medieval manuscript illumination, as well as one of the highlights of the British Library’s current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is the Bodleian Library's MS Bodley 264. Completed in Tournai (modern-day Belgium) in 1344, it contains the fullest version of the interpolated Old French Roman d'Alexandre, with some of the most vivid illustrations in any medieval romance. Perhaps most well-known are the border illustrations, remarkable for their panorama of medieval society and fantastic imagination.
Alexander’s campaigns against Darius, with musicians, jongleurs and archers in the upper and lower borders (Tournai, Flanders, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS Bodley 264, f. 51v
Alexander’s companions dance and make merry, with musical notation; in the lower border figures in chivalric dress with animal heads dance a carole with maidens: MS Bodley 264, f. 181v
Sometimes the subjects in the borders mirror the action in the Alexander stories, but mostly there is little or no connection. The subjects vary from medieval sports and games to daily activities like cooking and bathing, to sport and entertainment.
Romantic interludes in the border: MS Bodley 264, f. 76v
Alexander’s army is attacked by ‘ypopatamos’; beneath, a dog chases a stag and people watch a puppet show remarkably like Punch and Judy: MS Bodley 264, f. 54v
Children walking on stilts: MS Bodley 264, f. 65r
A youth with a pipe and a drum plays to a pantomime stag with pointed slippers on its hind feet; a mother calls two children to watch: MS Bodley 264, f. 70r
Blind men being led to a yard, where they try to kill a pig with clubs: MS Bodley 264, f. 74v
Bathing: MS Bodley 264, f. 75r
A horse-drawn cart and roasting carcasses on an open fire: MS Bodley 264, f. 83v
Many of the border images are wildly improbable and difficult to categorise. We leave the following to our readers to interpret.
Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 56r
Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 68r
Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 69v
Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 72v
Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 74r
Lastly, there are the ever-popular vengeful rabbits.
Alexander and his army fighting griffins; in the lower border, rabbits wreak revenge on humans: MS Bodley 264, f. 81v
You can see this manuscript for yourself in our Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition, until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or on the door (subject to availability).
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.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval