Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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.

Four miniatures. The top two both show armies on horseback. The lower left shows an army on horseback. The lower right shows a city under attack

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

Manuscript page. Two miniature. Left: a group of people holding hands in a circle. Right: six people standing in conversation, the central figure has a golden bird perched on his forearm

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.

Left: a couple kiss. Right: a couple sit with a box between them

Romantic interludes in the border: MS Bodley 264, f. 76v

Miniature showing men in armour being eaten by sea monsters

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

Two children walking on wooden stilts

Children walking on stilts: MS Bodley 264, f. 65r

A man plays on a drum. A stag stands before him. Right: a woman gestures towards to children

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

Left: blind men holding each others shoulders as they are led by a child. Right: the blind men have clubs, one has been hit on the head by another while the wild boar remains unharmed

Blind men being led to a yard, where they try to kill a pig with clubs: MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

Nude figure walk towards a changing hut. Right: a servant carries water to a bathing tub in which two people are sat

Bathing: MS Bodley 264, f. 75r

left: a horse-drawn card with barrels and shields in it. right: a large pot over a fire, two men roast meat above the fire

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.

left: nude figures carry a spear and approach a target. Right: a man bed over with robes raised. A woman kneels a short distance away from him and shields her eyes from the view using her hands

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 56r

A furry, horned beast is seated in a chair. The chair is being pulled, using ropes, by a man towards a castle

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 68r

left: a man holds a stick for a dog. Right: a king on hoseback charges at a stag. The stag has a maiden seated on his back. Behind the maiden a furry and bearded human figure is seated, he is raising a club towards the horserider

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 69v

Two bearded figure riding donkeys.

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 72v

left: a man carries a drum while two men hold open the kings cloak. Right; two men carry a pole between them, Another follows with a nude figure carried over his shoulder

Border image: MS Bodley 264, f. 74r

Lastly, there are the ever-popular vengeful rabbits.

Manuscript page. Miniature showing soldiers with raised swords fighting winged beasts. Marginalia showing rabbits, or hares, with weopans attacking humans

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.


Chantry Westwell

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