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“Mensaje fue de Dios”:
Transformative Christian Vision in the Libro de Alexandre

The Libro de Alexandre (ca. 1200) is the first work of the Old Castilian corpus of narrative poems known as the mester de clerecía.1 Critics have often conceived of the Castilian Alexander as a warrior of secular loyalties who betrays the divine order (Weiss 120). Isabel Uría Maqua describes the hero as enacting “una especie de rebelión contra Dios, un desafío a su poder” (“La soberbia” 518). The Castilian Alexander is broadly thought to continue to enshrine worldly glory in accordance with the hero’s life and times (Lida de Malkiel 182). [End Page 205]

This article will argue that the Alexandre is ultimately concerned with the Christian perspective of man’s earthly purpose and a significantly recalibrated Alexander the Great of incremental allegiance to the Christian God. It will explore how faith is key for the protagonist who undergoes a series of visions across the text. Probing the frontiers of knowledge, the visions structure and pace the narrative, the key premise for which is Alexander’s disastrous misperception of the limits of his mind’s eye. The Alexandre is known to be the most learned of all the European Alexander texts (Brownlee, “Romance” 255), and pits the insight gleaned from philosophical inquiry against that from Christian experience in a daring exploration of theological doctrine.

The portrayal of Alexander’s campaigns and voyages is indicative of significant tensions in contemporary theology. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, established centres of learning in the Iberian Peninsula sought to incorporate newly translated texts of pagan philosophy into their study of scripture (Uría Maqua, “La soberbia” 524–27). As is well known, the works of Aristotle, the majority of which were translated into Latin by the end of the twelfth century (Spade), were of particular interest to contemporary scholars. Despite the prohibition of Aristotle’s natural philosophy in Paris in 1210 and 1215, his writing fomented an increasing empiricism and emphasis on practical experience in the study of God’s creation, eroding the prohibition against scientific curiosity associated with the teaching of Augustine, particularly that which involved indulgence of the visual sense (Camille 131–34; Biernoff 65). The poet of the Alexandre may have trained in Toledo (Arizaleta, “El Libro” 82), where many classical texts were translated and stored.

The global geography and intellectual reach of the Latin, “studiously classical and pagan” (Ross 1) Alexandreis (1178–82), captured the imagination of the poet of the Alexandre. Written by Gautier de Châtillon, a distinguished churchman and humanist of the late twelfth century, this first epic of the life of Alexander (Townsend 16), was so popular and well regarded that it was studied in contemporary cathedral schools in place of Lucan’s Pharsalia, the [End Page 206] Thebaid of Statius, and even Vergil’s Aeneid (Destombes 11). The author of the Alexandre used Châtillon’s historicizing account as his primary narrative model, yet derived over a third of his material from other sources and recast the legend in conformity with his own medieval Christian agenda (Willis 40, 65, 70).

As demonstrated by Clara Pascual-Argente in her investigation of ekphrasis in the Alexandre, the anonymous poet further distinguished his writing from his major source. Subverting classical norms, he sought to incorporate graphic description and so “create a fundamental equivalence between word and image” (77). For Pascual-Argente, such word-image integration played a key role in fomenting cultural memory of the Alexander legend for a secular public. Extending her findings, I argue that the primary role of such representation is to guide the poem’s audience toward a deeper understanding of the proper status of pagan culture and knowledge as subsumed under Christian teaching. The technique of enargeia, used in the Alexandre to build mental pictures of unfamiliar landscape, complements the poem’s boastful self-image as one of Christian erudition: “Mester trayo fermoso: non es de joglaría; / mester es sin pecado, ca es de clerezía” (Casas Rigall 130; st. 2ab).

