Medieval manuscripts blog

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173 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

08 March 2024

Medieval Women exhibition

We have some exciting news — pass it on! In October 2024, our major exhibition Medieval Women: In Their Own Words opens at the British Library in London. The exhibition will explore the challenges, achievements and daily lives of women in Europe from 1100 to 1500. It will tell the history of medieval women through their own words and uncover their lives through manuscripts, documents and artefacts.

Women’s lives during the Middle Ages were rich and varied. The exhibition will reveal that women exerted great influence across private, public and spiritual realms. It will delve into the lived experiences of medieval women, including their beauty regimes and healthcare, their personal relationships and the running of their homes. It will shed light on their work in a wide variety of trades and professions, their role in medieval politics, the power and influence they wielded as spiritual visionaries or nuns, and the art, music and literature that they created.

Medieval illustration of a group of women in a richly decorated room. Christine de Pizan, dressed in blue, kneels on the ground and offers a large red book to Isabeau, dressed in pink and seated on a sofa
Christine de Pizan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, in the Book of the Queen, France, c. 1410-1414: Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Visitors will discover objects related to inspiring figures such as: Joan of Arc, the religious visionary and military leader; Christine de Pizan, the first professional woman author in Europe; and Shajar Al-Durr, the female ruler of Egypt who defeated Louis IX of France in the Seventh Crusade.

The exhibition will take visitors on a journey through the lives of medieval women across cultures, religions and class. Exploring both their struggles and successes, the exhibition prompts visitors to discover how medieval women’s voices still resonate across the centuries and speak powerfully to our world today.

Medieval illustration of a woman scattering food from a bowl, feeding a very large chicken and its chicks
A woman feeding chickens, in the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340: Add MS 42130, f.166v

Medieval Women: In Their Own Words is on show at the British Library from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025. Keep checking this blog for more information about the exhibition and our events programme, as well as details of when tickets will go on sale. 

This exhibition is made possible with support from Joanna and Graham Barker, Unwin Charitable Trust, and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts: a donor advised fund held at the London Community Foundation.

Follow us @BLMedieval

 

19 February 2023

Alexander, Porrus and the peacock

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.

Eight figures behind a banqueting table. They are talking in pairs. A woman carries in a platter with a peacock on it

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.

Bodleian-Library-MS-Bodl-264_00288_fol-133v_reduced

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.

Two knights jousting, the one of the right hand side is being knocked off his horse

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. 

A group of people are standing around a raised pillar upon which is perched a golden peacock

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.

Eight figures behind a banqueting table. They are talking in pairs. A woman carries in a platter with a peacock on it
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.

Bodleian-Library-MS-Bodl-264_00276_fol-127v_reduced

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. 

People at work with hammers, anvils, tools, furnaces

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.

Manuscript page. Miniature in top write shows women watching from stands while two knights fight on horseback with swords

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.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 February 2023

Alexander, a medieval super-hero

Alexander the Great is a hero who transcends time and space, as our wonderful exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, demonstrates. In the Middle Ages, he was revered as a member of the Nine Worthies (Neuf Preux), a select group of illustrious heroes who represented the pinnacle of glory, courage and military leadership. The French word preux translates into English as ‘worthies’ but it is related to prouesse, equivalent to ‘prowess’ or ‘valour’. This virtue encompasses a host of chivalric qualities that were first associated with Olivier, hero of the French national epic, the Chanson de Roland.

An army marches out of a castle behind their king. A trumpeter leads the procession

Alexander leading his army, in the Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1445) Royal MS 15 E VI f. 9r

The Nine Worthies are divided into three groups, each containing three famous men. The first group comprises three classical or ‘pagan’ heroes, among them Alexander the Great.

Classical Heroes: Alexander, Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar

Coronation scene. A man wearing red robes and fur is seated on a throne as two bishops lowers a crown onto his head

The coronation of Alexander the Great, in Le livre et le vraye histoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 14r          

Horseriders meet, most are wearing armour, the man without armour wears a crown, a white dog plays by the feet of the horses.    An army of mounted knights moves through a landscape of cliffs. They are led over a river. One knight is on the bridge. Another has already crossed.

