In-Depth

A Tale of Two Colors. Why Was the Devil Colored in Black and not in Red in Medieval Manuscripts?

I was on Twitter the other day and shared a meme of mine in which Plato talks with the devil. The person whom I sent the meme then asked me what I first constructed as a troll comment: “Why is the devil black?” We find many things on Twitter and I first thought that my interlocutor was leaning toward a slightly veiled racist comment. He kept asking, however, why was the devil pictured as black? That’s when I remembered that the devil is mostly depicted in red today and it hit me that it could be a legitimate question to understand why the devil was pictured as black in medieval manuscripts.

The Devil’s Color Today Is Red

I mean, I should have connected the dots faster! I’m Belgian and our national football/soccer team is called the ‘Red Devils’. They’re quite famous nowadays: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid C.F.), Romelu Lukaku (F.C. Internationale Milano), Dries Mertens (S.S.C. Napoli), Axel Witsen (Borussia Dortmund), Vincent Company (formerly at R.S.C. Anderlecht) and Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City F.C.). All of them are international superstars! When I went to Naples recently, I discovered that talking about the Red Devils was actually a great way to connect with locals (thank you Dries Mertens!).

Also, if you look for devils on Google image search, you’ll only see the color red in the matching results. Red is the color of Hell because it is the color of fire and Hell is constructed in our heads as a place full of fire since it is located at the core of the Earth, deep under the surface (whereas angels have white wings since they live above the clouds).

A quick Google search of the Devil will paint your web navigator in red.

However, red was not always the Devil’s color. I remember watching an old documentary—that I’m too lazy to track down—which told how he was depicted in green a long time ago. Nevertheless the color red caught on a bad reputation in the 16th century among Protestants because it was the color of the people who supported the pope*. Protestants also focused on a passage of the Apocalypse read that red was the color of the beast that rides the whore of Babylon. The color that she also wore herself:

I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color.

~ Book of Revelation, 17:3-4.

As the historian Michel Pastoureau reminds us, Martin Luther saw Rome as the new Babylon. Red was therefore the color to avoid at all cost. It comes as no surprise then that the color red gradually became more and more associated with the devil and evil. Even in the Catholic world, only women would later be allowed to wear red, that’s probably why pink is today seen as a color for little girls whereas blue is the color of little boys. But more on that later.

Back to red devils, they are so popular now that they dictate the features of fictional characters when they’re supposed to be threatening, dangerous and evil. I’ll take only one example in that regard and that is the case of Darth Maul in Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A most scarlet face hides under his black hood. He even has horns on his head instead of hair to fully assimilate him with a demon from the underworld. As soon as the audience sees his face, they know he’s an evil character and can’t be anything else but evil. It is an easy, clever and straightforward representation. If we were to extrapolate about the color red in the Star Wars universe, unless when Queen Amidala wears it (and maybe in a few other occurrences), it is quite clearly linked with evil whereas the color blue, a celestial color, represents the good. As Anakin Skywalker slowly transforms into Darth Vador, though he still wields a blue lightsaber, his eyes turn red. That aesthetic is carried on in the latest episodes of Star Wars and is fairly obvious to spot when Kylo Ren and Rey are facing each other in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

* Michel Pastoureau & Dominique Simonnet, Le petit livre des couleurs. Paris: Points, 2004.

What the Color Red Meant in the Middle Ages

Before the 16th century and prior to the Reformation, however, the color red was the noblest of all, second only to gold—and white, maybe. Red is the color of blood and the only blood that mattered was the blood of Christ, who died to save us all, according to Christian theology. It reminded its martyr. It was holy and sacred.

Seraphs, which are described as the angels who were the closest to God, were depicted with red wings in medieval manuscripts when they were not exclusively red! Various illuminations depicting the hierarchy of angels in Heaven systematically color the seraphs in red, at the very top of the celestial ladder, right next to God. I’m not making this up, look at the illuminations for yourself.

