Medieval manuscripts blog

1141 posts categorized "Medieval"

16 March 2023

Claim of thrones

Who was the first Queen of England in her own right? Matilda? Lady Jane Grey? Mary? Does Isabel of Portugal spring to mind?

To set the scene. On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) died at the Tower of London, the prisoner of his rival Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483), the first Yorkist king. Henry had no surviving heirs, and his death took place during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil in England. For over a century, the English throne had been disputed by two rival families: Lancaster and York.

Amidst this conflict, and only a month after Henry VI’s death, Isabel of Portugal (b. 1397, d. 1471), dowager Duchess of Burgundy, laid a claim to the English throne. In a solemn document issued on 17 June 1471, Isabel declared herself universal heiress of the late king. The charter in which Isabel claimed her rights to the crown of England (Add Ch 8043) has been digitised for our Medieval and Renaissance Women Project.

The document in which Isabel of Portugal claimed the crown of England

Isabel of Portugal claims her rights to the crown of England and declares herself universal heiress of Henry VI, the late king: Add Ch 8043

Isabel of Portugal, dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was the daughter of João I, King of Portugal (r. 1385–1433), and Queen Philippa of Lancaster (b. 1360, d. 1415). Through her maternal lineage, Isabel shared a common ancestor with King Henry VI of England: John of Gaunt (b. 1340, d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Isabel’s grandfather and Henry VI’s great-grandfather. It was on the grounds of this consanguinity (the kinship of two individuals characterized by the sharing of common ancestors) that Isabel made claim to the English throne.

Page of an illuminated manuscript showing John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe

John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe, including Isabel of Portugal (in red, right-hand margin), from the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 10r

The charter was signed by Isabel herself, and it was validated by two notaries, Hugo de le Val and Matheus de Hamello, clergymen of the city of Arras in France (‘presbiter canonicus Atrebatensibus’). These notarial marks, together with Isabel’s signature, conferred legal validity upon this document.

Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks

Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks: Add Ch 8043

However, Isabel did not hold on to her claim to the English throne for long. Only a few months later, on 3 November 1471, she ceded her rights to her son, Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy. At this time Isabel was 74 years old, and she died soon afterwards, on 17 December 1471, in the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in France. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, ruled over England until 1483, surviving both Isabel and Charles the Bold, mother and son.

Manuscript page with a miniature of Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court

Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court: Yates Thompson MS 32, f. 14r

Although her claim never succeeded, this document demonstrates that Isabel of Portugal tried actively to take advantage of a time of political instability and unrest in England, in order to advance her own position and, more hopefully, that of her son. Isabel was well aware of her lineage to the late Henry VI, and at a time of turbulence and doubt during the Wars of the Roses, she did not hesitate to assert herself as universal heir.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 March 2023

A deathbed confession

One of the more unusual documents digitised as part of the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Add Ch 67394, a sworn testimony by four men that they had been told the deathbed confession of a woman called Alice of Hulton. It is the missing piece in a 600-year-old case involving an affair, a divorce, and a lovechild.

A small charter with four red seals attached

Declaration by Brother John Bradfield, Robert of Hebton, William Brechton of Ekygan and John Fogg of Bradshaw, regarding the deathbed confession of Alice of Hulton, 20 December 1447: Add Ch 67394

Alice of Hulton had been the lover of Robert of Pilkington, lord of Rivington in Lancashire. A soldier who fought in France in the Hundred Years War, Robert had testified in the famous Scrope v Grosvenor case in the Court of Chivalry in 1386. But he had his own legal problems to worry about.

Robert had married a different Alice, Alice of Astley, in 1379, but this was annulled in July that same year, as Alice of Astley was distantly related to Alice of Hulton, with whom he had had a relationship in 1367. He then married Katherine de Aynesworth in 1383 and they had seven children together. Despite this seemingly stable marriage, Robert spent the 1390s transferring his estates to various trustees, both within and without his family, seemingly to protect them from an unknown rival claimant. The reason for this takes us back to Alice of Hulton.