Hector with Priam, in L'Épître Othéa (Paris, c. 1410): Harley MS 4431, f. 136 

Julius Caesar leading his army, in Bellum Gallicum (Lille or Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 147v

The second group is made up of three biblical heroes from the Old Testament.

Old Testament Kings: Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus

A man in armour kneels in prayer. His helmet is on the grass in front of him. He holds a spear, the top of which is behind held by a depiction of God A crowd watched a coronation taking place of a raised stage. The king kneels as two other lower a crown onto his head An army capturing a prisoner. A city in the background

Joshua receiving a lance from God, in Bible moralisée (Bruges, c. 1455): Add MS 15248, f. 54v

Coronation of David, in ‘Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile’ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 124r

Judas Maccabeus capturing a city, in Bible Historiale (Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 15 D I, f. 134r

The third group consists of Christian monarchs, including more contemporary figures.


Medieval Christian monarchs: Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon, the crusader king

Man wearing red robes, holding an orb and septre and wearing a crown rides into a city Two armies on horseback charge at each other. A man wearing a crown and holding a sword sits on a chair with a blue canopy behind it. Seven people are gathered around him
Arthur at Camelot, in Guiron le Courtois (Napes, c. 1360): Add MS 12228, f. 221v Charlemagne leading his army, in the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 181v Godfrey in his palace, in Histoire de Godefroy, roy de Jerusalem (Bruges, late 15th century): Royal MS 17 F V, f. 3r

All nine exceptional characters were endowed with the attributes of a perfect medieval knight, as portrayed in these manuscript illuminations.

The earliest written description of the Nine Worthies is in Jacques de Longuyon’s Voeux du Paon, a French legend of the late 14th century linked to the Alexander Romance. Allegedly, while on a detour from Alexander’s final journey to Babylon, his young companions took the ‘Vows of the Peacock’ at a feast where roast peacock was served. By fulfilling these vows, they attempted to live up to the exceptional deeds of the nine greatest heroes of all time: ‘les ix millors qui fussent puis le commandement que Diex ot fait le ciel et la terre et le vent’ ('the nine best of all, since the sky, the earth and the wind were created by God’s commandment'). 

Eight figures behind a banqueting table. They are talking in pairs. A woman carries in a platter with a peacock on it

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 deeds of each hero are listed, including those of Alexander, who is praised for his victories and conquests.

Apres fu Alixandres preus merveilleusement

 Il vainqui Nicholas et Dairon le persant

Et occist la vermine des desers d’Oriant

Il saisi Babyloine la fort cite plaisant

Ou il morut apres par empoisounement

En xii an il conquist tres viguereusement

Quanques on puet conquerre desous le firmament

'Then there was Alexander, marvellously valiant

He defeated Nicholas and Darius the Persian

And killed the vermin of the deserts of the Orient

And captured Babylon, that most pleasant city

Where he died afterwards by poisoning

In 12 years he strenuously conquered

As much as can be conquered under heaven.'

(Transcription based on Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 264 and Paul Meyer ‘Les Neuf Preux’ (1883); my translation.)

An army use tools to break snow and ice in order to cross a frozen river

Alexander and his army crossing a frozen river in Persia, in Des faiz du grant Alexandre (Bruges, c. 1475): Royal MS 15 D IV, f. 101v 

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the concept of the Nine Worthies spread throughout Europe. Tapestries were made for Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and the Duc de Berry, and pageants and parades on this theme were staged to mark important occasions. Panel paintings, medallions and engravings survive, and coats of arms were attributed to each of the heroes. 

Nine coats of arms arranged in three rows of three

The arms of the Nine Worthies (late 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Later, nine ‘most illustrious ladies’ were chosen to be placed alongside the famous men. One of these, Penthesilea of the Amazons, is reported to have met Alexander. (You can read more about them in our blogpost on the Nine Worthy Women.)

A King, wearing a crown, is seated on a throne. A group of women are led by their Queen toward him. The Queen wears a crown and is holding up keys to the king

Queen Penthesilea and the Amazons surrendering to Alexander the Great, in Histoire universelle (Acre, late 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 203r

You can see this depiction of Queen Penthesilea and much more in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. The show ends soon, on 19 February, so don't delay!