Similarly the highest ranked clerics of the Church wore red gowns. They still do. I’m talking about the cardinals of the Catholic Church, of course, that even have a shade of red, a red bird (the northern cardinal) and fishes displaying red scales (the cardinal tetra) named after them. According to Catholic theology, the Church on earth is supposed to reflect the heavenly Church of God and his angels. The pope equates God in this parallel and the cardinals equate the seraphs. Anyone who’d consider the Church not worthy of this holy comparison—because the earthly Church, reportedly founded by Christ himself, is supposed to be holy by definition—put himself in great danger. Such was the case of John Wycliffe, an English theologian who was personally protected by the King and therefore avoided ecclesiastical prosecution. Wycliffe wrote that the Church on earth couldn’t compare in terms of holiness with the heavenly Church of God. It gave birth to the long-lasting heresy of the Lollards, which would be persecuted and repressed violently.

The point I’m trying to make is that red was seen as a holy and prestigious color in the Middle Ages. As Michel Pastoureau reminds us, in his short and delightful book I’ve already referenced above, red was also the color worn by women on their wedding day, especially by brides from the lower social class.

I’ve done a quick research on that in digitized manuscripts and sure thing, we don’t see a single bride in white! White—as it is commonly known—became the traditional color of wedding gowns during the 19th century. Women were invited to wear their most expensive and lavish dress on their wedding day during the Middle Ages and red pigments were particularly expensive, beyond the fact that the color red carried a highly spiritual meaning. As for jewels, women often borrowed from their relatives on their big day but mostly they wore crowns. I’ve seen a few examples of golden and blue dresses—in one case I spotted a green dress. However, if the bride is not wearing any red herself, the groom or the witnesses would wear it instead. Red was the color of weddings!

Which brings us, naturally, to the infamous “Red Wedding” written by G.R.R. Martin in his novel series A Song of Fire and Ice—adapted for television in Game of Thrones. I will only mention it to stress how that wedding didn’t fit any properly medieval setting. Rarely do we read about weddings ending ugly in medieval chronicles. A wedding was a sacred ceremony, not only a feast but a holy moment well defined and framed by the Church. Any crime committed during a wedding would have resulted in the most pernicious and vicious excommunication. Carrying on sieges and battles on holy days were already the mainsprings of bad reputation to knights and military commanders. Joan of Arc suffered such a fate when she led the siege of Paris on a day devoted to the Virgin Mary. Straight out murders and massacres on wedding days would have caused the utter destruction of anyone’s reputation and it would have cost him all his allies. This was not a smart move. It is funny how sometimes G.R.R. Martin properly draws from medieval history, like when he writes about the death of Robert Baratheon during a wild boar hunting party, yet more often than not he stretches away from historical veracity to come up with his own symbolism. The Red Wedding is red because of all the blood that was shed. Weddings were red in the Middle Ages because most people dressed in red on such occasions and the color red carried a noble spiritual meaning.

Red Beasts and Black Beasts

Red was the color of the divine, a color that carried prestige and meant power. If the Good, the Bad and the Ugly were medieval colors, the Good would be red, the Bad would be black, and the Ugly would be another tale entirely—though he could also be black. Such a definition helps us understand how animals were categorized in the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio. The author, presumably Henry of Ferrières, divides commonly hunted forest animals into two sorts: the red beasts (the noble ones) and the black beasts (the nasty ones).

The five red beasts are the following: the deer, the doe, the fallow deer, the roe and the hare. The five black beasts are as follows: the boar, the sow, the wolf, the fox and the otter. One could argue that the fox is a red beast but the terminology here carries meaning beyond the sole color of the animal’s fur. The Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio is not only a hunting treatise, it is also an allegorical tale. Every time King Modus explains how animals are to be hunted, Queen Ratio delivers the symbolic and spiritual meaning of those animals according to the Christian faith and the Catholic dogma. That’s why she argues that if the deer has ten pikes on his antlers to defend himself from harm, the Christian has the Ten Commandments at his disposal to shield himself against all evil. The deer not only belongs to the “good beasts”, it is a Christological beast, whereas the boar is an evil animal that guards the satanic tree of the Devil’s Ten Commandments. It all belongs to the rhetoric that our world is merely the projected shadow of a higher one: God’s own realm.

