Andreas Klare

title.none: Lafferty, Walter of Chatillon's Alexandreis (Klare)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.003 99.08.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andreas Klare, Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Lafferty, Maura. Walter of Chatillon's Alexandreis: Epic and the Problem of Historical Understanding. Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, Vol 2. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. xii, 228. ISBN: 2-503-50576-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.03

Lafferty, Maura. Walter of Chatillon's Alexandreis: Epic and the Problem of Historical Understanding. Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, Vol 2. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998. Pp. xii, 228. ISBN: 2-503-50576-7.

Reviewed by:

Andreas Klare
Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin

Maura Lafferty approaches the Alexandreis by first addressing the author. She presents what we think we know about Walter of Chatillon's life, his origin, his education and his relations and connections within the French and English noble societies. His relationships to Archbishop William of Rheims and to John of Salisbury are very important for his literary works in general. The introductory chapter neglects to discuss the problem of dating of the Alexandreis, which is postponed to Appendix I for no apparent reason.

Walter's Alexandreis is one of the most influential books in the High Middle Ages, primarily because it was almost immediately instrumentalized as a school book. Many pupils were taught Latin by using at least parts of the text for reading and memorizing. But the subject matter of the Alexandreis also addresses many problems vital to the medieval reader or listener. As research over the past decades has revealed, the figure of Alexander was often used as an exemplum for different virtues and vices. He is the good ruler taught by Aristotle, he is the brutal conqueror, he is too curious a man, who tries to overcome all the barriers of human existence, and he demonstrates superbia. He is also a cunning military leader and his life is emblematic of the transience of wordly values and achievements as well as the weakness of political and military power against love or minne (as Alexander's relationship to Candaces demonstrates). The medieval audience was also encouraged to compare and contrast Alexander's ambitions with those of other cultures, such as the Amazons, the Scythians or the Brahmans.

Maura Lafferty attempts to convince us that by focussing on the usefulness of historical knowledge Walter takes part in the scientific discussions of his time. In his opinion historical knowledge depends on its sources: ancient authors such as Homer and Virgil, historiography, the Holy Scriptures, and particularly the Bible itself. The question is how to study and understand the past in order to come to terms with the present and be prepared for the future. Maura Lafferty therefore examines the parts of the Alexandreis, that deal with historiographic or visionary elements.

Walter aims his Alexandreis at an audience that knows Alexander's biography very well, so he can rework and restructure the literary tradition about Alexander and he sometimes only needed to intimate certain events that happened. Moreover he can recount the story of Alexander in a highly educated, figurative manner. For Lafferty, Alexander as a learned king and ruler is not able to define his personal place and recognize the importance and consequences of his deeds and victories in the right way. "Alexander assumes that he knows his role in history and that his knowledge gives him the power to control his fate. This assumption, however, is shown to be flawed when set against the Christ-centered history of Walter and his contemporaries. His limited knowledge of the future only blinds him." (p. 63) The limitations of Alexander's knowledge become already clear in the first chapter of Lafferty's book. Here Lafferty has a close look at Alexander's visit to Troy. Alexander associates his historiographical knowledge based on Homer's Iliad with the remains of that famous city to remember the historical facts. Here we recognize the tradition that Alexander wants to follow: it is his idol Achilles. Alexander is sure to outdo Achilles with his future deeds, but he is worried about how his famewill be celebrated in the songs of the people, since the world is lacking a poet of Homeric greatness. These two ideas, conquering the world and the resulting fame, are the central points of Alexander's life, to which he subordinates all his means and all his knowledge. During his stay at Troy, Alexander relates the vision he has had on the night of his father's death. He admits that he is unable to understand the vision in full. For Lafferty this is a clear sign of a lack of knowledge, which consistently leads to a failure in describing his position in the course of the world. Only the knowledge of Homer's epic is not enough. A closer look at the training Alexander received as a boy, which Lafferty does in her second chapter, reveals that Walter says next to nothing about Alexander's education. In opposition to Lafferty's assumption Aristotle only gives him basic rules of behavior to strengthen and to canalize Alexander's innate and unbridled will to world supremacy. "Specifically, Aristotle omits to ground his teaching in an understanding of the past, and does not provide the moralizing exempla which played so large a role in both the ancient and medieval paideias in the study of Grammatica." (p. 100) But these moral implements are of no interest, even to Walter. The figure of Alexander only unfolds in the description of his life and deeds, his will scatters all obstacles and frightens all of his contemporaries.

So it is not a real failure, as Lafferty wants to point out, that Alexander does not recognize the vision mentioned above to the full. This lack of knowledge consistently leads Alexander to a failure in describing his position in the course of the world. But in reality acting as God's tool means only protecting God's people, leaving Jerusalem in peace, and not disturbing salvation history. It does not really matter whether Alexander can understand the letters on the priest's forehead or not. Alexander is successful not only by fate or fortune, but also by his own abilities, including his intelligence. Alexander conquers the whole earth; Europe subjugates voluntarily at Babylon by sending tribute shortly before Alexander's death.

On the other hand, Lafferty is right to point out that the reader, like the narrator of Walter's Alexandreis, is equipped with a higher knowledge and is therefore able to understand the content more deeply. "The readers share with the narrator the ability to incorporate the repeated patterns perceived by the pagans into the larger framework of salvation history." (p. 62) That means that only "Christian historioghraphy offers a unified understanding of time." p. 63) The difference between these two levels of understanding is obvious, but in my opinion does not, should not and could not effect Alexander's actions. Therefore the basic assumption of Lafferty's work is questionable to a certain degree.