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 February 2023

Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door

The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, showcases how stories about this ancient ruler were transformed and spread across centuries, cultures and languages. Some of these legends take Alexander to the unknown realms of the world, to face fantastic beasts, amazing people and terrifying monsters. But one story takes him even further — to the gates of Paradise.

5 men stand in front of the walls to a city. One man carries a sword

Alexander’s army at the gates of Paradise, in Voyage au paradis terrestre, interpolated in the Roman d’Alexandre (Tournai, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264, f. 185v (detail).

Put together around AD 500 by the most eminent Jewish scholars of the time, the Babylonian Talmud is the most important source of rabbinic code in Judaism. It collects the replies and statements of prominent Jewish rabbis about various issues and questions. One of these (Tractate Tamid 32b) records the following story.

In the course of his adventures in the mythical East, Alexander reached the entrance of the Garden of Eden and raised a loud voice, calling out: “Open the gate for me!” The sentry of the Garden of Eden said to him: “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter into it. Since you are not righteous, you may not enter.” He said to them: "If I will not be admitted, at least give me something from inside." They gave him one eyeball. He brought it and he weighed all the gold and silver that he had against the eyeball, and yet the riches did not balance against the eyeball’s greater weight. He said to his philosophers: "What is this? Why does this eyeball outweigh everything?" They said: "It is the eyeball of a mortal person of flesh and blood, which is not satisfied ever." He said to them: "From where do you know that this is the reason for the unbalanced scale?" The philosophers answered him: "Take a small amount of dirt and cover the eye." He did so, and it was immediately balanced by its proper counterweight. The eye is never satisfied while it can see.

Black and white text in Hebrew
The Hebrew version of Alexander’s visit to Paradise from the Talmud (Tamid 62b), Babylonian Talmud (20 volumes), Nehardea edition, published by Vagshal (Jerusalem, 1988)

This allegorical story of human greed, first recorded in the Talmud, became very popular in Jewish culture and started a life of its own, spreading even beyond Judaism. In the 12th century, it appears in an interesting Latin narrative which, according to its title, was translated from Hebrew by a certain Rabbi Salomon and spread quickly in medieval western Europe. During the translation process, the original concept of an eyeball given to Alexander was transformed into a miraculous stone that outweighed everything but, if covered with dust, was lighter than anything else. The general morale of the Hebrew story also became simple and clearer. In Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum (Alexander’s journey to Paradise) the philosophers simply tell Alexander, “The stone is you, your majesty”.

Turned into another gloomy premonition of Alexander’s upcoming death and the collapse of his empire, the Latin story was soon incorporated into various medieval versions of the Alexander Romance. It appears in one of the most famous medieval manuscripts of the Alexander Romance in the Bodleian Library, incorporated in the French Roman d’Alexandre, with exquisite illustrations depicting Alexander’s army in front of the gates of Paradise and the measure and assessment of the wondrous stone.

Two miniatures. Left: men stand in discussion in front of sealed gates. Right: four men report to a fifith who wears a crown

The guardian of paradise gifts the wonderstone to Alexander’s army (left); Alexander and his philosophers assess it (right): Bodley MS 264, f. 186r (detail)

Transmitted in the French Roman d’Alexandre, the story was further adapted in other prose and poetic retellings of Alexander’s legends. In the 16th-century Scots version of the Alexander Romance by Gilbert Hay, the mysterious gift Alexander receives from Paradise is transformed into a miraculous apple that changes colour and outweighs everything else, but becomes incredibly light-weighted when covered in clay. The changing colour of the apple and the shifting of its weight are both premonitions to Alexander that he should “think that þow has schorte tyme for to liff…”

Handwritten text in scots language

Alexander receives the miraculous apple from Paradise, in tGilbert Hay, The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

The incredible journey of the story of Alexander’s failed attempt to visit Paradise from 6th-century Hebrew sources through Latin adaptations and medieval vernacular legends is just one of the many legends are featured in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. You can visit in person until 19th February 2023 or explore more online at 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.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 February 2023

Alexander the Great: a life in pictures

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Royal MS 15 E VI) is a remarkable work of art produced in Rouen in the mid-15th century. Comprising 15 texts, mostly legends and chansons de geste in French, it begins with the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Roman d’Alexandre en prose.