What’s funny though is that in most manuscripts containing the Books of King Modus and Queen Ratio I found out that the boar was represented upon a red background (see above). So there may be more to red that I let on is this blog post. Indeed, as you can also see in the few illuminations depicting St John that I’ve encountered, the devil taunting him as he writes the Book of Revelation is not systematically black, he can also be red! Oh, the flimsiness of cultural and representation studies. What’s funny with the Late Middle Age allegoric literature is that anything could be seen as godly or devilish depending on the author’s intent as long as it respected or reminded the Catholic dogma in any way, shape or form. Even the fornication tales of Jupiter could carry a divine meaning to the more daring of medieval scholars. They wrote several books around that theme—but as Maz Kanata puts it in The Force Awakens: “That’s a story of another time.”

Going Full Circle: Black Beasts as the Beast

Boars, sows, wolves, foxes and otters were all considered as pests to get rid of. They were deemed dangerous. It was indeed a risky venture to hunt the wild boar in the forest, as many romances told and several dead kings proved to be true. Age of Empires 2 players must also be very careful when hunting the wild boars in the Dark Age.

Such beasts, the black beasts, were thought to stink, to bite, to destroy everything in their path. It comes as no surprise then that the Beast, the incarnation of evil, would adopt their features and characteristic. The Beast had to be black. And since it was formerly an angel, it had wings! But not any wings: bat wings.

Illuminated manuscript. Medieval manuscript. Devil. Cistercian lay brother. BnF
A cistercian lay brother cutting down a devilish creature – Paris, BnF, fr. 2608, f. 381r

Bats didn’t have the best reputation during the Middle Ages depending on where they lived. In Northern Spain? They were loved—but more on that in a minute. In Northern France? Not so much. To begin with, bats hairless, which is the reason why they’re called “bald mouse” in French (“chauve-souris”), and it gave way to several interpretations. Not all of them favorable to their kin. Bats are naked as the alcoholics and the gluttons are naked from selling even their clothes in order to give way to their addiction. That’s how the Ovide moralisé puts it*.

Moreover, the Latin word for bat is “vespertilio” (in Old French it was still “vespertille”). It meant “the bird that flies at night” or the bird of darkness. Bats are pleased to live in the dark and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They flee the light. Such are the sinners, who run away from knowledge and the holy beacon of faith and truth that was the Church (supposedly).

The Beast, who’s dark and black and master of evil, only has bat wings as a natural conclusion of the medieval symbolism I presented here to you. It answers the question why the devil was black in medieval manuscripts instead of red but it does not end this blog post. Here comes the bonus section for those who stuck until the end!

The Devil may have turned red, sure, yet he still appears in black today but in disguise, with another name and under another mantle. At night, he roams the streets of a major city that is infested by criminals. He tracks them down and give them Hell. You know that new devil yourself. His name is known to you. Batman, he is called. How did he acquire such a name? The legend says that Bruce Wayne was pondering at night how to inflict fear to criminals. In his office, he gathered his thoughts.

“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black terrible… a… a…”

As if in answer, a huge bat flied in the open window.

“A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen..; I shall become a bat!”

And thus is born in this weird figure of the dark… this avenger of evil: the Batman.

~ DC #33, Nov. 1939

However, Bruce Wayne was certainly not the first person to have a bat fly in and become an omen. Oh, no! Such a fate happened to King James I of Aragon in the 13th century. Remember when I told you that bats had a good reputation in Northern Spain? Here is why**.

King James was in his tent, just as Bruce Wayne was in his office. King James pondered about the upcoming battle, just as Bruce Wayne pondered about his upcoming crusade against criminals. The word crusade is almost too fitting here since King James was readying himself against Moorish enemies. As he spotted the bat, he figured it was a good omen—just as Bruce Wayne did—and he put the symbol of a bat on the top of his banners the next day. The battle was won and since then bats have been figures of good luck in the region of Valencia and Barcelona, even to this day!