In chapter three, Lafferty looks at the ekphrasis in the Alexandreis, which is mostly Walter's own creation. There are descriptions of Darius' shield, and both his and his wife's tombs. Darius' shield depicts his empire's past, including the development of its power and wealth. It leaves out the events and people that are disturbing or negative. Historiography in this case evaluates and selects only the events that support the empire. And here history also teaches moral lessons about the importance of being a good ruler and the right underlying attitudes. It does not matter to Alexander that there is not any representation of him on the shield, but it does to the medieval reader. The tomb of Darius' wife, created by the Hebrew artist Apelles, tells the story from world's creation including the Fall of Man and Noah to the history of the Jews as God's own people in selected parts. The description is laconic. It goes far beyond the time of Alexander, it contains the prophecies made in the Old Testament, which are known to Apelles, but have nothing to do with Alexander and his goals, they do not affect him in any way although he must have seen the tomb. The Greek history is completely left out on this tomb. "The tomb of Darius, which Walter describes in an ekphrasis in Alexandreis 7, questions the relevance of history, even salvation history, to secular kings in their wordly concerns"(p. 126). Darius' tomb, also created by Apelles, shows a map of the world, its parts characterized by their most salient features. This map incorporates history beyond the time of Alexander by mentioning King Arthur. The logical question, where Apelles acquired his knowledge, is not answered. The inscription of the tomb makes clear that Alexander's life task was fulfilled by his victory over Darius; all his other efforts were not associated with salvation history and where therefore vain. For Lafferty, Walter must have used medieval literary descriptions of tombs in French literature, because ancient literature does not offer any models in this case.

According to Lafferty all the ekphraseis show that salvation history is of less importance to kings, secular rulers in general, because they deal with the world in the genuine sense. Here we have to add that these ancient kings do not have any idea about salvation history, they see their actions and fate steered by Fortuna or "they perceive historical process essentially as a function of fortune"(p. 62). Lafferty also points out that there is not any reaction by Alexander or one of the other literary figures on the shield or the tombs. They are not the audience or the spectators, but the medieval readers are. They should learn. So in my opinion mixing up the different levels of storytelling has misled Lafferty. Of course medieval people know more about history and its way than ancient people knew, but this does not lead to any failure in the actions of the latter.

Natura, the subject of Lafferty's fourth chapter, is the force that stops Alexander in the end, because she wants to protect her secrets from being revealed and wants to maintain her prohibitions and rules. Nature simply wants to protect her power. Her character is a mixture from ancient and medieval sources. For her, Paradise is a place to be kept empty of people, because they desecrate that ideal place. To stop Alexander, Nature works together with Hell, part of her own creation, and she is successful in protecting her own sphere, which consists of the ideal area called Paradise, the space of the Antipodes and the creating area, where corpses and souls are put together. Here Nature has got God's creative power; God is left out in the story; his attitude towards Alexander's efforts for world supremacy, that include the final fight between Alexander and Nature, is not only not reported, but seems to play no role. Lafferty seems to imply that the conflict between Alexander and Nature is only about power and ruling, but she also maintains that curiositas is a motivating force for Alexander as she writes: " [...] Alexander seeks to satisfy his own curiosity by, quite literally, mastering Nature by force. [...] [H]e wishes not merely to pry into Nature's affairs, but also to attack, dominate, und possess her and her hidden realms, as he has attacked, possessed and dominated human realms." (p. 163)

But Alexander is not interested in getting any scientific knowledge, he is not interested in exploring and understanding nature. That's why Walter left out Alexander's journeys to the sky and to the bottom of the sea and the letters that Alexander traditionally writes to his master Aristotle on all the discovered new species. The role of God at last even does not play any role in the story, so the fate of Alexander is fulfilled in what we can call a pseudo-ancient framework built up for the story: Fortuna is the almighty power, she is responsible for the ups and downs in history. But salvation history is also referred to, when Leviathan knows about the appearance of Christ and his future victory over Hell, but he does not know when it will happen. But Leviathan clearly separates Alexander from Christ: Alexander is still a human being, despite the fact that he thinks of himself as the son of Jupiter. We cannot associate Alexander's will to subjugate Leviathan with Christ's descent into Hell and it can't be said, that "[t]he crucial difference between Christ and Alexander is Alexander's inability to escape the confines of his flesh"(p. 181).

But on the other hand there is more, mostly Christian based information in the story, but only for the medieval reader, who himself has got a Christian background. So, again, the different levels of understanding should be kept in mind while reading the Alexandreis. Alexander is only steered by his will for world supremacy, and the minor conflicts (with his father Philippus; the ones that are associated with Olimpiades, whose side Alexander is on; the conflicts with his soldiers; the battles with Thebes or Tyrus; the trial for Darius' murders; Alexander's love affairs): they all are generally shortened or neglected by Walter. So here the story of Alexander lost its complexity, which others like the Pfaffe Lamprecht (Strassburger Alexander) or Rudolf von Ems tried to work out. Walter concentrated on a boundless human will and "[...] avoided the more marvellous feats of Alexander found in the romance tradition. Instead, he used Alexander's early death and the rapid decay of his empire to keep his essential humanity in view"(p. 1).