A landscape with a castle and a city, a stream and waterwheels in the foreground.  In the city, a king and courtiers are shown in a throne room; a windmill on a hill and starry sky in the background.

Nectanebus enthroned in his palace at Babylon, with the ‘chastel du chaire (Cairo)’, the ‘jardin du baulme’, and waterwheels on the stream: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 4v

The glorious frontispiece of this manuscript shows the Egyptian pharoah, Nectanebo, enthroned in his magnificent palace in the midst of the fairy-tale landscape of Babylon. This the first of 82 miniatures illustrating the life of Alexander the Great. The border contains the arms of Margaret of Anjou, the future wife of King Henry VI of England, and the arms of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who presented this manuscript to her.

According to legend, Nectanebo seduced Alexander’s mother, Olympias, taking the form of the god Ammon while her husband Philip was away.

A naked man and woman embrace in a bed with a canopy; a dragon stands at the foot of the bed, watching

Nectanebo and Olympias lying naked in bed, watched by a dragon, which represents Nectanebo in disguise: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r

Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, appointed as his tutor the famous scientist and philosopher, Aristotle, who instructed him on topics ranging from astrology and alchemy to statecraft and ethics. They then corresponded while Alexander was on his travels.

A king and a young boy present books to a seated scholar with an open book; two courtiers stand behind the king

Philip taking the young Alexander to Aristotle: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v

As a young man, Alexander formed a bond with an extraordinary stallion who was to accompany him to the ends of the world. Bucephalus, whose name means ‘ox-horned’, was so violent that he was locked in a cage, but he recognised his true master in Alexander, who was immediately able to subdue him.

A young man talks to a horse lying in a cage; he leads the horse and kneels before an enthroned king, who holds out his hand

Alexander tames Bucephalus, and is granted ownership of the proud stallion by his father, Philip: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7r

Alexander was crowned King of Macedon in 336 BC after the assassination of his father. He immediately set off on his journey of conquest across Asia.

A king seated on a throne in ermine robes holds and orb and is crowned by two bishops; he is surrounded by courtiers in  a palace.

The coronation of Alexander by two bishops: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7v

Three sailing ships at sea with Alexander and his army aboard; an army of knights led by a king (Alexander) and a trumpeter ride out from a city

Alexander's army marching and  at sea: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 9r

In time, Alexander founded more than 20 cities which took his name, including Alexandria in Egypt.

A king (Alexander) instructs men who are cutting stones and building a city with towers

Alexander at the building of Alexandria: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 9v

He defeated King Darius of Persia, taking control of this vast empire and, according to some accounts, marrying his daughter, Roxana.

A battle between two armies of knights with standards and trumpets; bodies lie on the ground A crowned king and queen are seated together in a palace holding hands

The battle with Darius and Alexander’s marriage to Roxana: Royal MS 15 E VI, ff. 12r, 13v

Alexander marched on to India, defeating the ruler, Porus, and exploring the far reaches of this wonderful region. According to the legends, there he met the famous female warriors, the Amazons, besides battling flying dragons and beasts and encountering many strange creatures and peoples.

An army of men and women on horseback meet; knights on horseback with spears, led by a king (Alexander) confront flying dragons (above) and three crab-like creatures (below)

The Queen of the Amazons meeting Alexander; Alexander battling flying dragons and beasts; Alexander and crab-like creatures: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 15v

As Alexander’s power increased, he became obsessed with his own mortality, seeking comfort from various oracles. In a frequently illustrated episode, he was taken to a sanctuary of the Sun and the Moon, where two trees, one male (Sun) and the other female (Moon), prophesied his death in Babylon.

Alexander with others behind, kneels before a figure in robes, who is talking to him; behind are two trees, one with a sun and one with a moon among the branches; a large bird perches in a leafless tree between them

Alexander and the soothsayer at the trees of the Sun and Moon: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v

Determined to explore the outer reaches of the world, Alexander used griffins to ascend into the skies and a diving bell to explore the depths of the ocean.

