Medieval manuscripts blog

171 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

04 February 2023

And did those feet: did Alexander the Great visit Britain?

As our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, demonstrates, Alexander has been the protagonist of countless legends across the world and from the time of his birth to the present. Perceforest, a mysterious and dramatic 14th-century romance, conceivably the longest in all medieval French literature, is a prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain. It provides a dynastic link between two great legendary figures, as Alexander the Great fathers an ancestor of King Arthur with Sibile, the Lady of the Lake.

Woodcut showing knight on horseback fighting in front of a castle

Alexander and his army arrive in Britain, in La Treselegante, Delicieuse, Melliflue et tresplaisante hystoire du tres-noble, Victorieux et excellentissme roy Perceforest (Paris: Nicolas Cousteau for Galliot du Pré, 1528): British Library, 85.k.5–6, vol. 1

Perceforest takes in a vast sweep of British history and tradition from the mythical founder, Brutus, through Alexander and up to Joseph of Arimathea’s arrival, bearing the Holy Grail that became the subject of the famous quest in Arthurian legend. The six volumes, each the length of a thick novel, contain an entertaining mix of scenes of love, horror and action infused with the merveilleux. Across 530 chapters, successive generations of kings, knights and ladies take part in wild adventures that include fording a magic river, giving birth to a marvellous child with a crossbow in his hand and fighting, a beast of many colours.

The first printed edition was produced in Paris in 1528, a beautifully bound set of volumes containing detailed woodcut images, borders and initials, and with a space left for the coat of arms of a potential owner to be inserted. Because of the immense undertaking, modern editions and translations in French and English have been lacking until relatively recently, meaning that previous scholars had to use this 16th-century edition.

An armoured knight on horseback standing before a large multicoloured monster. It has four legs, a long tail, a long neck and plumage on it's head

The gilded knight meeting the beast of many colours in Perceforest, vol 3 (Bruges, late 15th century): Royal MS 19 E II, f.. 166r

The enchanted island of Britain in Perceforest is a land of amazing beauty and awesome marvels, home to the Sheer Mountain, the Temple of the Noble Guard, and the Passage of Three Rivers. It is ruled by the descendants of Brutus, who came from Troy to found a new dynasty, although a succession of weak and treacherous rulers have allowed the forces of evil to dominate. But help is at hand: Alexander the Great, his ships blown off course by a storm en route from Epheson to attend the coronation of Porus in India, lands on the shores of Britain with his companions. The great conqueror establishes his two protégés, Betis and Gadifer as kings of England and Scotland, holding extravagant coronation ceremonies with magical crowns, dancing and the first ever chivalric tournament. He then leaves them to rule and continues his journey towards his final destination, Babylon, where he will soon die.

Two knights on horseback fight with swords in a tournament. Ladies watch from raised stands behind

A tournament with ladies watching: Royal MS 19 E II, f. 305r

Soon after Alexander’s departure, darkness intrudes in the form of the enchanter, Darnant and his clan, who rule over the beautiful English forest. Betis rides out to confront them, earning the name Perceforest by freeing the forest from the evil sorcerer. The brothers, Perceforest and Gadifer, set out to restore freedom and order throughout their kingdoms, fighting off the forces of evil with the help of local knights, but suffering various setbacks. Perceforest falls into a deep depression when he hears of Alexander's death at Babylon, Gadifer is seriously wounded while hunting a monstrous wild boar and chaos threatens once again, but eventually the pair emerge stronger to create a just, chivalric society.

Two horse riders. One fides a brown horse and wears armour. The other is a lady in a red dress and hat. She rides a grey horse.