As it turned out, Robert’s second wife, Katherine, was also a cousin of Alice of Hulton, requiring him to secure a dispensation from the Pope in 1403 to confirm the validity of his marriage. On top of this, Alice of Hulton and Robert of Pilkington had a daughter, Imania, born out of wedlock in the late 1360s. Robert married Imania off to Roger of Bolton in 1385, seemingly forgetting about her until she and Roger had a son in the 1390s, also named Robert. Pilkington’s legal manoeuvres in the 1390s were his attempts to stop Imania’s son, his grandson, from having any claim on his lands. With the papal dispensation confirming his marriage in 1403, Pilkington died that year probably safe in the knowledge that his family’s estates were now secure.

A family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, showing their connections and links to Robert of Pilkington

Family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, from John Pilkington, The History of the Pilkington Family and its Branches from 1066 to 1600 (Liverpool, 1912), p. 221

So why was Alice of Hulton's testimony important in 1447, 44 years after Pilkington's death? That's because two years previously, in 1445, Imania's son, Robert son of Roger of Bolton, appeared in court to try and claim Rivington as the son and heir of Imania, over Pilkington's children by Katherine.

The case must still have been live in 1447, when these four men put their seals to this certificate. In it, they say that, while Alice of Hulton lay dying, William of Lener had heard a Richard French of Bolton proclaim that the divorce between Pilkington and Alice of Astley had been done under a false pretext, implying that Richard believed Pilkington and Alice of Hulton had not slept together. Lener said that Alice of Hulton swore that this was a lie, and that 'she would swear before almighty God at the day of doom that she had known part of the body of the said Robert in fleshly deed of sin'.

Despite Alice’s deathbed confession recorded in this document, her grandson Robert was unsuccessful in securing part of the estates of his grandfather, Robert of Pilkington. Rivington remained in the Pilkington family until it was sold in 1605. This small document is part of a fascinating story of the complexities of medieval marriage and inheritance, and preserves one woman’s attempt to tell her own story about her relationship with a powerful local lord.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for funding our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 March 2023

Where there's a will

One of the benefits of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project is that we have been able to focus on groups of documents that have features in common. Individually, these documents provide insight into the lives (and after-lives) of particular named women; collectively, this evidence is all the richer for revealing social trends and patterns of behaviour. Into this category falls a number of wills of women from the 13th to the 16th centuries, from England, Flanders and Germany.

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg, 1534: Add Ch 74114

A full list of the women's wills digitised as part of this project is given at the end of this blogpost. They number 22 individual wills, some with probate certificates, and a commission by the archbishop of Canterbury to administer a will. It's more than likely that many of the women in whose names these wills were issued would have been obliterated from the historical record if these documents had not survived.

The women named in these wills came from different walks of life but they had shared experiences. In each case, they wished to make provision for their possessions and property after they had died, and to make arrangements for the salvation of their souls. Many of them are described as widows. Does this mean that, as they had no husbands to inherit their goods, it was more incumbent upon them to set out who should be the beneficiaries?

Several women were keen to stipulate where they should be buried. In 1318, Gunnilda atte Denne requested that her body be buried in the churchyard of St Peter Newdigate, and she made a bequest to that church for her obit mass (Add Ch 17295). In 1504, Katherine Cooke prescribed that her body be buried in the chapel of St Mary at St Michael the Archangel’s church, Lewes, next to the tomb of John Cooke, her husband (Add Ch 18791). She also left money for the maintenance of her tomb, for masses for her soul, and to Agnes Chamber, her daughter. In 1411, Margery, the widow of John Todenham, knight, left her body to be buried in the chancel of the Austin Friars, Thetford, next to the tomb of Elizabeth Homgrave, her daughter (Add Ch 24243).

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne, 1318: Add Ch 17295

We can also gain insights into the wider social circles and support networks of medieval and Renaissance women. For instance, in 1342, Elizabeth, the widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley, made bequests to her brothers' children and to her siblings (Add Ch 16789). In 1500,  Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape, made bequests to her daughters, her goddaughter, and her goddaughter’s family (Add Ch 26317). In 1360, Katherine de Bassi of Tournai, wife of the late Baldwin du Bas, made payments to parish priests, hostels, hospitals, the sick, her relatives and those of her husband (Add Ch 75719). Katherine was here providing for the salvation of her soul, but one imagines that the people listed in her bequest deserved her favour in one way or another.

