I enjoy browsing digitized manuscripts so much that I lose my sleep over it. A few days ago I started a best off of Alexander the Great’s illumination in medieval manuscripts. That when I observed for myself that he is depicted as a 14th-15th century knight in full armour in most of pre-Renaissance manuscripts and we even find him depicted jousting against his enemy, King Porus!
Contemporary scholars like André Petit or Frédéric Duval have thought hard and long about those medieval so-called anachronisms. They came up with such complex theories about the concepts and representations of time that I couldn’t properly translate them in here. Not to say that I didn’t understand what they wrote under the obvious influence of crack… But they certainly had a long hard puff of the good shit.
From my readings I can give you four reasons as to why Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE), Julius Cesar (d. 44 BCE) and King Arthur (supposed to have lived during the 5th and 6th centuries) were depicted as full-on 15th century knights by 15th century illuminators.
#1. Another perception of the passing of time
The people living at the end of the Middle Ages sensed no rupture between the Classical Era and their own times. They didn’t know about our very 19th century fashion of cutting History into three to four main periods. They hadn’t all heard nor agreed to Petrarch’s claim that following the fall of Rome—that he himself dated back to 96 AD, by the way, and not 476 AD—Europe had sunk into some Dark Age… What really differentiated the Renaissance humanists with their intellectual predecessors, who also knew their Classical texts by heart, was that very feeling of rupture, that urge to find again what had been lost for they entertained that proto-romantic idea of loss. Medieval scholars and humanists—for the Middle Ages had its own humanists indeed—had a different relationship with Antiquity. They lived by the metaphor of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants: they were not as great as their Roman founding fathers, but thanks to them, they could see farther than mankind ever could before.
#2. Linguistic issues
Medieval scholars knew pretty well that the world was in a different state during Alexander’s times. When reading their books in Latin they were very conscious that some of the words that they were encountering used to describe realities that no longer existed. That was the whole meaning of their numerous glosses. Historical, judicial and literary Latin texts were sometimes heavily annotated. Young university students learning Latin were not only studying a new language, they were also discovering a different world. They could even, I bet, differentiate the various meanings that one single Latin word could cover if written in a classical text or in a medieval texts. That was not a problem. However, to translate Latin texts into vernacular languages came out as quite a challenge from the 13th to the 15th century for French, English or German were “poor” languages when compared to Latin. They didn’t beneficiated yet from a fixed grammar or an extensive scholarly vocabulary. That’s why the pontifex becomes the bishop, the praetor becomes a provost and the miles (originally the foot-soldier!) becomes the knight. Medieval scholars could still tell the difference of course, but this constructed a representation of Antiquity that was “very close from home” for non-erudite medieval readers.
#3. Capitalizing on a sense of legacy
When noble men read the stories of Alexander and Arthur, they certainly wished to picture themselves along those mighty heroes, fighting side by side with them on their way to immortal glory. As a matter of fact, aristocrats would very often play the part and dress up as Arthurian knights for jousting events or knightly tournaments. They were dressing up alright, but they were fighting for real. Back in the 13th century, when Wace translated into Anglo-Norman Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, he did it with a purpose: to prove that Henry II Plantagenet was the rightful ruler of England as per a translatio imperii, a “shift of power” from East to West which made England the natural heir of both Troy and Rome through the figures of Brutus (the Trojan legendary founder of Britain) and King Arthur. If such characters were to be depicted the same way late medieval Kings of England were, then it would be much easier for the latter to claim their legacy. So that’s what happened. Alexander, David, Caesar, Arthur and Charlemagne were all depicted in a way that made them somehow familiar. It would even further the idea that knighthood was a concept impervious from the passing of time: good Kings and noble knights had always existed. It was up to the new generation to carry on their long-lasting and exemplary tradition.
#4. History as a set of examples
Eventually, who do we see when we look at Alexander or Arthur in medieval manuscripts? Is it really Alexander? Or Arthur?—Does it even matter? What we actually see is the concept they symbolise: a most perfect King. It is very important to remember that History had a very clear purpose in the Late Middle Ages. It served as a set of good and bad moral examples. The real truth behind every story were not the facts they told, but the message they carried. Our very world was considered to be only the mirror of another and higher reality known as God’s own realm. The Matrix was the shit. Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire believed that himself as we can read in his autobiography. He starts by reminding that we have two faces or two shapes. One, anchored in this very world, means nothing in itself. However, as it fulfils God’s will then it can serve a purpose and escape the void that is the matter. Medieval scholars went as far as to give theological meaning to Alexander or Caesar’s adventures. Such was the real purpose of their story. Factual accuracy had nothing to do with it.
When the Portuguese humanist Vasco de Lucena decided to translate Alexander the Great’s biography for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, at the very end of the 15th century, he frowned upon the many tales that surrounded the Macedonian monarch. He bluntly rejected the romances as any kind valid historical source. Alexander was no more to be equal to Lancelot or Tristan. He had to be more. He had to be real, historically accurate. Vasco de Lucena returned to the source that he deemed the most reliable, the biography of Quintus Curtius. He followed a “scientific method” establishing Alexander’s reign period thanks to the Bible and cross-referencing other classical sources. It was the beginning of a new era but it would yet take some time for the classical aesthetic models to impose themselves and cast away the charming gothic depictions of antique heroes, as the Burgundian manuscripts holding Vasco’s translation show.
- A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages. Edited by Z. David Zuwiyya. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2011.
- Frédéric Duval, “Comment interpreter les anachronismes ? Le cas de l’histoire romaine écrite en français au début du xiiie siècle”, in Anabases (2008), 8; online edition.
- George Cary, “Alexander the Great in Medieval Theology”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1954), 17, 1/2, p. 98-114.
- Mark Cruse, Illuminating the Roman d’Alexandre. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011 (Gallica, 22).
- Theodore E. Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’”, in Speculum (1942), 17, 2, p. 226-242.
- Véronique Zara, “The Historical Figure of Arthur in Wace’s ‘Roman de Brut’”, in Arthuriana (2008), 18, 2, p. 17-30.