Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

173 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2023

Prince Henry Frederick: a second Alexander

A star item in the British Library's current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is this unique, full suit of armour decorated with scenes of Alexander’s glorious deeds in gold. It was made for Prince Henry Frederick (1594–1612), son of James I of England and VI of Scotland, who was addressed by the poet, Henry Peacham in his Basilica Emblemata as ‘the second Alexander, the nurturing hope of Britons’.

The armour is decorated with broad vertical bands containing scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, framed in oval cartouches incised and gilt on a hatched, blued ground. These bands alternate with bright plain bands.

Prince Henry Frederick’s armour (Netherlands, c. 1607): London, Royal Armouries II.88 © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

When Sir Francis Vere formally presented the armour to Prince Henry in 1608, he was following a long-established tradition of gift-giving between rulers and the elite within society. Fine quality armour and weapons provided legitimacy to ruling dynasties, strengthening diplomatic links, and securing patronage for the donors.

Image of a knight mounted on a horse. Below is text naming Alexander

Henry Peacham addressing Prince Henry as the 'second Alexander' in his Basilica Emblemata: Royal MS A 12 A LXVI, f. 38v (detail)

Sir Francis Vere’s younger brother, Sir Horace, probably took the leading role in the armour’s creation. Both brothers had long military careers in the Netherlands and were closely connected to the princely House of Nassau. The evolution of this spectacular armour can be attributed to this relationship. Why, though, did they choose Alexander the Great as the decorative theme?

Role models from Antiquity were very much part of a princely education. Alexander, despite certain character flaws, was still seen by many as an example of a strong, successful military ruler. Moreover, Henry’s father, James I (king of England 1603–1625), placed particular emphasis on the prestige and authority of monarchy. Direct associations between Prince Henry and Alexander the Great increased as he approached adulthood. To many, the young prince reflected the hopes and aspirations of those committed to active English military intervention in the Low Countries.

Extract of manuscript. In the first line the words 'L'Alexandre de la grande' can clearly be seen

James Cleland, Le Pourtraict de Monseigneur le Prince, where the poet describes Henry as 'Alexander of the great Britain': Royal MS 16 E XXXVIII, f. 4v

The designs on this armour are unique; no other example is known to have survived in which the decoration completely revolves around Alexander the Great. This is very clearly a piece of art, as well as a functioning piece of military equipment. Stylistically, the decoration bears a very strong resemblance to armour represented in the portraits of other members of the House of Nassau. By the early 17th century, the centres for the production of fine armour had largely moved to the Netherlands and France. Figures from Antiquity, including Alexander, were often incorporated into the decoration. The designs on the borders of Prince Henry’s armour are similar to other examples; 17th-century drums appear alongside modern weapons, but all with a distinct Hellenistic flavour. Many of the shields contain faces that are reminiscent of Greek drama, perhaps an oblique reference to the Jacobean love of theatre.

Drums and weapons depicted on the armour

Masks, weapons and drums on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

Given the nature of the narrative presented, it seems likely that the armour was meant to be read piece by piece from the feet upwards. This is the order in which an armour was attached to the body. Oval cartouches containing various episodes in Alexander’s campaign are positioned in a broadly accurate chronological sequence, with each piece of armour representing different stages in the campaigns. As the eyes move up the front of the body, Alexander progresses from Palestine into Afghanistan, reaching India on the helmet. Key events are represented along the way, including the battle of Hydaspes on the arms (vambraces), including formations of elephants on the left and right.

Turreted elephants in battle

Alexander’s army battles the Elephants of Porus, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

On the back of the armour, the campaigns following Hydaspes are represented. On the backplate are the marriages of Alexander to the Bactrian princess Roxanne, and of his generals to other women. This was perhaps a veiled reference to the importance of dynastic marriage. Alexander’s return to Babylon brings the series to a close; on arrival he meets a priest of Baal, with a group of camels in the background.

A couple sat under a canopy at a wedding

Alexander marries Roxanne, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

One could explain the narrative of the armour simply within the context of martial prowess and military conquest. The stories of Alexander appear to follow the classical texts of Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus and others, with the focus primarily on military exploits. Yet there are also warnings for the young prince. In a number of scenes, the relationship between Alexander and his royal companions is shown positively. He is seen fighting alongside them and demonstrating his personal prowess by taking part in lion hunts, then rewarding them for loyal service and receiving gifts from them.