In the Catholic tradition, Alexander is thought to appear in several passages of the Bible.2 Jerome’s reading of such passages proved highly influential in the Middle Ages and encouraged the belief that “Alexander’s conquests were due not to his own power but to the will of God” (Cary 120). The Alexandre is formulated as a quasi-epic text whose hero shows affinity with the protagonists of hagiographic literature. The business of the mester de clerecía is the exploitation of the “traditional narrative genres of the vernacular medieval canon”, namely epic, hagiography, and romance (Brownlee, The Status 122), and these hero-centred genres focus with varying degrees on the problems and opportunities posed by geographic displacement. [End Page 207]

In 1977, John K. Walsh reviewed the relationship of hagiographic texts to early Spanish romance, asserting the “persistent incursion of one genre upon the other” (195; see also Giles 14). In the Castilian Libro de Apolonio classical material is transformed to serve extra-textual Christian truth (Brownlee, “Writing and Scripture” 173), and I assert that the same description can be applied to the Alexandre. Medieval epic and hagiography are far from being mutually exclusive genres, despite their distinct origins in the pagan and Christian traditions, respectively. As Ernst Robert Curtius observes, the acta and passiones of persecuted Christians, and saints’ lives, were genres that appropriated forms of pagan literature. A notable consequence of this crossing of canons is that medieval biblical poems and vitae often appeared in the form of the Latin epic (260).

The heroes of Gonzalo de Berceo’s Vida de San Millán de la Cogolla and Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos are saints described in dynamic terminology borrowed from the epic tradition (Dutton 192). For the hagiographic text, affinity with the epic is almost mandatory (Rico, “La clerecía del mester” 139). The Alexandre, conversely, portrays an epic hero who lives above physical constraints for the majority of his short life in the manner of a spiritual leader. He is “potestat sin frontera” (st. 2496a). In the tradition of the epic, Alexander is motivated to glory by an ardent rage, a “fiera maletía” (st. 24b).3 His fervour is akin to the “fiera passión” of San Millán (st. 59c), which Millán channels in suffering contemplation for better understanding of his Christian purpose.4 Alexander’s “fiera maletía” (st. 24b) is so potent that, as well as driving the narrative of the Alexandre, it foments his capacity for edifying visions.

A Glorious Future Foreseen

The source of Alexander’s fervour is twofold. Following suggestions of his illegitimacy, he experiences a pervasive desire to prove himself his father’s son: “por fi de Netánamo non me ayan a tener” (st. 27d), and is deeply [End Page 208] affronted that the Greeks are made to submit to Persian rule. He suffers his shame and dishonour physically and psychologically. At night, tossing and turning in agony in his chamber, he experiences visions of pillage and conquest:

Revolviés’a menudo e retorçiés’ los dedos; non podié, con la quexa, los labros tener quedos: ¡ya andava partiendo las tierras de los medos, quemándoles las miesses, cortando los viñedos!

(st. 30)

Alexander’s first visions are conceived in a manner remarkably similar to that described and detailed in studies of monastic meditation. In both classical and monastic rhetoric, withdrawing to a chamber or a confined space, and feelings of profound anxiety and restlessness often accompanied by physical distress, signal a visionary state of mind (Carruthers 174). After these visions, Alexander becomes unwell: “seyé descolorido, / triste e destemprado” (st. 31ab); “¡podrié caer en tierra de poca empuxada!” (st. 34d). As Ulrike Wiethaus notes, “visions often occur as creative and constructive responses to severe crises” (136).

Following this episode, Alexander meets his teacher and advisor, Aristotle, to discuss his future. The sage has notably just been meditating on philosophy in sleepless confinement in his home where “avié un silogismo de lógica formado” (st. 32c). Devoid of Christ’s example to follow, Alexander listens to Aristotle, “cuemo del Crïador” (st. 49c). The subsequent exchange between teacher and pupil is an important juncture in the text when Aristotle hands down knowledge of classical military mores adapted to medieval Christian crusade.

Aristotle warns his young charge to respect God’s might: “ca los omnes el seso non lo han por heredat, / sinon en quien lo pone Dios por su pïedat” (st. 57cd), yet also highly exalts worldly fame: “¡si omne non gana prez por dezir o por fer, / valdrié más que fues’ muerto o fües’ por naçer!” (st. 72cd). He teaches Alexander that “e seso e esfuerço te será menester” (st. 65d), in a reprise of Homer’s ideal of the hero of sapientia et fortitudo, a formula found in the writings of Isidore of Seville (Curtius 175). The battlefield is the place “do es a pareçer / cadauno qué se preçia o qué deve valer” (st. [End Page 209] 78ab). Classical precepts and learning about fame on earth are unified with Christian principle in moral purpose in the lessons of Aristotle.

