The Middle English Alexander

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Mandeville’s version of Alexander’s encounter with the Gymnosophists goes like this: having been greatly impressed with their “gret feyth and hire trouthe,”Alexander “bad hem aske of hym what that thei wold haue of him, ricchess or ony thing elles”; when they ask him to make them immortal, he admits perforce that such a gift is not in his power to give. The Gymnosophists—who clearly relish opportunities like this—immediately ask him

whi he was so proud and so fierce and so besy for to putten alle the world under his subieccioun,“right as thou were a god and hast no terme of thi lif, neither day ne hour; and wylnest to haue alle the world at thi commandement, that schalle leve the withouten fayle or thou leve it. And right as it hath ben to other men before the, right so it schalle ben to othere after the. And from hens schaltow bere nothyng. But as thou were born naked, right so alle naked schalle thi body ben turned into erthe that thou were made of. Wherfore thou scholdest thenke and impresse it in thi mynde that nothing is inmortalle but only God that made alle thing.” (32.213–14)


Fourteenth Century Historical Imagination English Poet Latin Source Sacred History 
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  1. 2.
    Magoun, Gests, pp. 174–75. Both Alexander and Dindimus and The Wars of Alexander are descended from the Nativitas et Victoria Alexandri Magni Archpresbyter Leo of Naples’ tenth-century Latin translation of the Greek Alexander romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes (ca. 200 BC-AD 200). The Nativitas, which became known as the Historia de Preliis in its incunabular versions, also produced three interpolated (I) recensions: I1, an eleventh-century reworking and expansion; I2, of an uncertain date before the end of the twelfth century (the source of Alexader and Dindimus and Alexander A another fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem dealing with the beginning of the legend); and I3, from before 1150 (source of the Wars of Alexander and the fifteenth-century Prose Alexander in the Thornton Manuscript). Recensions I2 and I3 are independently descended from I1, and according to DJ.A. Ross, “No version of the Alexander-romance has had a wider influence nor produced more vernacular progeny than this wretched little book” (Alexander Historiatus: A Guide to Medieval Illustrated Alexander Literature, Warburg Institute Surveys 1 [London: Warburg Institute, 1963], p. 47). There are also works in Latin, German, French, Italian, Swedish, Hebrew, Czech, Polish, Russian, and Magyar that derive from the various versions of the Historia de Preliis, suggesting a history of transmission that rivals that of Mandeville’s Travels. Prior to the composition of the Historia de Preliis, Julius Valerius’ Res Gestae Alexandri Macedonis, a fourth-century translation of Pseudo-Callisthenes, was the chief Latin source of the Alexander legends; its popularity was eclipsed in the later Middle Ages by both the Historia and a ninth-century Epitome of the Res Gestae itself. The Julius Valerius tradition is the source for most French Alexander poems, two fifteenth-century Scottish versions, and the Middle English Kyng Alisaunder (before 1330). The most complete explication of the complex lines of transmission of the Alexander story in the Middle Ages is still George Cary’s The Medieval Alexander. Less daunting versions can be found in Magoun, Gests, pp. 15–62, and Ross, Alexander Historiatus. See also Duggan, “The Source of the Middle English The Wars of AlexanderSpeculum 51 (1976): 624–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  25. 18.
