12.09.38, Cruse, Illuminating the Roman d'Alexandre

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Judith Oliver

The Medieval Review 12.09.38

Cruse, Mark. Illuminating the Roman d'Alexandre, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264: The Manuscript as Monument. Gallica. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2011. Pp. 224. ISBN: 978-1-84384-280-4.

Reviewed by:
Judith Oliver
Colgate University

The Bodley Alexander manuscript is a creation of many superlatives: it has the largest scale of any Alexander manuscript (its dimensions not apparently to be found in Cruse's book); it is the most lavishly illustrated (with 175 in-text and 9 of an original 13 full-page miniatures extant); and it is the most textually complex (as it contains the original 12th-century Roman d'Alexandre, text plus its 13th-14th century sequels the Prise de Defur, the Voeux du paon, the Restor du paon, the Voyage d'Alexandre au Paradis Terrestre, and the Venjance Alixandre). It is attributed to artists working in Tournai including Pierart dou Tielt. A scribal colophon dates the text to 1338 and it was signed by the artist Jehan de Grise in 1344.

Studied in the past primarily for its artistic imagery, Cruse's study of Bodley 264 offers a valuable contextual and textual analysis of the book as a masterpiece of medieval French literature and as an historical artifact. A scholar of French literature, he brings a deep understanding of the texts and related French epics to his investigation of why this lavish book was produced, what it tells us of contemporary cultural history, and for whom it might have been made. He proceeds by exploring various themes the book addresses, unpacking their contemporary social significance: the ideal of courtoisie, the urban ambiance of fourteenth-century Flanders in which owner and makers lived, the virtues Alexander exemplified as a role model, and the resonance of Alexander's eastern conquests with western Europe's long involvement with crusades to the Holy Land. By way of conclusion he looks briefly at the physical production of the book and makes suggestions as to its intended or early ownership, later English addenda, and later history, arguing passionately for the continued cultural relevance of the Alexander stories well into the sixteenth-century Renaissance.

Chapter 1, "A Monument to Courtoisie," addresses the function of the Bodley manuscript as a monument to nobility, a status dependent on possession of virtues not found in the lower classes, and one which purportedly had a history stretching back to antiquity. Given its vast size, the Bodley manuscript must have been used for public reading as a prop in the court's "theater of power" (24). The crenellated architectural frames Cruse reads as palaces with spectators and musicians interspersed with heraldic banners above scenes of courtly banquets and marriages, funerals and dances in the scenes he elects to discuss in this chapter. Gestures and poses are read as expressions of eloquence, as conversation demonstrated nobility and wisdom. Vows take on great significance as public displays of honor. Music is not only visually present in numerous marginal figures, but one rondeau is presented in the text with its music (on fol. 181v, reproduced in color pl. VII), the unique surviving exemplar of this song.

Chapter 2, "Urban Conquest and Spectacle," sets the manuscript into the highly urbanized world of north France and Flanders in which it was made by focusing on the architectural frames of the miniatures and the secular marginalia crowding around the pages. Cruse argues that Alexander manuscripts proliferated in northern France and Flanders because the text celebrated the hero as founder of seventy cities and as an ideal urban prince who brought Greek civilization to the east. On the other hand, many images show his sieges and assaults on cities, activities that certainly had immediacy for the inhabitants of Tournai where the book was made as it had had just been besieged by the English king from 1338-1340. The jousts, musicians and dancers filling the margins Cruse associates with urban festivals. Here he seems to overinterpret, seeing marginalia as "defiance of the elite" (100-101) and assuming subversion on the part of the artisans where there was more likely to be simple amusement on the part of the owners at role reversals or mock tourneys.

Chapter 3, "Apraigne d'Alixandre: Illuminating Exemplarity in Bodley 264," looks at the manuscript as a mirror of princes noting how images of Alexander in general were seen as sources of instruction and heroic emulation. Individual images are treated as "exemplary tableaux" (127). The dominant theme of the poem is just kingship and just conquest. Embodying the virtues of prowess, largesse, charisma, strategic insight, courage, and learning, Alexander fights against eastern barbarism and evil rulers and hence has the right of vengeance. His role as a warrior of courage and physical skill inspires loyalty in his followers. Cruse argues that the manuscript (finished in 1344) responds emphatically to debate in the early fourteenth century about whether a king should lead troops into battle. Alexander's education by Aristotle, his literacy and wisdom, found recent historical resonance in accounts of the life of King Louis IX. Alexander's education led to his great curiosity, his fascination with geography (paralleling the crusades' new knowledge of the east), and submarine and aerial explorations.