I started mentioning a football/soccer team. It is only fitting that I’d end up with another: the Valencia C.F. which celebrated its hundred-year anniversary this very year! If you look at their jersey, you’d see a bat on the top of their flag. As a matter of fact, it clearly reminds Iberian medieval coat of arms, where bats were not uncommon but very much present (I’ll let you look it up for yourselves).

Oh, the flimsiness of cultural and representation studies!

On a final word, I leave you to reconsider the hypothesis advanced by Gabriel Iglesias aka Fluffy. Could Batman be Mexican? King James spoke a kind of Spanish. Therefore Batman might very well be hispanic! Enjoy the video.

* More on that: Angela Calenda, “La métamorphose des Minéides en chauves-souris dans l’Ovide moralisé”, in Reinardus. Yearbook of the International Reynard Society, 28 (2016), p. 23-30.

** More on that: Denise Tupinier, “Origine et signification de la Chauve-Souris dans les provinces du Levant espagnol”, in Publications de la Société Linnéenne de Lyon, 54-2 (1985), p. 52-56.

Fun Fact

Are You A Good Person? ~ The Game of the Blind and the Pig

Early depiction of the game of the blind and the pig ~ Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 74v

You’re a nice and kind person, are you not? I mean, not to everybody, of course, you’d kill your noisy neighbour in a heartbeat like anybody else, but let’s say you see a blind person in the street trying to board on a bus by himself. You’ll help him—right?—because that’s the right thing to do.

You’ll even be what we can call a “good Christian.” Indeed, we read in the Leviticus (9, 17)—among many nonsensical and very outdated prescriptions—: “Do not put a stumbling block in front the blind.” Jesus himself reminds us about the blind (John 9, 3): “Neither this man nor his parent sinned.” Meaning that blindness is not some kind of divine retribution. It’s just… Shit happens bro. *Shrugs.* I’m sorry it happened to you.

You’ll forgive me being preachy there a minute, quoting the Bible and all, but we’re talking about the Middle Ages in this post and we know how important religion was during the Middle Ages. Right?

I mean, there was no way people would go against the moral prescriptions of the Church back then. Right?

It’s not like you’d gather blind people, hand them weapons and ask them to hit a dangerous moving target at the risk of hitting themselves. Right?

Right?!

Well… *Sighs.* Nope.

I found some cheese!

When you see how Dukes and Kings embraced adultery, if not debauchery, and broke their wedding vows on a daily basis—I’m looking right at you, Philip the Good!—, you can’t be too surprised when you read about blind people being pitted against a pig. In a fenced square. For the merriment of an urban crowd. Despite Jesus’ teachings.

~That last sentence was too long so I added a few periods for dramatic effect.~

This is exactly what happened on August 29th, 1425, in Paris. The Moon entered Libra that morning and it would have called for a peaceful and well ordained day, yet the people of Paris didn’t hear it that way.

The whole “Paris: City of Light” turned out to be fake news and they were totally fed up with natural disasters, unruly companies of bandits, a desultory nobility, conniving merchants and corrupt churchmen. Children were being snatched from their homes to be allegedly eaten by wolves or actually dismembered by vagrants that turned them into beggars. Young women prostitute themselves not to starve. The Seine would flood Notre-Dame and drown horses every year or so. Whenever a new army would take control of Paris the city was brutally sacked. Those were not the good old times. Just ask the anonymous author of the “Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris” how pissed he was. I mean, there’s a good reason that the people of Paris still behave like total dicks on a sunny day. They’ve endured a lot. Their streets, houses and bridges still carry the memory of those long awful years and it poisons their minds! It’s the only logical explanation for them being so disparaging all the time. It’s rooted deep down in their “stadtgeist” or city spirit DNA.

But I digress.