Gadifer of Scotland and the damsel Pierrote riding on the adventure of the Sheer Mountain, in  Perceforest, vol 2: Royal MS 19 E III, f. 275v

Sadly, Perceforest’s son falls under the spell of a treacherous Roman woman, who helps Julius Caesar to invade Britain. It is left to Ourseau, the grandson of Gadifer, and his wife, the Fairy Queen, to take revenge by arranging Caesar’s assassination. Gallafur, another of Gadifer’s grandsons, marries Alexander the Great’s granddaughter, and a new dynasty is established. Gallafur casts out evil forces from Britain and again restores order, placing his magical sword in a stone. A new invasion once more leaves a void of good rulers until, many generations later, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king.

A crowd watches as a figure in red pulls a sword out of a large stone

Arthur draws the sword from the stone, in the Lancelot-Grail (northern France, c. 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 99r

The original romance of Perceforest was composed shortly after the marriage of King Edward III of England to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, probably in the Low Countries, to emphasise the links between the two royal houses. An elaborate story tells how a book of chronicles in Latin was found by William of Hainault in a secret cupboard and how he had it translated into French. Only four manuscript copies survive; the three large volumes in the British Library are an incomplete printer’s copy of David Aubert’s version, adapted for the Duke of Burgundy and illuminated in Bruges. Together, they are the size of a small suitcase, and this is only the first half of the story! The opening page shows Aubert presenting his work to a patron, probably the Duke.

A king sits on a throne as he is presented by a large red book by a man wearing grey robes

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, receiving a book from David Aubert, author of the preface with a dedication to the duke, from Perceforest, vol. 1: Royal MS 15 E V, f. 3r

You can explore Perceforest in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth , open until 19 February 2023, or discover 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

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 January 2023

Alexander the Great versus the elephants

Have you ever wondered how to defeat an army or a herd of wild elephants? Alexander the Great knew how, to judge by accounts (both historical and legendary) of his campaigns in the East. Elephants feature most prominently in Alexander's famous battle with King Porus of Inda in 326BC, as described by Plutarch, Arian and the later Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. Curtius’ Historia was translated into French, and illuminated copies were produced in considerable numbers in the 15th century, notably for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477), who modelled himself on Alexander.

Soldiers in armour with spears confront elephants with castles containing soldiers with arrows on their backs.  A castle in the background.

A battle between Alexander and Porus with elephants, in Quintus Curtius Rufus. Historia Alexandri magni, translated by Lucena: Burney MS 169, f. 165v

Curtius describes how Alexander and his men faced a terrifying force of 300 chariots, 30,000 foot soldiers and 85 elephants with castles on their backs, on the opposite bank of the river Hyaspedes. King Porus himself was mounted on a huge elephant that towered above the rest, decorated with silver and gold armour. Fortunately, Alexander and his troops were already familiar with these terrifying creatures, as he had earlier been presented with 56 elephants by King Omphis of Taxila.

Using his characteristic strategic genius, Alexander sent troops to cross the river further down in order to surprise his opponents. By attacking on two fronts, he restricted the elephants’ room to manoeuvre. Alexander’s great victory over Porus soon became the stuff of legend. The French Roman d’Alexandre en prose tells that he employed ‘ymages de laiton’ (bronze models of soldiers) filled with red hot coals, which he placed in iron chariots and sent in among the elephants. When they saw the burning embers and felt the scorching heat, the elephants fled in terror. A manuscript made in Bruges manuscript illustrates the burning soldiers in chariots facing the elephants.  

Two groups of soldiers on horseback with spears raised ride towards each other, model soldiers on fire standing on chariots, and elephants with towers and soldiers on their backs

The battle between Alexander and King Porus, with the elephants and bronze model soldiers filled with hot coals, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 51r

Legend has it that after another battle, a short period of friendship ensued, during which Porus took Alexander to see the wonders of India. But the truce was short-lived and Alexander finally killed Porus in single combat. Determined to continue his journey of conquest as far as the ocean, he encountered many strange and dangerous creatures, including a herd of ferocious elephants. The cunning Alexander, aware that elephants were afraid of the sound of squealing of pigs, sent into their midst a troop of horsemen, trumpeters and all the pigs he could find. The elephants fled in terror, pursued by the horsemen, who killed 980 of them and brought back their ‘teeth and horns’. This story is illustrated in a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en prose made in Paris around 1425, perhaps for a young owner, as it has startling, colourful images on almost every page.

