Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

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.

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval

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