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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Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Rouen. Illuminated manuscript.
Fun Fact

The Day Joan of Arc Ran Out Of Sass

Joan of Arc never failed to be breezy and impertinent when faced with her social higher-ups. That is one of her predominant character trait which makes her so charismatic. She was blunt. She was fearless. She bowed to no one but the King. She was fine damn ready to kick some ass and to admonish anyone whom she felt had crossed a line. She certainly was one of a kind.

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Chinon. Vaucouleurs. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc goes to Chinon to meet Charles VII – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 55v

Joan Meets Jean de Metz

“Should I lose my feet I’ll walk on my knees.”

When Jean de Metz first met her back in Vaucouleurs, where her journey started, she was wearing a threadbare red dress. “What are you doing here, darling?” he asked. She answered in a straightforward manner: “I’ve come here to talk with the Lord of Baudricourt, so that he would send me to the King. He won’t hear me, but I’ll get there. Should I lose my feet I’ll walk on my knees. No one in the world, nor any King, nor any Duke, nor any daughter of the King of Scotland, nor anyone else, can take back the realm. The King shall have no succour but mine!” Jean de Metz fell head over heels for Joan. He escorted her himself to Chinon after he had her dressed as a man. He would then follow her for several months [1].

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Jeanne d'Arc. Joan of Arc. Prostituées. Prostitutes.
Joan of Arc chasing prostitutes away from the camp

Joan riles the Duke of Lorraine

However, before they left Vaucouleurs for Chinon, Jean de Metz went with Joan to meet The Duke of Lorraine. The latter had invited the Maid to his court because he thought she could be a healer of some sort. She candidly told the Duke to ditch his mistress and be faithful to his wife. Then she went on to ask if René of Anjou, the Duke’s future son-in-law, could accompany her to Chinon. The ten years old prince belonged to the highest nobility. He was cousin to the King. Joan really got some nerve. Yet her request was unabashedly denied [2].

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Charles VII.
Joan of Arc convinces Charles VII to go to Reims despite his advisors – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 61v

Joan Flames A Theologian

“I speak better French than you”

Joan eventually made her way to Chinon and met the King as she promised she would. At that point she was requested to meet theologians to vouch for her visions. Pierre Seguin was amongst those theologians and mighty doctors of the Church. He asked Joan which dialect she spoke. “I speak better French than you”, she replied, for he had a southern accent. He carried on to ask Joan to give a sign that she was indeed sent by God. She came out as sharp as a knife. “I didn’t come here to grant you tokens from God. Send me to Orleans. I’ll show you the sign you’re looking for. [3]

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Jeanne d'Arc. Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Troyes. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc and Charles VII are given the keys of the city of Troyes – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 62r

Joan of Arc Mocks Dunois

“I come by God’s own guidance, which is far safer and wiser than yours.”

Joan went on to Orleans. On her way over there, the French army rode up to the East of the city to cross the river Loire. It pissed Joan, for John Talbot and his troops were sitting West of Orleans. If there was ever a fearsome captain, it was John Talbot. I found various occurrence of French armies avoiding him or fleeing upon his arrival to avoid to face him. Yet Joan had wished to meet him head on. She walked right to the man responsible of the coward itinerary, the Bastard of Orleans himself. “Is it on your advice that we cross the river here and not where Talbot and the English are?” The Bastard was rather startled to be addressed in such a fashion. “Yes it was!” he boasted. Joan put him back to his place: “Know, Bastard, that I come by God’s own guidance, which is far safer and wiser than yours. Right at that moment, the winds which had been unfavourable to cross the Loire turned and made the crossing possible. The Bastard couldn’t believe in his own eyes. From that moment onwards he had faith in Joan [4].

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 5054

Nevertheless Joan got captured in Compiegne, after she helped to liberate Orleans. Once captured and faced with her enemies, however, Joan didn’t tune down.