Alexander and his army with trumpets and pigs with tusks facing elephants with trumpet-shaped trunks.

Alexander’s army with trumpets and pigs confronting the wild elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX  f. 57r

Alexander’s life story was incorporated into world histories such as the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, which encompassed all of human history from Creation to the reign of Julius Caesar. In this version of the Alexander legend, Porus and Alexander were exploring the far reaches of India when they made camp for the night near a forest, before finding that it was infested with fierce elephants. Porus told Alexander not to worry. He should gather together some ‘truie’ (sows), upset them so that they squealed loudly at the elephants, who would immediately flee in terror, fearing this noise more than anything.

Above, soldiers on horseback with helmets and swords and pigs beside them attack elephants

Alexander fighting with pigs against elephants (above), and meeting the talking trees of the Sun and the Moon and their Indian guardian (below), in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Northern France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19699, f. 156r

Alexander on a horse with soldiers holding spears, chase pigs towards four elephants among trees

Alexander’s army with wild pigs confronting elephants in a forest, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (Paris, late 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 133v

In a luxurious copy of the prose Roman d’Alexandre made for Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482), future queen of England, Alexander and his soldiers are shown attacking a group of elephants with spears; the pigs mentioned in the accompanying text are nowhere to be seen.

Alexander in armour with knights on horseback, use spears to wound two elephants standing among trees.  A starry sky.

Alexander’s army fighting elephants, in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 16v

This story must have circulated widely in England. In one manuscript of the Festial by John Mirk of Shropshire (1382–1414), the homily for the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist describes how bones and wood are used in making St John’s fire (Harley MS 2417, f. 42r). Mirk then adds a long digression on the origins of fire in ‘that countrey of grete hete’ where dragons breathe noxious gases and poison the water. This leads to a description of Alixander’s campaign in India:

...mony grete clerkes that hadden red of kyng Alysaunder how when he shulde have a batel wyth the kyng of Ynde and the kyng of Ynde browyte wyth hym mony olyfauntes beryng castels of tre (wood) on her bakkes.... Thene knewe alysau]nder the kynde (species) of olyfauntes that they dreden noo thyng moore the ȝarryng (squealing) of swyyn (swine). Therfor he made togedere all the sowes that myghte be geten and made to dryve hem so nygh the olifantes ...anoon they maden suche a ȝarryng all yfer that alle the olyfauntes flowen (fled) and casten down her castelles...

The subject then turns to dragons once again, and how they hate the stench of burning bones, so that a ‘boon fyr’ (the origin of the word, bonfire) could be used to chase them away.

Discover more about Alexander the Great by visiting the British Library's exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 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 this exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 January 2023

Digital Alexander

Our amazing exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, closes on 19 February 2023 – have you had time to come to see it? Or perhaps it is distance rather than time that is thwarting you? Fear not! We have you covered.

We have made a mini-version of the exhibition and put it online especially for you. It’s free to access and it features over 30 of the items that are displayed in the gallery, as well as newly-commissioned articles by the curatorial team. We've also included interviews with creators featured in the gallery, an interview with one of the curators, and a free to download game.

screenshot of a computer game. The scene shows a room with stone walls and stone floors. There are bookcases to the left of the picture. A table stands in the centre

Screenshot taken from the free downloadable interactive 

So, that’s the good news … but even better is that the website is going to continue growing after the exhibition closes. We’ll be adding more images of each of the collection items and more items from the exhibition, as well as new video content and new articles. Digital Alexander is the gift that keeps on giving! You can find the online exhibition at bl.uk/alexander-the-great. Don't forget to keep coming back to see the new additions.

screenshot of a website. The image shows a partial list of articles from the website

Screenshot of the Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth website. These are just a few of the articles featured on the 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.