Aristotle also teaches Alexander how to channel visual experience by envisioning Alexander’s future success over the course of their discussion. He foresees Alexander’s duties, which range from talking through the possibility of military action with his vassals (st. 53b), to freeing Greece from oppression (st. 85c). Capturing the imagination of the young leader, Aristotle’s projected vision is memorable and instructive:

  El infant’ fue alegre: tovos’ por consejado; non olvidó un punto de quanto’l fue mandado; perdió el mal talento e tornó tan pagado cuemo si ya oviesse todo esto recabdado.

¡Ya tornava las treguas a Dario e a Poro!; ¡ya partié a quateros la plata e el oro! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¡Ya contava por súa la Torre de Babilón, Indïa e Egipto, la tierra de Sión, África e Marruecos, quantos regnos y son.

(sts. 86–88)

It is as if the young prince has already triumphed. Alexander is now in control of the visual capacity that, earlier on in the narrative, made him so ill and unhappy. He goes on to use the visualization techniques he has learned to uplift and focus his vassals shortly after in the text when he speaks to them about the Trojan War (sts. 320–772). Aristotle praised the heroes of the war in their discussion (st. 70). A scene suggested in the Alexandreis (Willis 77), the excursus on Troy is a substantial addition by the poet of the Alexandre that accounts for sixteen per cent of the work overall (Michael 256).5

Michael makes two very interesting points about the episode. Firstly, it is referred to as a sermon or speech given by Alexander, sermón (sts. 332a, 762a), with the Troy story as its thema. Secondly, the rendition immediately precedes Alexander’s major campaigns. Despite Michael’s initial assertion that the excursus in no way furthers the Alexander narrative, he later adds [End Page 210] that it sets “a standard by which Alexander’s achievements can be judged and which they can be seen to surpass” (256–60).

The fact that the story of Troy is recited directly before Alexander’s significant battles suggests two further points. First, the popular legend is used as a model for battle: the alien enemy of Asian shores is imagined as familiar through a shared vision. Alexander makes the unknown visible, to be overcome with the inevitability with which the Greeks conquered the Trojans. Second, classical epic is adapted for sermon rather than speech, its prestige harnessed to inspire a christianized retinue. When it does not simply mean habla or discurso, sermón refers to an “oración evangélica que se predica ... en elogio de los buenos para la imitación de sus virtudes” (Alonso Pedraz 1580; “Sermón”). That the term sermón is to be read here in the Christian sense is emphasized at the end of the digression, when Alexander is described as an edifying preacher:

  com’ es costumbre de los predicadores en cabo del sermón adobar sus razones, fue él aduzïendo unos estraños motes con que les maduró todos los coraçones.

(st. 763)

After hearing the sermon, Alexander’s vassals are delighted by their leader’s skill in oration: “fueron todos alegres, ca siguié bien razón, / porque tenié los nombres todos de coraçón” (st. 762cd). They tell Alexander, “¡De quanto tú has dicho somos mucho pagados! / ¡De fer quanto mandares somos aparejados!” (st. 772bc). Furthermore, the visual training of Alexander’s retinue brings great success: Darius and Asia are definitively vanquished. Alexander later congratulates his men with visual terms for having superseded the efforts of their legendary Greek forefathers. They have, he says, blinded further admiration of the legend of Troy with their own glorious victory: “la estoria troyana con esto la çegastes” (st. 2286c).

In her elucidation of vision and fantasy in the medieval period, Mary Carruthers reminds us of the influential rhetorician Quintilian’s definition of “vision”. In his De institutione oratoria, Quintilian comments that “mental craftings”, visiones, are “most powerfully of use to call up the emotional energies of oneself and one’s audience”. Indeed, he “defines visiones at greatest [End Page 211] length when he is talking about the rhetorical ornament of enargeia” (172).