Four griffins lift a wooden cage with Alexander seated inside into a starry sky, while people watch from a landscape below.  Two figures in a boat with flags lower a barrel containing Alexander on chains into the sea, with large fish swimming about

Alexander’s flight with griffins, and his submarine adventure: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

Alexander on a white horse, meets people with faces in their chests and horse-like creatures (left); a white horse is buried in a tomb outside a city; Alexander and elephants are present; Alexander stands before two sick people with birds perched on their beds; Alexander on a white horse meets a man with beasts and a dragon

Alexander meets blemmyae and horse-like creatures; the burial of Bucephalus; Alexander sees caladrius birds with sick people; a two-headed serpent, elephants and other beasts: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 21v

Having arrived at the ocean, Alexander’s men were exhausted. They turned towards home, finally reaching the city of Babylon, where they were presented with an ill omen, a child with the legs of a wild beast, which foretold Alexander’s death.  According to legend, he was given a poisoned drink at a banquet.

Having bid farewell to his men, who filed past his deathbed, Alexander died shortly afterwards and was buried in a golden sarcophagus, whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

Alexander and a queen are seated at a table laid with a feast and a figure kneels, presenting a goblet  Alexander is ill in bed with a man in attendance; two figures place his body in a coffin in a room; outside a king and other figures talk (right)

Alexander is served a poisoned drink at a feast in Babylon: his death and burial: Royal MS 15 E VI, ff. 22v, 23v

In the battle over Alexander’s succession, his mother Olympias was captured by Cassander, who seized the crown by having Alexander’s son murdered. Olympias was cruelly put to death, denied burial and her body left out to be devoured by dogs and birds, as described and illustrated on the final page of the Alexander legend in this manuscript.

Outside a city, two dogs bite a woman’s head which is severed from her body, and another bites her neck, with blood spurting rom it; a man enters the city gate

The death of Olympias, with her corpse eaten by dogs: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 24v

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book can be seen in our Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition 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

Follow us on Twitter at @BLMedieval

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

Follow us on Twitter at @BLMedieval

12 February 2023

Mermaids, sirens and Alexander the Great

What's the difference between a mermaid and a siren? This isn't a trick question, but a conundrum that can occur when describing certain mythical creatures. Sirens are usually deadly creatures associated with enchanting melodies, whereas mermaids or merpeople are not threatening on the whole. Ariel, in the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid (1989), based on the classic fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is not a harmful creature, but a young mermaid who wishes to become human and join our world above water.

Sirens, on the other hand, have different intentions. One of the oldest legends of sirens comes from ancient Greek mythology. In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, Circe warned Odysseus of the sirens he would encounter on his sea journey back to Ithaca. Odysseus followed Circe's advice and managed to resist the sirens' charms by plugging his sailors’ ears with beeswax. But Odysseus still wished to hear the sirens’ beautiful melody, and so he tied himself to the ship's mast to stop himself being lured by the sirens and turning off course into their shallow, rocky waters.

Two sirens attacking the sleeping crew of a ship. One siren is half-human, half-fish whilst the other siren is half-human, half-bird.

Two sirens attacking the sleeping crew of the ship, in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, 1310–1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 97r

Sirens and mermaids also appear in legends about Alexander the Great. The fantastical elements of Alexander’s life stemmed from the tradition of the Greek Alexander Romance attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes, translated and re-worked into many different languages during the Middle Ages. According to these popular legends, during his conquest Alexander and his soldiers came across a river full of reeds, where they discovered beautiful women with long hair down to their ankles. Unfortunately, the Macedonian conqueror soon discovered that these women were not as friendly as they first seemed, since they dragged some of his soldiers underwater, embracing them until they drowned, as illustrated in this French version of the Alexander Romance.

Alexander encountering naked women living in water. Depicted amongst the reeds is a woman pulling a man on top of her in an embrace.

Alexander encountering women living in the water (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 68r

A similar episode appears in our Alexander exhibition in a manuscript on loan from the National Library of Wales, preserving a version of the Historia de preliis in which Alexander’s soldiers managed to capture two sirens above water.

Alexander’s soldiers capture naked women with long hair by the river.