On August 29th, 1425, a few blind people were herded, given weapons and asked to kill a pig. The one who would kill it would win its meat. It turned into a ghastly spectacle. The blind started to hit each other, thinking they were hitting the pig. The pig would run them over and trample them. They’d have killed one another if they’d been armed with actual weapons.

It all sounds like a random anecdote but it turns out to be a very famous game from the Late Middle Ages, especially in Northern Germany, the Low Countries and in Northern France. The first actual record of such a game is dated from 1386, in Lubeck, though medieval scholars mention such events already in the 13th century.

Well, believe me, the people of Lubeck knew what they were doing.

During Carnival, the young lords of Lubeck picked out twelve healthy blinds. They made them drink to heighten their joy and spirit, then they plastered their bodies with cuirasses, equipped them with mismatched pieces of armour and put helmets on their heads but backwards to insure that they really couldn’t see anything.

[Translated from Richard (2015), p. 525]

Followed the same scene that happened in Paris, on August 29th, 1425. It turned into a bloody mess. For one thing. Pigs back then were not cute hairless pink babes. No. They were still pretty much fearless wild boars. Hoink! Hoink! They really took a page from Pumba’s book and charged head on yelling “They call me MISTER PIG. Yaaah!” Many a mighty lord faced with such a terrible foe died in the process of fighting the ungulate beast. I’ll write about it in a later post.

To even the odds, the pig would sometimes be tethered to a post or readied with a little bell. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! This is the sound of death. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! You’re dead. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! And the brave folks of the market place are laughing at your corpse! Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling! Isn’t it a shame that you were born blind just to die that way?

One thing is sure, John the Blind experienced a more epic and respectable outcome.

Olivier Richard gives many interpretations of this “urban ritual.” The one that really struck me though is how this parody of a fight is, actually, the parody of a fight! More especially the parody of a knightly tournament. It is not a coincidence that this game happened during Carnival in Lubeck, in 1386. Then in Paris, in 1425, it was held near the Hotel d’Armagnac, the mansion of most hated lord that the people of Paris were more than happy to deride.

Most of the time, the game of the blind and the pig was held within a series of events that would constitute a festival of some sort. When the Emperor, Maximilian of Hapsburg, came to Bruges in January 1481 with his wife, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy and Countess of Flanders, the dutiful people of Flanders organized several days of festivity. It started with a knightly tournament of the outmost noble fashion. It ended up with blind people pitted against their worst enemy: the pig.

This game would be played up until the 20th century in Flanders! However, from the 16th century onwards, the participants were not actual blinds anymore, but regular people with covered eyes. Some chroniclers share some doubts though, like Alphonse Vandenpeereboom, writing in the 17th century. He rules out the possibility that actual blinds were pitted against the pig but only because he thinks it would be too cruel. Was he right, though? Were people actually nicer in his times than they were two to five centuries ago? What would it teach us about our society as a whole?

Well… it’s all a prank and fake news anyway. #Trololo We all know blinds are actually secret Kung Fu masters that would eat you for breakfast. Isn’t that right, Hundred Eyes?

Further readings:
~ Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris de 1405 à 1449. Edited by Colette Beaune. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1990 (Lettres Gothiques).
~ Olivier Richard, “Le jeu des aveugles et du cochon. Rite, handicap et société urbaine à la fin du Moyen Âge”, in Revue historique (2015), 675, p. 525-556.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Fun Fact

Alexander the Great depicted in Medieval Manuscripts

Foreword

Alexander the Great was a very popular hero in Medieval Litterature, nothing short of a Marvel or DC character. As a matter of fact his true story was slightly forgotten and casted away in favor of wonders and legends.

Here under you’ll find my personal best off of medieval illuminations telling the fabulous stories of Alexander the Great in various manuscripts. Expect this best off to grow over time!

How Alexander was Conceived

A great man can only have a great birth. It is said that Buddha was born he looked around and then took 7 paces in the direction of the 4 cardinal points. Just like that. He was born and he could already walk up straight.