Enargeia uses language to create a “vivid, visual presence, bringing the event described, and all the emotions that attend its perception, ‘before the reader’s eyes’” (Walker 353). This “calling up” of emotional energies in the visual experience of an event before it takes place, as in the case of Alexander’s sermon on the battle for Troy, is a technique used strategically in the Alexandre. It allays anxiety and spurs on the warriors, and the audience, guiding them through the adventure, and renewing their engagement. Indeed, enargeia is primarily used to visualize landscape before it is conquered.

Asia: Prophecy Realized

Shortly preceding the Troy excursus is another significant digression. As the protagonist and his men arrive on Asia’s shore, an explanation of the divisions of the globe: “cuémo se part’el mundo” (st. 276c), is brought “before the reader’s eyes” with “all the emotions that attend its perception”, for the first time. Such a representation initiates a series of mappings in the Alexandre that enact landscape as a work of the mind (Schama 7), through the optics of Christian theology. Although based on the Alexandreis (Casas Rigall 203; Willis 71), the explanation offers the audience an experience of the magnitude of Alexander’s task and provides an authorized foundation for later, increasingly suggestive, visions of the globe in the text.

Fig. 1. World map from Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae and De natura rerum, 1136. © British Library Board (Harley 2660, fol.123v).
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Fig. 1.

World map from Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae and De natura rerum, 1136. © British Library Board (Harley 2660, fol.123v).

The author describes the world according to the “T-O” map, “a favourite of [End Page 212] medieval cartographers”. The “T-O” is probably the most frequent form of mappa mundi found from the eighth century onwards (Deyermond 147), and shows land divided “por triple partiçión” (st. 276c), with Asia at the top (see fig. 1). God has granted Asia “una suerte” (st. 278b) as it occupies approximately half of the world’s land and this paradise lost of “bondat estraña” (st. 282a), is detailed as the place of origins for Christians (Akbari 3): the source of the four holy rivers of Eden that irrigate the earth (st. 287a), the home of the patriarchs and the prophets, and where the Crucifixion took place (st. 285). The audience is reminded that the “T-O” map represents the landscape of the world as cruciform and that the arms of the cross are frontiers for the discord of faith between the continents. Asia is represented as a Christian terrain waiting to be redeemed from this mala çisma (st. 280): “aún cuemo es buena, devié seer mejor: / … ca y naçió don Christus, el nuestro Redemptor” (st. 284bd).

The importance of the surveillance of landscape in the Alexandre cannot be overestimated. Incidences when men of power –Alexander, Darius, and Pausanias– observe territory with the aim of making it their possession are frequent. When Alexander first reaches Asia, his first action is to ride to the top of a nearby “alto otero” (st. 301c); “en el poyo, en un alto logar” (st. 302a), whereby “començó las tïerras todas a mesurar: / quanto más las catava, más se podié pagar” (st. 302bc). Alexander’s gaze begins to mesurar his goal, a verb that means “to measure”, but also “to explore”, “to examine”, and “to consider” (Alonso Pedraz 1390; “Mesurar”; also Sas 399, “explorar”, “medir”, “reconocer”). As he looks: “dixo entre su cuer: ‘¡Cuemo creo e fío, / antes de pocos días será tod’esto mío!’” (st. 304cd).

It is notable that Alexander mentally measures the goal of a potentially universal kingdom under his rule. The depiction of his envisioning is reminiscent of that of the prophet Ezekiel, who sees the new Jerusalem in measurements, mensuras, before him in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 40:28–35).6 The use of the verb catar to describe the basic act of looking on the part of Alexander should additionally be noted, which means to “to see” but also [End Page 213] “to consider”, and “to obtain” (Alonso Pedraz 649; “Catar”, defs 2, 8, 16; Sas 123, “mirar”, “respetar”, “interpretar”, “escoger”). Asia contains Jerusalem, the earthly city of God, and Alexander must liberate the continent from the infidel in the building of proto-Christian tradition.