Alexander’s men encountering the sirens (England, 15th century) Aberystwyth, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Peniarth MS 481D, f. 90r

In some versions of the legends, Alexander and his soldiers also encountered a population of merpeople, naked humans who lived permanently in the sea, but were not violent or harmful to Alexander and his soldiers.

Three naked people stand in a river among reeds. Alexander and his soldiers observe from their riverbanks on horseback.

Miniature of Alexander encountering men and women living in the water (Rouen, c. 1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20r

The similar appearances and habitats of sirens and merpeople can make it tricky for adventurers to discern whether water-living humans are friend or foe. At one point during his ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante Alighieri’s protagonist of the Divina Commedia is lured by a siren in a dream; it does not have a hybrid body, but appears as a beautiful woman, fully human, and singing. The poet describes how the woman’s decaying features turn beautiful as the pilgrim gazes upon her, and she starts to sing her melody. Fortunately, Dante is saved from the siren’s charm by Beatrice, who rips the siren’s clothes to reveal a horrible stench from her body, breaking her captivating spell.

Dante asleep, with the naked siren standing next to him. Dante appears again standing to the right of the siren and next to Beatrice. An angel dressed in green flies above them.

Dante’s encounter with the two Slothful and the Siren (Tuscany, c. 1444–1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 98v

As we have seen, sirens have encompassed various forms. Classical tradition depicts them as part-woman and part-bird. During the Middle Ages, they also start to adopt a fish-like hybridity due to their association with water, or sometimes they have no obvious animal qualities like the sirens of the Alexander legends and the Commedia.

In bestiaries, sirens often appear accompanied by an illustration portraying their deceptive behaviour. In the example below, a siren is depicted alongside another hybrid creature, namely a centaur. In this illustration, one of the sailors plugs his ear in a similar manner to the sailors in the Odyssey, to block out the sound of the siren’s charm. Sadly, it's too late for his shipmate, who is already being pulled by his hair into the sea, entranced by the siren's beauty and her melody.

A siren, depicted as a woman with a fish tail, pulls a sailor from a boat. Another sailor stops his ears to avoid hearing the siren's song. A centaur holds a bow on the lower right.

Miniature of a siren pulling a sailor from a boat, next to a centaur (Northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 47r

Mermaids and sirens also frequently appear in the margins of Psalters as symbols of temptation. In the Luttrell Psalter a siren holds a mirror and a comb, perhaps as a warning against the lure of vanity and luxury.

Bas-de-page scene of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mermaid (England, 1325–1340): Add MS 42130, f. 70v

Our major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability, and you can explore more on our Alexander the Great website.

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.

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 February 2023

Time runs out for Alexander the Great

Have you visited our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth? Featuring astrological clay tablets, ancient papyri, medieval manuscripts, comics and videogames, we reveal how Alexander’s remarkable character and achievements have been adapted and appropriated by diverse cultures over 2,000 years. But hurry, because you only have until 19 February to see this remarkable show in person at the British Library.

Alexander became king of Macedon (in today’s northern Balkans) in 336 BC at the age of 20. In less than ten years, he had conquered the entire ancient world, from Greece to Egypt and from the Middle East to India and Punjab. His large, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empire did not survive Alexander's death in 323BC, but his legacy was ultimately more pervasive than his conquests: legends about Alexander's life and adventures have maintained his memory for more than two millennia, giving inspiration to some of the greatest literary and artistic treasures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth explores this incredible legacy, highlighting some surprising stories and amazing adventures of this ancient hero.

Wooden puppets on sticks. Alexander (left) wearing armour, a helmet, a shield ans a spear. Dragon, right, green upper body, yellow belly

Wooden puppets of Alexander and the Cursed Snake (Athens, c.2000): Private collection

The legendary life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, is one of the most popular ancient literary texts. Written originally in Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, it collected Alexander's deeds as retold by historians, scientists and travellers, with additions from many other sources. Soon after its composition in the 2nd century AD, the Romance was translated into numerous languages, such as Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, Persian, Arabic and Latin. From the Latin, vernacular European versions emerged, including French, English, German and Russian.