    Walworth’s interest is revealed in the note published by J.M. Manly in the Times Literary Supplement no. 1338 (Thursday, September 22, 1927), p. 647: “Students of the Alexander romances may be interested in the following entry from the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London (25m5d). I quote from the manuscript calendar, p. 155:‘Friday [27 Feb] after the feast of St. Mathias, 5 Richard II, came to the court held before the sheriffs of London, viz. on the fourth day, William Waleworth suing John Salman, a burgess of Bruges, in a plea of debt upon demand of 100L, for which his debtor has been attached by a foreign attachment and has made four defaults. The plaintiff demands his attachment on the customary terms and the articles are delivered to him, viz. a book of Romance of King Alexander in verse [rimiatus] and curiously illuminated, value 10L and a dosser of assar work, presenting the coronation of King Alexander, 9 yds. long, 3 yds. wide, value 6L.’ Perhaps it may be possible to ascertain whether this copy of the romance is among those still preserved and known to us.” M.R. James briefly considers the chances that the book referred to is actually MS Bodley 264, but discounts the possibility; see James, The Romance of Alexander: A Collotype Facsimile of MS Bodley 264 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933), p. 5. For Robert Thornton seeGoogle Scholar
  26. George R. Keiser’s two essays, “Lincoln Cathedral MS.91: Life and Milieu of the Scribe, Studies in Bibliography 32 (1979): 158–79, and “More Light on the Life and Milieu of Robert Thornton,” Studies in Bibliography 36 (1983): 111–19. The text of the Prose Alexander has been edited three times: without apparatus by J.S. Westlake, EETS o.s. 143 (London: Keegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1913); by Marjorie Neeson, “The Prose Alexander A Critical Edition” Ph.D. Diss., UCLA, 1971; and by Julie Chappell, “The Prose ‘Alexander’ of Robert Thornton: The Middle English Text with a Modern English Translation,” Ph.D. Diss., University of Washington, 1982. This last has also been published in book form (New York, 1992).Google Scholar
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    This text has been edited twice: see Thomas Hahn, “The Middle English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle: Introduction, Text, Sources, and Commentary,” Medieval Studies XLI (1979): 106–45, and Vincent Dimarco and Leslie Perelman, eds., “The Middle English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” Costerus 13 (1978). On the copyist of this manuscript, who according to A.I. Doyle was active during the reign of Edward IV, seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For the suggestion that Alexander’s generosity as recreated by the Jewish chroniclers is based on an actual “exemption fiscale” of Caesar’s, see M. Simon, “Alexandre le Grand, juif et chretien,” Revue d’Histoire et Philosophie Religieuses XXI (1941): 179. Simon makes an even stronger case than I do for the “Hebraicization” or “Christianization” of Alexander in this episode, claiming that “En se mettant sous son patronage, Israel annexe du m? coup a sa foi: protecteur des Juifs, il est aussi l’instrument, elu et conscient, de Dieu” (180).Google Scholar
  38. 37.
    Of the twenty surviving manuscripts, which date from the mid-fourteenth through the end of the fifteenth century, six are fragmentary or incomplete, two represent a textual tradition that does not contain the two exempla (the Expanded Northern Homily Cycle in a Northern dialect), twelve contain the tale of Trajan’s salvation, and ten of those pair Trajan with Alexander: Bodley 6923, CUL Dd.I.1, CUL Gg.V.31, Minnesota Z 822 N 81, Huntington HM 129, Lambeth 260, the Bute MS, BL MS Additional 38010, the Vernon MS, and the Simeon MS. For an account of the MSS, see Saara Nevanlinna, ed., The Northern Homily Cycle: The Expanded Version in MSS Harley 4196 and Cotton Tiberius E. VII, Memoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki 38 (1972). For the genesis and circulation of the cycle, see The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor, and Ruth Evans (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), pp. 125–26, andGoogle Scholar
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  40. 40.
    I quote from the version of the sermon in the Vernon MS, and have transcribed passages directly from the manuscript facsimile prepared by Doyle, marking expanded abbreviations and supplying minimum punctua-tion;passages are identified by folio and column. This version of the sermon has not been printed in full, although the exempla are printed by Carl Horstmann, “Die Evangelien-Geschichten der Homiliensammlung des MS. Vernon,” Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 57 (1877): 241–316.Google Scholar
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    This story is based on a confusion of two other legends, both of Jewish origin; a condensed account of their origin and transmission can be found in Cary, Medieval Alexander, pp. 130–32, 295–97, and a fuller treatment in Andrew Runni Anderson, Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1932).A necessary supplement to the latter is Scott D. Westrem’s “Against Gog and Magog,” in Text and Territory, ed. Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Gilles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pp. 54–75. Horstmann, “Evangelien-Geschichten,” pp. 306–07, prints the NHC version. Josephus describes how Alexander imprisoned the Scythians behind iron gates, identifying the prisoners with the biblical giants—or peoples—Gog and Magog. Picked up in the Revelationes of Pseudo-Methodius, this version of the story passed into the I2 and I3 versions of the Historia de Preliis and thence into the Wars of Alexander seeGoogle Scholar