Alexander battling a lion. Alexander has his sword raised for attack

A lion hunt, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

Conversely, in one image, Alexander is seen seated with his body language suggesting he is at odds with his two companions. And on the rear of the armour, the Macedonian army is shown in revolt against Alexander, and returning home by ship.

Two men argue in front of the sea

The mutiny of the Macedonian army against Alexander and their departure on ships, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

The positive aspects of brotherhood-in-arms were clearly on the minds of the English military community, but so, too, were the pitfalls. They could represent a threat to the success of Prince Henry’s much anticipated reign. Sadly, he died of typhoid aged 18 before he could become king.

Prince Henry Frederick armour has been kindly loaned by the Royal Armouries to the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, where it is on display 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. You can discover more about the legends of Alexander the Great on our website

 

Malcolm Mercer, Curator of Tower Armouries and Art, Royal Armouries

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 January 2023

Alexander the Great: events at the British Library

Alexander the Great has fascinated historians and storytellers throughout the ages. Alongside our major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, the British Library is hosting a variety of Alexander-related events, including talks and performances by authors and artists. Details of some of these events are highlighted below.

Illustration depicting an army standing behind wild boar that are being herded towards elephants

Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r

The Unbuilt Room: Alexander the Great is part-performance, part-game, an interactive journey where people create stories, and stories create people. This new edition of Seth Kriebel’s acclaimed ‘exploration game’ has been written especially to accompany the exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Inspired by choose-your-own-adventure stories and early text-adventure computer games, The Unbuilt Room: Alexander the Great combines the inventiveness of contemporary gaming with the simplicity of bare-bones storytelling. There are four performances in total: the first performance is on Wednesday 18 January (19.00-20.00); the second performance is on Wednesday 25 January; the third performance is on Wednesday 1 February; the fourth and final performance is on Wednesday 15 February 2023.

The poster for the Alexander the Great event, showing an image of Alexander the Great in a mosaic

On Friday 27 January (19.30-20.30) the British Library is hosting Alexander: Between Fantasy and History with Robin Lane Fox. This lecture is being given by renowned historian and author Robin Lane Fox, biographer of Alexander the Great. He was the historical advisor for Oliver Stone's epic film Alexander, and took part in many of its most dramatic re-enactments.

Alexander the Great: Between Dreams and Imagination is a journey through words, live music and images into the world of Alexander the Great, through the dreams of the philosopher Aristotle. Alexander the Great: Between Dreams and Imagination is inspired by a modern epic poem by Stamatis Filippoulis. Readings by a cast of leading actors are accompanied by original music by Stamatis Spanoudakis, one of the most prominent Greek composers of his generation, and by rich imagery directed by Paul Benney. There are three performances in total: the first performance is on Thursday 2 February (19.45-21.15); the second performance is on Friday 3 February (19.45-21.15); the third performance will take place on Saturday 4 February (19.45-21.15).

 

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15 December 2022

The Lindisfarne Gospels back at the British Library

The Lindisfarne Gospels is back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, following its loan to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from 17 September to 3 December 2022. The exhibition in Newcastle, which was the culmination of a year-long programme of cultural events across the North East, attracted over 56,000 visitors. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost.

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, featuring the large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Lindisfarne Gospels is now on exhibition at the British Library showing the Chi-rho page, a particularly appropriate display for Christmastime. The Chi-rho is the abbreviated Greek name of Christ, spelled Chi-rho-iota, or ‘XPI’. In some early Latin gospel-books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, Christi autem generatio sic erat (‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way’).

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chi-rho fills up almost the entire page. The insides of the letters are dense with knotted birds and interlace, while the outsides spin with an almost cosmic display of swirls. The letter chi looks as though it is leaping across the page on lithe legs, leaving trails of spirals in its wake – a jump for joy in honour of Christ’s birth.

Detail of the Chi-rho page showing the letter 'X' filled with intricate animal interlace pattern
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Display of books featuring the Chi-rho page on the cover
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

You can also view the Lindisfarne Gospels online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, and keep an eye on the blog for more Christmassy Chi-rho content coming soon!