Alexander’s observations of territory are distinguished from those of his rivals by his higher moral goal. After he crushes a rebellion against his father early on in the work, Pausanias leads an uprising against him motivated primarily by lust for Olympia. Pausanias thinks he will soon have “el regno por señor a catar” (st. 171c), but he fails in his pursuit. Darius is of similar fate. Shortly before his first battle with Alexander, he rides to the top of “un grant otero” where he “cató a todas partes” (st. 809ac). Darius’ first thought at perceiving the landscape is of tributes owed to him by Alexander: “¡Darm’ha las parias el infant’ refertero!” (st. 809d). Alexander, however, is not motivated by lust or greed. Asia is alpha and omega, the place of origins and of apocalypse (Akbari 3), and thus the keystone of his global plan: “ond’asmó Alexandre un seso natural: / ¡que si prisiesse éssa avrié todo lo ál!” (st. 283cd).

Alexander’s dominion of Asia is divinely endorsed. In the battle for Issus and the subsequent capture of Gaza, the hero must preserve his life from two men possessed: Zoroas, a visionary astrologer turned “loco endiablado” (st. 1068b), “sabié bien catar” (st. 1053a), and an assassin “endiablado, / en guis’ de peregrino” (st. 1124ab). At this stage in the narrative, Alexander is a morally upright visionary in contrast with these two men who have been corrupted by Lucifer. He next enters one of two symbolic centres of Asia in the poem, Jerusalem (the second is Babylon), an important interlude in which his status is raised to that of prophet and the righteousness of his dominion is confirmed by an authoritative religious leader, Jadus, the Jewish High Priest of the city.7

The poet describes how, “vínole en visión a Jadus do durmié / que, quando Alexandre sopiessen que vinié, / sallesse contra él qual la missa dizié” (st. [End Page 214] 1137abc). Jadus must welcome Alexander even though he has sworn loyalty to render tribute to Darius alone (st. 1134). When Alexander finally enters the holy city and the High Priest greets him as he has been guided, the hero is moved to confirm his faith in God. The High Priest, like Alexander, is of incipient Christian faith: he attires himself with the tetragrammaton (sts. 1139cd, 1155), yet is additionally described as a bishop wearing a mitre (sts. 1139b, 1154b).

Deferring to the leader, Alexander shows respect for the moral authority of a keeper of the old law. He prostrates himself in prayer at Jadus’ feet (st. 1142d) and “fizo sus estaçiones; / cuemo la Ley mandava, ofreçió oblaçiones. / Confirmoles su Lëy e todas sus acçiones” (st. 1143bcd). Lastly, he reads the prophecy of the Book of Daniel that predicts his rise to power (st. 1145). He has made everlasting peace with the city and freed its people from all tributes, just so long as they obey his laws in return (st. 1144).

The unusual mercy of Alexander with the people of Jerusalem shocks his men and he must explain himself to them. On entering Jerusalem, “membrol’ por aventura de una visïón” (st. 1142b): Jadus, he says, reminds him of an angelic figure who once came to him (st. 1160). Alexander recalls the anxiety and sleeplessness he experienced prior to the vision, once again conceived in a manner remarkably similar to that described and detailed in studies of monastic meditation:

Estava en mi cámara en un lecho yaziendo; de las cosas del regno yazía comidiendo. Fue, con la grant anxïa, el sueño posponiendo: ¡yazía en grant cueita, grant lazerio sufriendo! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . corrién de mí sudores, ca era en ardura.

(sts. 1149–50)

Alexander was lying in bed thus when, unexpectedly, an angelic figure appeared to him in the gloom. The palace was “fierament’alumbrado” (st. 1152c), and the apparition said:

Entiende, Alexandre, qué te quiero fablar: salte de Ëuropa, passa a ultramar. ¡Avrás todos los regnos del mundo a ganar!; [End Page 215] ¡nunca fallarás omne que’t pueda contrastar!