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  43. Karl Steffens, ed., Die Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni: Rezension J3, Beitr? zur klassischen Philologie, Heft 73 (Meisenheim am Glan: A. Hain, 1975), p. 174. A second story, often confused or fused with the first, involves Alexander’s enclosure of the Ten Tribes and their apocalyptic fate; this is the version contained in the Vernon sermon. Delivered to the Middle Ages via the Vitae Prophetarum of Pseudo-Epiphanius, it appears in the Historia Scholastica, whence it passed to later chroniclers: Matthew Paris, Vincent of Beauvais (who treats the story with some scepticism), Higden and others. See Cary, Medieval Alexander, p. 296.Google Scholar
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    Wells (A Manual of Writings in Middle English, 1050–1400 [New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1916], I.104) claims that “The letters are really a presentation of all the author can say on the old theme of the contrast and relative worth of the Active Life and the Contemplative Life,” concluding that “The whole is cleverly manipulated so as to exhibit the excellent qualities of each of the opposing elements, without seeking to persuade to conclusion in favor of either.” R.M. Lumiansky, in the revised manual, sees in the device of the letters “a balancing of aspects rather than an outright debate” (A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 J. Burke Severs, gen. ed., Vol. I fasc. 1.5 [New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967], 108). For Bennett, who goes on to observe that the poem “scarcely merits such ornament” as it receives in MS Bodley 264, see Middle English Literature, ed. and compl. Douglas Gray (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), pp. 92–93. Turville-Petre’s judgment that “It is a sad irony that, of all the magnificent poems of the Revival, it was the incompetent and tedious Alexander and Dindimus alone on which scribe and illuminator lavished their professional attention” can be found in his The Alliterative Revival (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1977), p. 43.Google Scholar
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    In other versions of this correspondence, they do meet, and the confrontation is typically humiliating for Alexander; see George Cary, “A Note on the Mediaeval History of the Collatio Alexandri cum Dindimo,” Classica et Mediaevalia XV (1954): 124–29, and n.67 below.Google Scholar
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    The Collatio Alexandri cum Dindimo per Litteras Facta is probably a product of the fourth century, although it was revised in the tenth for inclusion in the Historia de Preliis. The origin of the Collatio and its relation to later works about Alexander are discussed by Cary, The Medieval Alexander, p. 14, and Magoun, Gests, pp. 46–47; the Collatio’s own sources in Greek writing are traced by J.D.M. Derrett, “The History of Palladius on the Races of India and the Brahmans,” Classica et Mediaevalia 21 (1960): 64–99.Google Scholar
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    In fact, the original version of the correspondence with Dindimus was probably intended to be a defense of Alexander against Cynic or Stoic attacks on his character. See Cary, Medieval Alexander, pp. 13–14 and “Note,” p. 125; Hahn, “Indian Tradition,” pp. 219–20; and E. Lienard, “La Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d?Histoire 15 (1936): 819–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Higden, Polychronicon, ed. Lumby, iii.472–79, and Eulogium Historiarum i. 432–34. Neither of these moralizing historians goes quite as far as Johann Hartlieb, physician and diplomat for Duke Albrecht III of Bavaria. In his mid-fifteenth-century version of the story Alexander, despite being convinced of the truth of everything Dindimus says, nevertheless explains that he cannot emulate the virtuous Indian; he spends the rest of his life sadly regretting this decision, lamenting “O we, ach und we, dass ich der guten lere Dindimi nit gevolget hab!” See H. Becker, “Zur Alexandersage,” Zeitschrift für Deutsche Philologie 23 (1891): 424–25.Google Scholar
  51. 68.
    Winner and Waster, ll.375, 378, from Stephanie Trigg, ed., Wynnere and Wastoure, EETS o.s. 297 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  52. 71.
    On the monastic roots of this division, see T.P. Dunning, “Action and Contemplation in Piers Plowman,” in Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. Hussey, pp. 213–25. There is, contemporary with Alexander and Dindimus a wave of Latin treatises on the origins and preeminence of the life of regulars throughout England, advancing from Bury to Durham, St. Albans, Glastonbury and elsewhere. These texts, probably first written in response to the challenge of the friars (and later the Lollards), typically rely on scriptural precedent to buttress their claims on behalf of the monastic life. But Alexander and Dindimus cites Scripture only allusively and incidentally; it may be related to this literature of monastic self-scrutiny if, like other alliterative translations, it was originally a monastic production, but the relationship is a distant one. See Knowles, Religious Orders in England II, pp. 270–72; W.A. Pantin, “Some Medieval English Treatises on the Origins of Monasticism,” in Medieval Studies Presented to Rose Graham, ed. Veronica Raffer and A.J. Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 189–215Google Scholar
  53. Pantin, “Two Treatises of Uthred de Boldon on the Monastic Life,” in Studies in Medieval History Presented to F.M. Powicke, ed. R.W. Hunt, W.A. Pantin, and R.W. Southern (Oxford: Clarendon, 1948), pp. 363–85Google Scholar
  54. Wendy Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anticlericalism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 88–94; and for Thomas Walsingham’s contribution to this topic, Clark,“Thomas Walsingham Reconsdered,”p. 851.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Frank Grady 2005

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