 

Yrja Thorsdottir

Follow us @BLMedieval

29 January 2023

Locating the earthly paradise

Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by the serpent with a female torso; in the architectonic border is a scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v

As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers drawn on the central upper part of the Psalter Map.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r

The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.

Latin text of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies with a diagram of the T.O map: Asia at the top, 'Europa' on the lower left and Africa on the lower right.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v

Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Alexander visiting the gates of earthly paradise receiving a golden apple as a tribute.

Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r

According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.

An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:

‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,

Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –

For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’

(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)

Three lines from the Buik off King Allexander the Conqueroure, quoted in the blogpost text above in Scots.

Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).

Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise, an angel flies overhead.
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v

Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.

Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, 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.

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on @BLMedieval

28 January 2023

Three Alexander the Great manuscripts newly digitised

Our current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (closing soon on 19 February!), displays striking images of Alexander in medieval manuscripts of his legendary life. Many of these are already fully digitised, including high-status works of art like the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book and other superbly-illustrated Alexander legends in the British Library's collections.

miniature showing knight wearing armour and a crown on horseback fighting charge at three small dragons. The knight carries a spear

Alexander fighting dragons, in the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book (Rouen 1444–1445): Royal 15 E VI, f, 21r

Left. A man seated, wearing blue robes and a black hat, a young child holding a school book stands before him

Alexander taught by Aristotle in the schoolroom, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–c. 1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v

Manuscript page featuring two miniatues. The top one shows a knight on horseback charging at a group of 6 winged dragons. The lower image shows the same knight on the same horse but this time charging at a herd of several boar like monsters

Alexander fighting dragons and monsters, in Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 67v

In preparation for the exhibition, we have digitised three more of our illustrated Alexander manuscripts, so that, in addition to the pages on display in the exhibition, all the images and accompanying text can be viewed online. One of the newly-digitised items is an early collection of Latin works; the others are French versions of Alexander’s life story, as told by the Roman historian, Quintus Curtius Rufus.

Royal MS 13 A I: an Alexander collection from 11th-century England

This small book preserves four early Latin texts relating to Alexander the Great, including Julius Valerius’s Historia Alexandri Magni, translated from the Greek, together with fictional correspondence between Alexander and his teacher, Aristotle, and with the Indian Brahmin, Dindimus. The only illustration, on the opening page, is an early drawing of the coronation of Alexander by the personified figure of Philosophy.

Two figure robed in green. The left figure is femal and standing. She is anointing the seated figure on the right. The seated figure is male. He wears a crown and holds and orb and septre

Alexander is anointed by the female personification of Philosophy (England, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

Two manuscripts of the Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: in the 15th century, the Portuguese humanist scholar Vasco da Lucena compiled his account in French of Alexander’s life (largely a translation of the Historia Alexandri Magni of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus), which he dedicated to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477). The majority of the illustrations accompanying his work focus on violent confrontations between Alexander and his enemies, in particular his defeat of Darius, his capture and subjugation of cities on his route, and his brutality towards suspected traitors.

Royal MS 17 F I: a manuscript of the Lucena translation from Lille and Bruges

This copy of Lucena’s Livre des Fais was made by Jean Duchesne of Lille and illustrated in Bruges in the 1470s. It has 9 large miniatures with decorated borders and 11 smaller images within the text.

Royal_ms_17_f_i_f055r

The capture of the family of Darius; the five figures in a pavilion in the background represent his mother, wife, two daughters and son; Alexander is in the foreground in gold armour on a black horse, pursuing the Persians, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 55r

A knight in armour riding a heron

Detail of a border in Royal MS 17 F I, f. 40r

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Manuscript page featuring a depiction of a city under siege

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Royal MS 20 C III: the Lucena translation in another copy from Bruges

Curtius’s history of Alexander in French translation gained popularity among the 15th-century French-speaking nobility. A number of illustrated copies were produced in commercial ateliers to satisfy demand. The opening miniature in this large book produced in Bruges in the 1480s imagines Alexander’s birth in a truly imperial setting, with the furnishing, fabrics and luxurious garments reflecting the style of the magnificent court of the dukes of Burgundy at the time.