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai: Add Ch 75719

It is possible to gauge from this documentary material that particular women may have had significant accomplishments, or moved in particular circles. We know, for example, that Margery de Crek was the founder of Flixton Priory. In her will, dated the morrow of the feast of St Luke the Evangelist (19 October), 1282, she left her body to be buried in the church there, which she had founded in 1258 (LFC Ch III 1). She made other bequests to this convent, to the bishop of Norwich, and to her family. One of the most detailed wills we have digitised, comprising 3 membranes folded into bifolia and sewn together, is that of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg, dated 1534, and which was certified by the Burgomeister and council of that city (Add Ch 74114). In her will, dated 14 July 1574, Agnes Fearne made provision to establish a free school and a bedehouse at Wirksworth (Derbyshire) (Wolley Ch XII 31). We know that her sister’s stepson and Anthony Gell, one of her executors, founded the school and bedehouse in 1576.

Lfc_ch_iii_1_f001r

The will of Margery de Crek, founder of Flixton Priory, 1282: LFC Ch III 1

In one instance, a will survives of a woman who was subsequently declared intestate. On 18 March 1455, Sibylla Frances of Dunwich committed her body in her will to the Franciscans of Dunwich, besides making bequests to them, the parish church of Shaddingfield(?), and Peter Codon, the son of Robert Codon (Add Ch 10392). Other records show that by 1457 Sibylla was intestate, implying that her will had either been lost or that it had been deemed invalid. In other words, leaving a will was no guarantee that the woman's wishes be carried out to the letter.

Add Ch 6290

Will of Joan Ward, widow, of St Saviour’s Parish, Southwark (1544)

Add Ch 10392

Will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich (1455)

Add Ch 16789

Will and probate certificate of Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley (1342)

Add Ch 17295

Will and probate certificate of Gunnilda atte Denne (1318)

Add Ch 18791

Will and probate certificate of Katherine Cook of St Andrew’s parish, Lewes (1504)

Add Ch 19146

Will and probate certificate of Margaret, widow of John de Covert (1367)

Add Ch 24243

Will and probate certificate of Margery, widow of John Todenham, knight (1411)

Add Ch 26317

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape (1500)

Add Ch 28766

Will of Isabella Russell, widow of John Churchhay of Frome (1361)

Add Ch 60433

Will and probate certificate of Margaret Hervy of Ryburgh (1508)

Add Ch 65797

Commission by Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, to administer the will of Emota Newton, widow (1481)

Add Ch 70581

Will of Margaret Canon (1424)

Add Ch 70587

Will of Margery Loqmer, widow of John Loqmer of Newington-next-Hythe (1473)

Add Ch 70593

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Chiltern, widow, wife of John Chiltern of Newington-next-Hythe (1481)

Add Ch 70601

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Leigh, widow, of the parish of Cheriton (1516)

Add Ch 74114

Will of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg (1534)

Add Ch 75719

Will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai (1360)

Add Ch 77153

Will of Isabella Storke, wife of William Denton of the diocese of Ely (1496)

Egerton Ch 8256

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Sowle (1465)

LFC Ch III 1

Will of Margery de Crek (1282)

Wolley Ch XII 31

Will of Agnes Fearne, widow, of Wirksworth (1574)

Wolley Ch XII 31a

Probate certificate of the will of Agnes Fearne (1575)

The British Library is immensely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for the funding of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.


Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 March 2023

Bringing the Cotton fragments to life

One of the most catastrophic episodes in modern library history was the Ashburnham House fire. On the night of 29 October 1731, a fire took hold below the room which held the famous Cotton collection, containing many of the most iconic historical and literary treasures from early times, among them Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some of these items escaped the flames intact, others were singed or damaged by the water used to douse the fire, while many hundreds were burned significantly or completely destroyed. The fire-damaged survivors are held today at the British Library, but many of them remain extraordinarily difficult to handle or are too blackened to be read with the naked eye.