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03 December 2022

The emperor and the Sun King

As the creator of one of the first and largest multicultural empires of the ancient world, Alexander the Great inspired generations of later rulers to follow his example. Soon after his death in 324 BC, his successors used his legacy to legitimise their own rule. Some of them put Alexander’s portrait on their coins, others fashioned their own portraits to look like him, hoping to be regarded as his heirs and descendants.

Face of Alexander the Great in profile. Rams horns are visible through his hair

Alexander’s face with the horns of the god Ammon, on the tetradrachm of Lysimachus, Alexander’s successor as King of Thrace (305 BC–281 BC): British Museum, 1841,B.506.

As legends about Alexander and his conquests spread in the ancient Mediterranean, new leaders were inspired by his legacy. In 62 BC, when serving as the young governor of Spain (Hispania Ulterior), Julius Caesar read Alexander’s histories in his free time. According to his biographer Plutarch, Caesar burst into tears, lamenting that, 'while Alexander, at my age was king of so many people, I have achieved no brilliant success'. Later, Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, was so deeply indebted to Alexander’s legacy that he made a pilgrimage to his tomb in Alexandria.

Augustus_at_the_Tomb_of_Alexander_-_Courtois_1878

Gustave Claude Étienne Courtois, Emperor Augustus at Alexander’s Tomb in Alexandria (1878): Vesoul, Musée Georges-Garret (Wikimedia Commons)

As the glory of Alexander gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, he was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of half-mythical heroes associated with military success and just leadership. In the 16th century, as the more legendary aspects of Alexander’s legacy faded, he became regarded as a talented statesman and politician, being invoked in English royal propaganda as well as by the French monarchy.

In the 17th century, Louis XIV, one of the most powerful French monarchs (often called the 'Sun King'), loved to compare himself to Alexander the Great. At the peak of his rule in the 1660s, Louis's identification with Alexander strongly influenced his style of kingship.

Alexander the Great standing in a chariot drawn by two elephants as he makes his triumphant entry into the Persian capital of Babylon

Charles Le Brun, Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1665): Musée du Louvre (Wikimedia Commons

In 1661, Louis commissioned a series of enormous paintings from his court painter, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). The five paintings executed by Le Brun were meant to be designs for Gobelin tapestries, to be woven in Paris and hung in the royal palace. Le Brun’s canvases represented Alexander’s greatest military successes: the defeat of Porus in India, the battle at Granicus and Arbela, and the clemency of Alexander to the family of Darius, the defeated Persian emperor. Le Brun emphatically identified Alexander with Louis: the ancient hero has the facial features of the French king in all of these paintings.

Open book image. Printed book. This opening shows Jean Racine’s dedication of his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV

Jean Racine dedicated his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV, comparing him to Alexander as the wisest king on Earth (Paris: Pierre Trabouillet, 1672): British Library, C.30.a.20.

Louis’s aspiration to become the new Alexander went beyond the figurative art he commissioned. In his 1665 tragedy Alexandre le Grand, Jean Racine, Louis’s court playwright, addressed the king as a monarch 'whose fame spreads just as far as Alexander’s'. In addition to his political and military achievements, Louis was a talented dancer who often performed in courtly celebrations. In the grand ballet La Naissance de Venus, authored by Isaac Benserad (1613–1691) with music by Jean Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Louis danced the role of Alexander on the stage.

Page from a printed book

Louis XIV performing Alexander the Great in the Ballet Royal de la naissance de Vénus: dansé par sa Majesté (Paris: Robert Ballard, 1665): British Library 839.e.2.(8.), p. 54

Louis’s propaganda, portraying himself as the Alexander of his time, reached beyond his own court. The artwork, literature and music identifying him with the Greek hero spread to other European countries. Racine’s tragedy was followed by various Alexander plays in western Europe. Le Brun’s enormous paintings were also adapted for wider circulation. His Alexander compositions were woven in tapestries and purchased by European royalty, including George I of England, who placed them in the Queen’s Gallery at Hampton Court Palace.

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, Alexander in a elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, woven silk and wool tapestry (early 18th century): Royal Collections Trust RCIN 1079 

The image of Louis as Alexander spread far and wide. A fan from late 17th-century Italy represents Alexander’s triumphal entry into Babylon based on Le Brun’s painting in the Louvre. The composition of the painting was adapted to the curved shape of the fan by shifting the trophy-bearers to the far right. The artist emphasised the identification of Louis and Alexander by replacing the yellow cloak that Alexander wore in Le Brun’s painting with a striking blue one, traditionally associated with the French monarchy.

