The Romance of Alexander

I was fortunate enough to visit the Bodleian Library’s The Romance of the Middle Ages exhibition in Oxford this week. ‘Romance’ in this context refers to a literary genre that includes (but is by no means restricted to) tales involving love, adventure, acts of chivalry, treachery, mythology and contemporary narratives, satire and stories that are really homilies. Famous examples of romances include Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Troilus and Criseyde (as well as other Canterbury Tales), and Le Morte D’arthur.

The variety of story that you could expect from a mediaeval romance was summed up by William Caxton in his publisher’s preface to Malory’s Morte Darthur. Of the Morte he said,

… herein may be seen noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyte, frendlynesse, hardiness, love, frendshype, cowardyse, murder, hate, vertue, and synne.

And as befitting someone living in ‘the age of faith’, he added,

Doo after the good and leve the evyle, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renommee [renown]
(Perkins & Wiggins The Romance of the Middle Ages, p. 16)

If you are reading this with a knowledge of the life of Alexander the Great, you will know that Caxton’s virtues, and indeed his vices, could equally apply to the great conqueror also. The mediaevals were aware of this fact also and I was delighted to see on display pages from three mediaeval Alexander romances.

One displayed scenes from a book called the Roman d’Alexandre, which originated from Flanders in the mid-fourteenth century. In the top scene, Alexander sits in his canopy facing a ram and other animals and, behind them presumably enemy – Persian – knights. The faces of the knights have been scrubbed out just like those of the wrong sort of saints after the Reformation. The middle scene shows a mass battle. I’m sure Alexander is in there somewhere, but goodness knows where. In the bottom scene, the king is seated once more while some Macedonian soldiers debate who should leave the field of battle to ask him to come to their aid. As if he would not be there already! In all these pictures (which I am looking at in the Perkins and Wiggins book-of-the-exhibition) Alexander and soldiers are all, of course, dressed as mediaeval knights.

To see a European account of the tales of Alexander was one thing, to see a Persian one was quiet another; yet, there it was. And just as the Flanders poet made Alexander’s a story of chivalry, their Persian counterpart made him a muslim. In the illustration that I saw, Alexander was in Mecca, praying at the Kaaba, the building in Mecca towards which all muslims face when they pray.

In the Perkins and Wiggins book, there is a picture of Alexander with a dying Darius III in his lap. In both these illustrations, Alexander has an eastern appearance. In the latter – which comes from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century Iskander-nama romance by a poet named Nizami – he looks almost stereotypically Chinese with a long, drooping moustache.

The medieavals took Alexander everywhere - even underwater! (British Library)

Give what Alexander did to Persia, why would a Persian write an Alexander romance? I guess his reputation as ‘the ultimate imperial figure’ had a lot to do with it. He was too big and too good to be ignored by a story teller. The fact that he achieved this status by destroying the Archaemenid empire, however, did demand that certain adjustments be made. Hence, in the Persian romances, Alexander becomes not just Persian in appearance but of Persian blood.

The light of Alexander burned so brightly that even to this day it overshadows the deeds of his Successors. Not that they were Great like him, but given all the wars that took place between them they would surely have been ripe for the romance treatment. That aside, it was very exciting to see Alexander in the company of sundry other mediaeval and modern romance heroes. If you can get to the exhibition before it closes (in May) then do; if not, the book by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins is invaluable.

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