Chapter 4, "Alexander, Crusade and the East," makes a persuasive case for tying the popularity of the Alexander tales with Europe's on-going passion for crusades to reconquer the Holy Land, an obsession that did not end with the 1291 fall of Acre but which lived on rhetorically and in reality, as seen in the 1396 defeat at Nicopolis. Cruse makes a compelling case for the fact that Flanders above all other areas of western Europe was engaged in the crusades from the late eleventh century onwards, an historical memory kept alive by crusade booty, local rituals and secular literature. Alexander is set into the tradition of noble crusaders by showing him sparing Jerusalem after he conquers it, and indeed kneeling to the Jewish high priest. The link between Alexander and later crusaders is highlighted in Cruse's survey of other literary texts and manuscripts including both Alexander and crusading material. There is also an apocalyptic element to the Alexander story as he conquers Babylon and imprisons Gog and Magog, all of whom figure in the Book of Revelations. The eastern "others" whom Alexander defeated are conflated with black Ethiopians, Moslems, and pagan idolaters, ironically, as Alexander was himself pagan of course. The Roman d'Alexandre, Cruse notes, was written in the later twelfth century as part of a celebration of crusader imperialism while the Bodley manuscript was created in an era of nostalgia and lamentation over loss of the Latin Kingdom.

Chapter 5, "Production, Patronage, and Later Reception of Bodley 264," finally gets around to giving some physical description of the manuscript and its artists, in a very cursory fashion. Cruse's main interest in this chapter is with the question of who the original owner may have been and whether the book was given at a very early date to either the king of England Edward III or the king of France Philip VI. He notes the ambiguity of the heraldry in the manuscript, which turns out to be much less informative than one would have assumed, and then he provides historical context for specific contacts between residents of Tournai (particularly Gilles li Muisis abbot of St. Martin) and the courts of the two monarchs in question. If the book was given to Philip VI, Cruse envisions it in the baggage train of Jean II at the Battle of Poitiers shortly thereafter in 1356 when it would have fallen into English hands. Alternatively, he sees it somehow reaching Edward III soon after he besieged Tournai from 1338- 1340. In either event, it reached England by c. 1400 when an English- language Alexander poem, the bulk of the rubrics in the Roman d'Alexandre, and the Voyages of Marco Polo in Anglo-Norman French were added to the manuscript, all richly illustrated by fifteenth- century English artists (Fig. 25).

In conclusion Cruse argues for the great importance of the Alexander stories culturally in the late medieval and early Renaissance eras. They served to celebrate imperial power at the Burgundian court, fueled western fascination with exotic lands just as the age of discovery began, and later became entertaining school texts for sixteenth-century pupils. Indeed Cruse suggests the Alexander romance still gives us something to think about today in the face of America's fractious relationships with the Moslem world.

For readers not familiar with M.R. James's 1933 facsimile, which remains indispensable, basic data about the book could have been spelled out more fully if succinctly in the introduction. A table or tables showing the placement of full-page miniatures in relation to text divisions and the number of in-text miniatures in each section would provide clarity to the author's analysis. Readers would also have been well served by the inclusion in an appendix of a straight- forward catalogue entry giving a codicological description, a list of text contents with folios, a listing of the miniatures, perhaps even the proposed division of artistic hands, and a summary bibliography.

Footnotes are quite often reduced to simple authors' names, which makes the lack of careful editing of the bibliography particularly regrettable as several seemingly important sources--cited in multiple notes and even in the text itself--are nowhere to be found: Weiss, Weiss and Mahoney, Trotter, Leo, and Nicholson are unidentified. There are no cross-references to works listed by title rather than author. Leo cited on p. 187 as the author of a study of artistic hands, is otherwise unidentified. Nicholson seems to be of major importance as his theories are cited repeatedly in the text--i.e., p. 187 and p. 189--but he is either not footnoted at all or cited solely under James with no cross reference to the title of the original work James is apparently quoting. The all-important new facsimile now on the internet also does not show up in the bibliography but only on p. 7 n. 1: http://image.ox.ac.uk/show?collection=Bodleian&manuscript=msbodl264 . Actually, it is easier to just start at http://image.ox.ac.uk. All in all, the presentation of data and documentation is somewhat lacking.

Article Details

Author Biography

Judith Oliver

Colgate University