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, Alexander is in an elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, on a folding fan (Italy, 1690–1700): Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 2276-1876.

The fascination of Louis XIV with Alexander the Great, resulting in some of the finest art and literary works of his time, is one of the many entangled aspects of Alexander’s afterlife across two millennia. Join us to explore these incredible adventures in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

17 November 2022

Reunited! A Russian manuscript of the Alexander Romance

The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, gives an insight into the incredible spread of Alexander’s legends across time and across cultures. Central to the show is the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Alexander Romance. Written in Greek around the turn of the 3rd/4th centuries AD, the Romance was a best-seller of its time, being translated into a number of Western and Eastern languages. This blogpost examines one of the most intriguing of these versions: the Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A creature with a human body and an amimal head is entwined with a serpent like creature  An army, led by a crowned Alexander, stand in front of a crowd of blue creatures with trunks
Alexander encountering the monsters of the East, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): courtesy of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, W 151, ff. 89v–90r

The Slavonic translation of the Alexander Romance was made from the fully-developed Greek-Byzantine version of the text, probably in the 14th century in what is today Serbia, before becoming popular not only in Serbia but also in Bulgaria and Russia. The British Library is fortunate to have a remarkable manuscript of this Slavonic version of the Alexander Romance displayed in the exhibition, on generous loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Created in Russia in the 17th century, this manuscript is a fascinating testament to how Alexander’s legends were appropriated in medieval and early modern Russia. The 14th-century translators of the Slavonic Alexander Romance adapted both the text and the images of their Greek original. Just like the Western and Middle Eastern adaptations, the Slavonic versions of the Romance are richly illustrated. Although many of the illuminations in the Slavonic tradition go back to Greek and Byzantine models, some were devised by the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian artists themselves.

One new illustration is the representation of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalas. Although the original Greek name of the famous stallion clearly means 'ox-headed', opinions vary about its actual meaning. Some sources say that the horse had an ox-head branding, others suggest it had a mark on its head that made it look like an ox’s head. The Slavic artists combined these two traditions, depicting the horse as bearing an ox-head mark (on its thigh), while painting on its head something resembling an ox’s horn, making the horse look like a unicorn.

A group of men on horseback. A serpent like creature by their hooves

Bucephalus in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Library, W 151, f.110r

The Romance also records that Alexander encountered mythical sirens during his adventures, who were imagined as beautiful women living in the water. They would lure men with their singing, who would fall asleep in their reed-bed and then drown. In common with ancient Greek tradition, the Russian illustrators imagined the sirens as mythical birds with human heads, enchanting Alexander’s soldiers with their songs.

Men on horseback face two women-headed birds

The sirens imagined as human-headed birds, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Dublin, W 151, f. 53r

Another interesting feature of the afterlife of the Slavonic Alexander in Russia is that it is often followed in the manuscripts by another Russian historical text. The History of the Rout of Mamai records the battle in 1380 between the Russians led by Grand Duke Dimitry and the Mongol invaders. There is clearly an agenda here to elevate this historical battle (a major turning point in the Russian revolt against the Mongol Khan Mamai) onto a par with Alexander’s mythological adventures.

Left: two men on white horses battle eachother. Right: Two mounted armies charge at eachother

Grand Duke Dimitry in battle with the Mongols, in The History of the Rout of Mamai (Russia, 17th century): Yates Thompson MS 51, ff. 38v–39r

Scholars have observed that the Chester Beatty manuscript looks remarkably similar to a 17th-century copy of The History of the Rout of Mamai at the British Library. They have in common the layout of the text, the decoration, a similar pattern of damage, and 19th-century attempts to redraw the outlines of the images in pencil. A conclusive factor is that the Slavonic page numbers in the right-hand corner of the leaves in the British Library manuscript continue the sequence of those found at the end of the Chester Beatty's Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A couple lie side by side. Both are wearing crowns Top of manuscript page with red writing

The final leaf (f. 127r) of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance (left) is numbered '155'; the first leaf (f. 1r) of the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai (right) is '156'

Based on these observations, scholars have treated the two manuscripts as parts of a single original volume containing both the Slavonic Alexander Romance and The History of the Rout of Mamai. Further research has revealed that both manuscripts were purchased around 1921 from the same antiquarian dealer in Florence, who separated them into two parts, selling one to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968) and the other to Henry Yates Thompson (1838–1928), whose widow bequeathed it to the British Library in 1941.