Scene showing a woman in bed, she has just given birth. She is being attended by a group of women. In the foreground two women take care of the baby. The the background a building is on fire

The birth of Alexander, with two golden eagles perched on the palace roof and the Temple of Artemis burning in the background as signs of future greatness, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant (Bruges, c. 1485–1490): Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

The exquisitely-painted trompe-l’oeil borders, with realistic birds, flowers and fruit, contrast with the rather violent subject matter of some of the images.

Scene showing a city in the background. In the foreground people from the city are surrendering to an advancing army
The people of the fortress of Celaenae surrender to Alexander and his army: Royal MS 20 C III, f. 42r

Manuscript page. Miniature in top right hand side showing a crowd watching as two men are being beheaded by a figure swinging a sword
Cleander and other traitors are beheaded:Royal MS 20 C III, f. 238r

Come and see these beautiful manuscripts as well as many others in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023 at the British Library, or 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

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).

This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 January 2023

Re-imagining the Ebstorf map

The historical Alexander the Great travelled as far as north-west India, but the mythical Alexander the Great travelled much further, journeying into the unknown as he sought the edge of the world and Paradise beyond. During his mythical quest, Alexander encountered a wide-range of people and creatures. Some of these tales were depicted on the Ebstorf map.

Originally produced around 1300 by the nuns of the monastery of Ebstorf in northern Germany, the Ebstorf map with its enormous dimensions (over 3m x 3m and made up of thirty parchment sheets) was the largest world map known from the Middle-Ages. It was destroyed in 1943 by Allied bombing of Hanover during World War II. The image shown here is a digital facsimile created in 2008 at the Leuphana Universität Lüneburg from images of the original.

 Photo of a reproduction of the Ebstorf Map

The Ebstorf Map (reproduction). © Kloster Ebstorf, image used with permission from https://www.leuphana.de/ebskart

There are 2,345 entries on the Ebstorf map, 845 of which are illustrated, and 17 relate explicitly to Alexander the Great and the Alexander Romance

The British Library has collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the Ebstorf map. A team of students and graduates participated in the ‘Escape Pod’ incubator to create a 3D version of the map, using the digital facsimile created by Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.

The interactive map, created in Unreal Engine, has been set in a fictional medieval scriptorium to suggest the tone of the space in which it was created. All aspects of the room were imagined, researched and created by the students at Escape.

Still of the interactive map experience, view of the scriptorium in which the map is placed. Stone walls, and floors. Tall bookcases with a ladder. Candles on tables. In the centre of the room is a table

Still of the interactive map experience, showing the scriptorium in which the map is made

The interactive map has fifteen clickable points of interest, a mix of buildings, mythical landmarks and characters. These are all created in the same style of artwork as the original map. When a point is selected it prompts a small 3D model to pop up with text and a voice recording, presenting details associated with this area of the map. All of the fifteen points relate to Alexander the Great.

Still of the interactive map experience, view of the framed map on a table. Glowing white dots can be seen on the map, these indicate the 15 clickable points. The map is in a wooden frame, there are writing materials scattered across the table

Still of the interactive map experience, with a view of the framed map on a table. Glowing white dots can be seen on the map, indicating the 15 clickable points.

All the animations at each of the 15 clickable points on the map were carefully crafted to ensure the style and artwork was in keeping with the original designs created by the nuns of Ebstorf. 

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

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

The British Library and Escape Studios are delighted to offer a free download of the interactive map via the Alexander the Great: Making of a Myth website

A facsimile of the Ebstorf map is also featured in the 'Mythical Quest' section of our current major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth , open until 19 February 2023. Tickets are available to book 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.

 

Yrja Thorsdottir

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2023

Alexander the Great: an ancient horse whisperer

How do you tame a wild horse?