CottonMS_VitelliusFXI_f2v_PSC

One of the burnt pages from a 10th-century Irish Psalter: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1v

But help is now at hand. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Goldhammer Foundation, since 2020 the Library has been engaged in a project to bring some of the fragmentary Cotton remains to life. We have used multispectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged items, and our conservation team has employed new techniques to re-house some of the most vulnerable fragments and to improve the handling of the bound volumes.

Over the coming months, we will feature on this Medieval Manuscripts Blog stories about the most recent restoration of the burnt Cotton manuscripts, but here is a sample to whet your appetite. In due course, the items themselves will be available to view online in all their glory. The Cotton fire may have had tragic consequences, but there is potentially some light at the end of the tunnel.

Cotton MS Fragments I is a 12th-century manuscript containing a compilation of historical, geographical and other texts, made at Saint-Bertin. This work has been shown to be closely related to the Liber Floridus (‘Book of Flowers'), an important medieval encyclopedia made by Lambert, canon of Saint-Omer, between 1090 and 1100. Among its many texts, the manuscript notably contains an early plan of the city of Jerusalem, near impossible to discern in its current burnt state, but which can now be seen again in the new multispectral images.

Cotton_ms_fragments_i_f019r-(MSI-and-Standard)

A plan of the city of Jerusalem, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments I, f. 19r

In the 19th century, many of the fire-damaged Cotton manuscripts underwent intensive restoration, led principally by the efforts of Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. During this process, their folios were often remounted and reorganised. However, some of the smallest and most fragile of the burnt fragments could not be reunited with their original volumes and were instead housed separately in nine small boxes, now known as Cotton MS Fragments XXXII. One focus of this project has been the imaging and preservation of these tiny fragments, some measuring as little as a few millimetres in diameter. 

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxxii!3_fragment_1r

A fragment of a burnt Old English manuscript: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/3, Fragment 1r

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxxii!2_fragment_1r

A burnt fragment from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/2, Fragment 1r

Our project also includes a number of illuminated manuscripts. Particularly notable is an early Gallican Psalter, made in Ireland during the first half of the 10th century. This Psalter was so badly damaged in the 1731 fire that the 1802 catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts stated that it was ‘desideratur’ (destroyed). The Psalter was subsequently rediscovered by Madden, who remounted and reorganised its pages.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_f_xi_f001r-(MSI-and-Standard)

An illustration of David and Goliath from an early 10th-century Irish Psalter, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1r

The Psalter features two full-page illustrations, now placed at the beginning of the volume, which depict David killing Goliath (f. 1r) and David enthroned, playing a harp (f. 2r); they were once placed at the openings of Psalms 51 and 102, facing framed initial pages. It also features numerous zoomorphic initials, made up of the bent bodies of ribbon shaped animals or distinctive panels of interlace.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_f015r

The beginning of Psalm 51 from the Irish Psalter, showing a zoomorphic initial, set within a full-page frame, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 3r

We are extremely grateful to Gina Goldhammer and the Goldhammer Foundation for their generous support of the Cotton Fragments Project. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Christina Duffy (formerly Research Imaging Scientist at the Library) and our conservation team (Gavin Moorhead, Camille Dekeyser, Gary Kelly, Francesca Whymark and Mark Oxtoby), without whom none of this could have been achieved.

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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02 March 2023

Venusse was her name

How were royal children brought up in the Middle Ages? A manuscript newly digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project supplies us with clues. Add MS 37656, a household account book compiled in 1305 by John de Claxton, keeper of the wardrobe, demonstrates how women were in charge of key aspects of the care of two medieval princes, Thomas of Brotherton (b. 1300, d. 1338) and Edmund of Woodstock (b. 1301, d. 1330).

The opening page of the household account

The household account of Princes Thomas and Edmund: Add MS 37656, f. 1r

Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, afterwards Earls of Norfolk and Kent, were the fifth and sixth sons of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and the first by his second marriage to Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318). At the time when this household account was compiled, the princes were four and three years old respectively. and lived primarily in the royal residences at Ludgershall (Wiltshire), under the supervision of a governess (‘magistra’) named Lady Edelina de Venusse. Lady Edelina was in charge of the princes' upbringing, wellbeing and provisioning, and she played a key role in their education. She was in charge of administering their household, and even had a damsel at her service.