The Legend of Alexander’s legendary birth however draws closer to Suetonius’ reported tale of Augustus’ birth [Suet., 12 Caes., 2:94]:

I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.

Similarly, Alexander’s birth is linked to a divine figure of the Sun and results of a sexual act with a ‘serpent’. Well, in his case, it was no less than a dragon which got involved!

Nectanebus was an astrologer who predicted to queen Olympias of Macedonia that she’d be visited by Amon in the form of a dragon and that she would give birth out of their union. However, Nectanebus got tired of waiting and turned into a dragon and visited Olympias at night. According to that story, Alexander is therefore a bastard!

Why are you so shocked? So was King Arthur. Read Geoffrey of Monmouth [Hist. Reg. Brit., 8:19]:

After this victory Uther repaired to the city of Alclud, where he settled the affairs of that province, and restored peace everywhere. […] The Easter following he ordered all the nobility in the kingdom to meet, in order to celebrate that great festival, in honour of which he designed to wear his crown. […] Among the guests was present Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, with his wife Igerna, the greatest beauty in all Britain. No sooner had the king cast his eyes upon her among the rest of the ladies, than he fell passionately in love with her, and little regarding the rest, made her the subject of all his thoughts. She was the only lady that he continually served with fresh dishes, and to whom he sent golden cups by his confidants; on her he bestowed all his smiles, and to her addressed all his discourse. […] A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, he said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.” […]

Merlin, therefore, being introduced into the king’s presence, was commanded to give his advice, how the king might accomplish his desire with respect to Igerna. And he, finding the great anguish of the king, was moved by such excessive love, and said, “To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois […]; and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.” The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; [then he] underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois. […] The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amourous discourses wherewith he entertained her. […] She refused him nothing which he desired.

The same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity.

Oh, because you thought Jon Snow’s story and the ‘R + L = J’ theory was an original idea? You thought works of fiction never saw a bastard prince secretely being the actual heir to the throne prophesied to save or take over the world? Yeah. Sure!

Ever since Jesus, magical bastards that can survive or come back from death tend to be plentiful and rather generic. Yet we love them. We can’t help it.

Nectanebus Prophesies Alexander’s Birth

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 3r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus addressing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r)

Nectanebus Lays with Queen Olympias

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon and in bed with Olympias (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 11r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus disguised as a dragon beside Olympias’s bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus practicising enchantments on Olympias, who lies in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 8v)

Nectanabus Keeps Flirting in the Shape of a Dragon

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon kissing Olympias at King Philip’s feast (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 12v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as dragon kissing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as a dragon at Philip’s table (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v)

The Legend Refuted

As the 15th century went by and the Renaissance grew closer, scholars were tired to see fables get the better of the nobility’s knowledge of History. Vasco de Lucena decided to refute the legends regarding Alexander the Great and to translate Quitus Curtius Rufus’ biography of the Macedonian king. Nevertheless, his erudite translation was illustrated with well-known legendary tales. His work states how Alexander the Great couldn’t be born from a dragon. Vasco de Lucena even goes as far as to quote the Holy Scriptures to do so. Yet, the illuminations made to embellish several of the manuscripts containing his work still act as reminders of Nectanebus’ fabled fatherhood.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. BnF, français 257. Quinte Curse. Vasco de Lucena. Life of Alexander.
Birth of Alexander the Great (Paris, BnF, fr. 257, f. 1r)

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Alexander battles monsters on his way to India

“Go West, young man!” did they say in 19th century Northern America. During the European Middle Ages, however, it was more like “Go East, young man!” And so did Alexander. Did he expect to face dragons, giants and other monsters on his way to conquer India? As you can see, he seemed pretty well prepared, even to meet naked damsels in the woods!

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 49v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with white lions (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 50v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander meeting women of the forest (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting against dragons with emeralds in their foreheads (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with horse headed men (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with one eyed giants (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Fights with headless men with faces on their torsos (Blemmyae) (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting with two-headed dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83v)

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