Two manuscripts lie open side by side

The two halves of the original volume next to each other, the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance on the left and the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai on the right

Although it is widely accepted that these manuscripts originally formed one volume, the two halves have never been compared side-by-side until the generous loan of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander to the British Library’s Alexander exhibition. After more than a century apart, the two halves now stand proudly next to each other in the show.

Book your tickets now to see the reunification of this important manuscript and to join Alexander on his other adventures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open 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.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 November 2022

Florimont, flower of the world

History records that Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias. (A rumour that his real father was the Egyptian pharoah Nectanebus is described in our blogpost A pharaoh in disguise). But having royal parents was never enough for a popular medieval hero; they were expected to have an entire dynasty of illustrious ancestors. And so various prequels were written, conjuring up marvellous origins for Alexander, and mixing real people with invented characters.

One of these origin stories is found in the French Roman de Florimont. This tells of Alexander's imaginary grandparents, the Albanian hero, Florimont, or ‘flower of the world’, and Romadanaple, a beautiful princess. Florimont was the son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania, and his wife Edonia, while Romadanaple’s parents were a certain King Philip of Greece, and Amorydale, daughter of the ‘King of Africa’.   

A kneeling messenger hands a letter to a king seated on a throne beside a queen, both crowned and holding sceptres

Alexander the Great’s parents, King Philip of Macedon and Queen Olympias, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César (France, 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 121r

The romance of Florimont begins in Greece. King Philip, having founded the city of Philippolis, is under attack from the evil Camdiobras, King of Hungary. Philip has a beautiful daughter, Romadanaple, who he keeps hidden from her numerous suitors; but she becomes the subject of unwelcome attentions from Camdiobras, who threatens to carry her off. Meanwhile, in Albania, Duke Mataquas has a son named Florimont, whose destiny is revealed to him in a dream — he sees a lion cub leaving his palace to join a powerful male lion, then going on to defeat a monster and a huge wild boar.

But all doesn't proceed simply. The young Florimont falls under the spell of the Lady of the Island of Celée, who takes him to her enchanted world. He is rescued by his mother and freed from the spell, but spends some time wandering about under the name Pauvre Perdu (poor lost boy). At last, Florimont joins a group of warriors who are riding to rescue King Philip from Camdiobras. By single-handedly defeating the Hungarian attacker, Florimont wins the hand of the beautiful Romadanaple and her inheritance, which he unites with his own.

Inside a palace bearded king places the crown on the head of a kneeling prince with a crowned lady kneeling beside him. A group of courtiers watch.

The coronation of Florimont and Romadanaple, in the Livre du Roy Florimont fiz du duc d'AlbanyeParis, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms français 12566, f. 179v 

Florimont goes on to have many adventures, including defeating a monstrous sea dragon and returning to Albania to rescue his parents from a giant, who has imprisoned them in a castle. Most importantly, Florimont and Romadanaple have a son, who becomes Philip II of Macedon. Philip marries Olympias and their son is none other than Alexander the Great.  

Aimon de Varennes, author of the romance of Florimont, was a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France. Aimon claimed to have unearthed the tale during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

A photograph of a walled medieval town with towers on a hilltop.-800wi
The village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009 

Aimon may have travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive. His Romance does retain certain ‘Greek’ words, which demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out in the prequel in a 13th-century manuscript of the Roman de Florimont (Harley MS 4487).

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement

Il lavoit en grece veue ...                                     

A Phelippole la trova                                            

A chastillon len aporta                                         

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                   

('Aymon conceived the romance well

He had seen it in Greece

He found it in Philippolis

Brought it to Chatillon

As he had learned it

He changed it from Latin into Romance')

(f. 3r, column 1, lines 8–9; 31–36)

A text page in 2 columns with red initials, and a note in cursive script beneath
The opening page of the manuscript with the author’s name and a 14th century ownership inscription in the lower margin, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' (?Lotharingia, 1295): Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

Towards the end of the tale, Aimon even claims that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage   

(f. 85v, column 2, lines 13–14)

You can discover more tales connected to Alexander in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth. The show is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023, and tickets can be purchased online or in person, subject to availability.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

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