Royal_ms_14_b_vi_f007r

The children of Edward I in a genealogical roll (Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock are on the right: Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 7r

Together with Lady Edelina, another nine women are mentioned in this account. One of them is none other than Mary of Woodstock, Thomas and Edmund’s older half-sister, who was a nun at Amesbury Priory but spent significant periods of time visiting and living with her younger siblings. The other women named in this record are mostly unknown, and this account is almost certainly the only evidence of the roles they played within the royal household. Among them are three nurses or nursemaids, two women assistants, a washerwoman, and the damsel who served Lady Edelina. Here is list of all the women mentioned in the household account:

  • Lady Mary of Woodstock, nun of Amesbury and the sister of Thomas and Edmund.
  • Lady Edelina de Venusse, governess (‘magistra’) of the princes’ household.
  • Mabel of Raunds, Thomas’ nurse (‘nutrix’).
  • Perretta de Poissy, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Edmund.
  • Erembourga, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Thomas.
  • (Unnamed) damsel of Lady Edelina.
  • Annis of Northampton, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Pernell de Boweys, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Matilda, washerwoman (‘lotrix’).
  • A certain Joanna, who is said to be 'the daughter of Isabella'.

These women not only provided the care and upbringing of the young princes, but they were also the recipients of numerous gifts and pieces of clothing. For example, Lady Edelina, Mabel the nurse, and Erembourga and Perretta, the nursemaids received coloured cloth to make corsets for themselves. Queen Margaret also ordered gifts valued at £12 13s 4d for Edelina, Mabel and Perretta as a reward for the work they had undertaken in caring for Thomas and Edmund.

A page from the household accounts

The entries recording the gifts to Edelina, Mabel and Perretta (the first paragraph of this page): Add MS 37656, f. 4v

The household account also records a series of objects and items that were bought for the royal children, providing us with a glimpse of day-to-day life during their early childhood. One of the entries records that a certain Martin the Minstrel was given 2 shillings as compensation for his services, but also for the repair of his drum, which had been broken by Thomas and Edmund, presumably when they were playing with the instrument. It is also noted that, during a time when Edmund was ill, sugar candies, apples, pears and, notably, a urinal were purchased for him. The princes also enjoyed the company of a pet ferret that was bought for them to catch rabbits.

A photograph of Ludgershall Castle from the air

An overhead view of Ludgershall Castle, home to the prince and their household, courtesy of English Heritage

This household account of Thomas and Edmund provides an invaluable insight into the roles played by women in the upbringing of the royal children. It also demonstrates how female care-providers could be highly regarded and amply rewarded, in the royal household at least.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 February 2023

Alexander, Porrus and the peacock

The French Alexander Romance is a long and complex narrative, in which miraculous deeds and encounters at the edges of the known world are grafted onto the real journeys of conquest and exploration by the historical figure, Alexander the Great. This work was so popular in the 14th century that further imaginary exploits were invented to supplement it in various ways, as shown in our exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. One of these ‘spin-offs’, the Voeux du Paon (Vows of the Peacock), was composed in 1312 by Jacques de Longuyon, developing the medieval character of Alexander as a courtly figure, and inventing a new set of fictional companions for him.

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

The roast peacock is brought to the table and vows are made, in Les Voeux du Paon (?England, c. 1390–1400): Add MS 30864, f. 1r

The action in the Voeux du Paon takes place during a short interlude in the city of Epheson (?Ephesus) on Alexander’s final journey to Babylon. Alexander meets an elderly knight, Cassamus, who asks for his help to relieve the city from a siege by the evil Clarus, king of Ind; Clarus wishes to kill the young princes of Epheson, Gadifer and Betis, and marry their sister, Lady Fesonas. During a battle outside the palace, Porrus, a young Indian prince fighting alongside Clarus, is captured and imprisoned in the Chamber of Venus at Epheson, where he is treated with courtesy by the young courtiers, joining in their games.