The average medieval reader would have been familiar with horses both on the page and in real life. Horses have served humans throughout history, particularly for warfare or transportation. They are also faithful companions to many heroes in ancient and medieval literature. Taming a feral horse, on the other hand, is no easy feat. Only the most skilled warrior would be capable of undertaking such a difficult task. According to legend, this was none other than Alexander the Great, the subject of our current major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth.

Alexander and Bucephalus, chained in shackles, being brought in by two attendants.

Alexander and his horse, Bucephalus, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–c. 1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 12r

Alexander the Great’s horse is one of the most famous equine figures in ancient and medieval literature. His name ‘Bucephalus’ derives from the Greek ‘Βουκεφάλας’ meaning ‘ox-head’. He was no ordinary horse, as his name indicates, for he is often depicted in medieval versions of Alexander’s legends as an untamed hybrid with three horns on his head. He was also notorious for eating human beings.

When Alexander was a teenager, his father, King Philip of Macedonia, enclosed Bucephalus in a dungeon for safekeeping, but he would send traitors to the horse’s enclosure to be devoured as punishment. Illuminations from some of our manuscripts portray Bucephalus in a cage or chained with shackles. Later, King Philip heard a prophecy that predicted that only the one who could tame and mount the wild horse would be the future king.

Bucephalus with three horns inside a cage being tamed by Alexander.
Alexander taming Bucephalus, in Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 15r

According to an earlier version of the episode in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, no one was able to mount the horse or tame him, until Alexander noticed that the horse became distressed from the movements of his own shadow. To calm the animal, Alexander turned the horse towards the Sun, so that his shadow no longer frightened him. At last, Alexander was able to mount Bucephalus and claimed him as his own charger, ready for his destined conquests.

Bucephalus in a cage being tamed and brought to the king

Alexander and Bucephalus, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, c.1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7r

In some medieval texts, such as Thomas of Kent’s Le roman de toute chevalerie, Bucephalus’s ferocity was used to Alexander’s advantage in battle. The horse is described as tearing violently through the enemy cavalry, since Bucephalus often preferred human flesh over grass.

In an earlier version of the Alexander legends, known as the Greek Alexander Romance, Bucephalus outlived Alexander, and wept for his master on his deathbed after Alexander was poisoned during his coronation feast at Babylon. On the subject of grieving horses, Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century scholar, claimed that horses ‘shed tears when their master dies or is killed, for only the horse weeps and feels grief over humans’ (Etymologies, book 12, 1:41: translated in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. Stephen A. Barney et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 249). Perhaps Isidore had heard of the loyalty and grief shown by Bucephalus’s towards his master, Alexander the Great, or that of other loyal horses throughout history and literature.

In later medieval versions of the story, Bucephalus is killed prematurely in battle by Alexander’s arch-enemy, King Porrus, before Alexander’s coronation at Babylon. In one manuscript illuminated in 15th-century Paris (Royal MS 20 B XX), this occurs soon after Alexander had successfully unhorsed Porrus during a joust.

Alexander unhorses Porrus. Knights and trumpeters observe on both sides

Alexander unhorsing Porrus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 53r

Tragically, for Bucephalus, Porrus got his own back when he managed to kill Alexander’s beloved horse in battle. Alexander, distraught at the loss of his loyal companion, buried Bucephalus with his soldiers by his side.

Alexander watches his three-horned horse, Bucephalus, being buried with his soldiers behind him

The burial of Bucephalus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 81r

In honour of his heroic horse, Alexander dedicated a city in his name, so that the memory of Bucephalus was not forgotten. And so, from a ferocious caged beast to a most loyal royal companion, Bucephalus lives on in the legends of Alexander that we continue to read today.

Alexander observes three stonemasons building a city.

Alexander building a city as a memorial to his horse, Bucephalus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 82r

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth at the British Library runs until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, 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. You can discover more about the legends of Alexander the Great on our website

 

Giulia Gilmore

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