Joan Knows What Awaits Her

“I know very well that the English will have me killed”

Back in the 15th century, the English already used to yell “God damn!” whenever something displeased them. Therefore the French came up with a derisive and derivative nickname for them: they called the English the “Godons”. Joan hated anyone to call out the name of the Lord in vain, but she called the English Godons herself. She did so, although imprisoned in a cell, right in front of the earls of Stafford and Warwick, who ranked amongst the most powerful men of England. “I know very well that the English will have me killed. Yet a hundred thousand Godons couldn’t take the kingdom.” Stafford got so mad he draw his dagger with the clear intent to kill her. Warwick through herself in front of Joan to protect her. He would later protect her too from rape. You see, Warwick was of a sound state of mind. He wanted Joan killed properly: on the pyre like a heretic after a due trial to rob her from her mystical charisma [5].

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Jeanne d'Arc. Joan of Arc. Paris. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc besieges Paris – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 66v

Joan Faces Her Judges

“Should you tear my limbs apart…”

Joan however kept a full grip of herself when she met her judges: an army of theologians from the University of Paris who longed for her death. They tried to catch her off guard with theological traps when asking her if she believed she had received the grace of God. “I don’t know if God granted me his grace. If he has, I pray that he keeps to do so. If he hasn’t, I pray that he extends it to me,” she answered. Then they asked if Saint Michel was naked when he visited her. She thought the idea utterly ludicrous: “Do you think Our Lord doesn’t have clothes for him?” Eventually she was threatened with torture. She feared nothing. “Should you tear my limbs apart or split my soul from my body, I wouldn’t tell you otherwise. Should I tell you otherwise, then I would always argue that you forced me to.” They ruled out torture. They went for entrapment. At the end Joan was burned because she took on her male clothes after she swore she would not put them on again. If there ever was a thin pretext to kill someone, it was that one [6].

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Illuminated Manuscript. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Compiègne.
Joan is being captured by the Burgundians at Compiègne – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 70r
Paris, BnF, latin 9473. St Michael. Devil. Satan.
St Michael Facing the Devil – Paris, BnF, lat. 9473, f. 166r

How Joan Ghosted Her Best Friend…

Joan was around eighteen years old when she went on her quest to rescue the King of France. She was no more than nineteen when she died. She answered to the powerful and the wealthy with nothing but confidence and cheek. Yet, there is one person she didn’t dare to face, Hauviette. The latter said: “I’ve known her since I was a child. We grew up together, you see. We had a fun sleeping next to each other in the same bed when we were kids. Joan was good, pure and sweet. She liked to go church. People often made remarks about it and she felt a bit ashamed… She was like any other girl. She’d tend to her house and to her father’s cattle. She could spin wool too. There was a big tree not far from the village. We called it the tree of the fairies. We’d go there, with some bread and some nuts, and we’d play. We never saw any fairies. There was none.” Then, she added: “When Joan definitely left the village, she told me nothing. I only learned afterwards that she was gone. I cried a lot. She was so good and I loved her so much. She was my friend. [7]

Paris, BnF, français 5054. Martial d'Auvergne. Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII. Joan of Arc. Jeanne d'Arc. Rouen. Illuminated manuscript.
Joan of Arc being burned as a heretic at Rouen – Paris, BnF, fr. 5054, f. 71r

More About Joan:

Quotes sources:

[1] Jules Quicherat, Procès de condamnation et de réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Jules Renouard, 1861-1869. Cf. t. 2, p. 436.
[2] Ibid., t. 3, 87.
[3] Ibid., t. 3, 204-205.
[4] Ibid., t. 3, 4-5.
[5] Ibid., t. 3, 122.
[6] Pierre Champion, Procès de Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1921. Cf. t. 2, p. 42, 151, 252-253.
[7] Quicherat (1861-1869), t. 2, 417-419.

Further readings:

Régine Pernoud & Marie-Véronique Clin, Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Fayard, 1986
Philippe Contamine, Olivier Bouzy & Xavier Hélary, Jeanne d’Arc. Histoire et dictionnaire. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2012 (coll. Bouquins).