In the course of transmission, these tales were constantly rewritten and supplemented by new stories, so that Alexander’s exploits became ever more implausible. His mythical adventures included:

  •  conquering dragons, giants and other monsters, including the feared cannibalistic people of Gog and Magog
  • encountering strange peoples and incredible monsters in the unknown realms of the world
  • descending to the depths of the ocean in a submarine he had himself invented
  • constructing an incredible flying machine, pulled aloft by griffins, to explore the secrets of Heaven
  • meeting some of the most beautiful and powerful women of his time

Men building a wall while Alexander watches from horseback

Gog and Magog, in Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi, Qisas al-anbiyaʾ(Tales of the Prophets) (Iran, late 16th century): Add MS 18576, f. 118r

Alexander, crowned, on horseback approaching a large group of nude men, one of whom also wears a crown

Alexander meets the gymnosophists, in Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 56v

open book image. Printed book. The right hand page shows Alexander in a diving bell surrounded by enormous fish and other sea creatures
Alexander’s fairytale descent, in Robert Steele and Fred Mason, The Story of Alexander (1894)

Alexander the great, crowned and in red robes, seated in a wooden house shaped cage which is being carried through the air by four griffins

Alexander is lifted into the sky by four griffins in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 76v

Alexander, enthroned, greeting the Queen of the Amazons and her people

Alexander and the Amazon women: Add MS 15268, f. 203r

With the oldest exhibit dating from Alexander’s lifetime, and the most recent an unpublished graphic novel, the exhibition considers how the tales of Alexander’s deeds proliferated and spread throughout Europe, Asia and beyond. 

Titlepage of The Rival Queens

Nathaniel Lee, The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (London: James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677):  11774.g.29

Alexander the Great was the subject of legends during his lifetime, which developed into a complex mythology in the centuries following his death. Instead of trying to understand who Alexander was, our exhibition explores who he has since become and how these stories continue to evolve. The exhibition culminates with a replica of Alexander’s supposed sarcophagus from Egypt, set within a digital reconstruction created by Ubisoft as part of the Assassin’s Creed Origins video game. We also collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the largest surviving medieval world map until it was destroyed during World War II. Based on the original map, produced by the sisters of the convent of Ebstorf around 1300, the new digital map enables us to explore the adventures Alexander purportedly took in his own lifetime. 

Still of the interactive map experience, view of a one of the clickable points featuring Gog and Magog.

Screenshot of the digital Ebstorf Map game

Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition:

  • one of the most elaborate secular manuscripts from the Byzantine empire, a 14th-century copy of the Greek Alexander Romance containing 250 coloured illustrations, loaned from the Museum of the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies and on display in the UK for the first time
  • the armour of Prince Henry Frederick, son of King James I, decorated with scenes of Alexander’s battles
  • a pamphlet presented to Henry VIII by his teacher Bernard André in the 16th century, which refers to the new king of England as the future Alexander the Great and himself as Aristotle the philosopher
  • a 2,300 year-old silver coin commemorating Alexander’s victory against the regional ruler Porus, on loan from the British Museum
  • a description of the meeting between Queen Candace of Ethiopia and Alexander in a 19th-century Ethiopian manuscript 
  • a luxurious illuminated manuscript of the French Alexander Romance
  • part of a child’s homework on papyrus containing an imaginary speech by Alexander

manuscript page

Bernard André, Aristotelis ad Magnum Alexandrum de Vite Institutione Oratio: Royal MS 12 B XIV, f. 10r

Porus coin. Coin showing a man on horseback charging at an elephant and its rider

The Porus coin (?Babylon c. 323BC): British Museum, 1887,0609.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Three figures in front of a city. One man holds out an apple

Alexander at the gates of Paradise, in Roman d’Alexandre: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264 f. 186r

Papyrus fragment with shaky handwriting on it

Papyrus from Oxyrynchus, Egypt: Papyrus 756   

Book your tickets to Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. British Library Members go free. Closes Sunday, 19 February 2023.

The British Library is indebted to the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund, as well as the American Trust for the British Library, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, The Hellenic Foundation, London, and Professor James H. Marrow and Dr Emily Rose for their support towards the development of this exhibition.

 

Peter Toth

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