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

Porrus in the chamber of Venus with Fesonas and young companions at Epheson: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 264, f. 133v

While wandering through the palace gardens one day, Porrus mistakenly shoots Lady Fesonas’s pet peacock, but she forgives him. It is plucked, roasted and dressed, and a feast is arranged. Courtly vows are made over the peacock under the tutelage of Alexander, who is portrayed as a force for reconciliation between East and West. He organises a competition whereby the young men undertake feats of prowess and the ladies promise themselves in marriage to suitable candidates. The subsequent military and courtly exploits are described in some detail. In the course of these, the concept of the Nine Worthies, the nine greatest knights of all time, is introduced.

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

Alexander watches as Canans is unhorsed by Lyonies, in Les Voeux du Paon: Add MS 30864, f. 10v

Edeas, one the young courtiers, vows to reconstruct the peacock in gold (this sets the scene for an entire new Romance: the sequel known as the Restor du Paon, ‘The Peacock Restored’). Having arranged the marriages and enjoyed fifteen days of celebration, Alexander sets off for Babylon, where he is destined to die by poisoning. 

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

Honouring the Golden Peacock (Paris, 1335–1340): Add MS 16888, f. 142r

The text of the Voeux du Paon was sometimes copied within or alongside the Alexander Romance, as is the case in a manuscript from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Bodley MS 264.  There are also numerous independent copies of the text. It has been judged the ‘most successful of all Old French Alexander poems’ by the scholar, David Ross, with over 40 manuscripts surviving from across Europe, many of them richly illustrated and owned by important collectors like the Dukes of Burgundy.

Eight figures behind a banqueting table. They are talking in pairs. A woman carries in a platter with a peacock on it
Alexander at the banquet of the Voeux du Paon: Bodley MS 264, f. 146v

In 1381 a banquet was held at the court of Aragon in Spain, where vows were taken over a peacock, while in 1454 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, held a banquet at Lille, known as the Banquet du Faisan (Pheasant). These somewhat bizarre princely rituals involving roast poultry (albeit of the luxury variety) were probably inspired by the Alexander/Peacock legend.

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

Courtly pursuits in Epheson: Bodley MS 264, f. 127v

In the sequel romance Restor du Paon ('The Peacock Restored'), Edeas re-creates the peacock in gold and jewels and Alexander bestows a prize on Betis, the most worthy of the men. A second sequel, the Parfait du Paon (‘The Peacock completed’), has Alexander taking part in a literary contest by composing ballads. 

People at work with hammers, anvils, tools, furnaces

Goldsmiths at work on the peacock: Bodley MS 264, f. 164v

And this was not the only ‘sequel’ to trade on the popularity of the Alexander Romance in the 14th and 15th centuries. Characters from the Peacock cycle, including Betis and Gadifer, reappear in Perceforest, a tale that supposedly takes place in pre-Arthurian Britain. Taking a detour by ship while on his journey to Babylon, Alexander is blown off course by a storm and (with a certain geographical licence) lands in the British Isles, where he founds a new dynasty and invents the medieval tournament.

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

A tournament in ancient Britain, in Perceforest (Bruges, c. 1500): Royal MS 19 E II, f.305r

You can learn more about the Alexander Romance on our website: bl.uk/alexander-the-great

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

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 February 2023

Alexander, a medieval super-hero

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

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

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

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

Classical Heroes: Alexander, Hector of Troy and Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Testament Kings: Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The roast peacock is brought to the table and vows are made, in Les Voeux du Paon (?England, c. 1390–1400): Add MS 30864, f. 1r

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

Apres fu Alixandres preus merveilleusement

 Il vainqui Nicholas et Dairon le persant

Et occist la vermine des desers d’Oriant

Il saisi Babyloine la fort cite plaisant

Ou il morut apres par empoisounement

En xii an il conquist tres viguereusement

Quanques on puet conquerre desous le firmament

'Then there was Alexander, marvellously valiant

He defeated Nicholas and Darius the Persian

And killed the vermin of the deserts of the Orient

And captured Babylon, that most pleasant city

Where he died afterwards by poisoning

In 12 years he strenuously conquered

As much as can be conquered under heaven.'

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

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

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

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

Nine coats of arms arranged in three rows of three

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 February 2023

Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handwritten text in scots language

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

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

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

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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