(st. 1157)

Alexander tells his men that God: “me prometió de fer emperador” (st. 1161c), yet before he can fully appease them he is driven to defend the purity of his visionary experience most vehemently. He is clear about the status of the angel: “¡Yo a ésti non adoro nin cato por señor, / mas, so la su figura, oro al Crïador!” (st. 1161ab). He is no pagan idolater and understands that the angel is just a figura, or image, to direct him to the worship of God. Yet he must state his case even further:

¡Bien sepades, amigos, que aquel mandadero mensaje fue de Dios por fer a mí çertero! ¡A mí Esse me guía, non otro agorero! ¡Vós lo veredes todos que será verdadero!

(st. 1162)

Alexander helps his followers to understand the exception he has made and implores them, “non me devedes tener por falleçido” (st. 1160d). His recounting of the vision in the holy city is another important juncture in the text when the emotional energies of Alexander’s vassals –and those of the audience– are called up to renew commitment to the narrative, as with the sermon on Troy. The sacred location of the recounting gives this juncture far greater religious emphasis than the first. Alexander’s effort to convince his men of what he has seen is further compelling evidence of his pagan heritage superseded and his profile as a proto-Christian hero has significantly advanced since the Troy digression.

Arizaleta explores the miraculous confirmation of Alexander’s vision in Jerusalem as strongly linked to his reading of the Book of Daniel (st. 1145). She highlights that the angelic figure of the vision recapitulates Daniel’s prophecy of Alexander’s future world domination (sts. 1156–57): it is not just the figure of Jadus who materializes in Jerusalem but the prophecy of the Old Testament as well, in the form of scripture.8 Alexander’s reading of Daniel himself and of his own volition in the Alexandre is a departure from [End Page 216] the sources of the poem. Daniel (8,11) is not mentioned in the Alexandreis and in the Historia de Preliis the book is mediated by clerics. The visionary Alexander can be compared to Daniel the prophet, for in Jerusalem “rien ne se dresse entre lui et Dieu”. Furthermore, Alexander’s entry into Jerusalem (st. 1141) is reminiscent of that of Christ in Matthew 21 and Mark 11 (“Le miracle exégetique” 145–47).

Yet it is not only the angelic figure who articulates Daniel’s prophecy in the Alexandre. When Nature explains her reasons for plotting Alexander’s demise to Satan towards the end of the narrative, she recapitulates the direct speech of the vision –“salte de Ëuropa, passa a ultramar. / … ¡nunca fallarás omne que’t pueda contrastar!” (st. 1157bd)– as prophecy realized: “temen la su espada todos de mar a mar: / ¡non es omne naçido que’l pueda contrastar!” (st. 2431cd). Alexander’s power is now too great and he must be humbled. Nature’s discourse with Satan is also an addition by the Castilian poet: her descent to Hell is only suggested in the Alexandreis (Willis 64). Her repetition of the prophecy is further evidence of the importance of Christian vision in the Alexandre: the content of a vision marks the rise and fall of Alexander as king, as prophesized in Daniel 8.

A true vision from God is a rare experience afforded to only the most devout or blessed.9 Conversely, the false dream or vision is relatively common as a symptom of contemptus mundi. Often viewed as an instrument of the Devil, the danger of the false dream or vision is signalled in the Bible (Le Goff 195– 96, 228). In Ecclesiastes 5:6, for example, the Christian is warned, ‘with many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God’.10 Those who most famously receive visions from God in the Bible include Moses, Ezekiel, Daniel, Job, and John. Job is tested by very frightening images (Job 7). A clear vision, visio, from the Lord is reserved for Moses and the patriarchs, and pagan kings are usually only privileged with obscure messages through dreams (Le Goff 194), as in the case of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4). [End Page 217]

Both the clarity of the vision that Alexander received and the later realization of its prophecy confirm his status as a proto-Christian leader in receipt of divine guidance for the majority of the narrative. Alexander’s status is further distinguished in comparison with that of Darius, his great enemy. Shortly after the fall of Issus and before Alexander’s entry into Jerusalem, Darius recounts a dream to his nobles: “un sueño yo soñara” (st. 951a), which consisted of scenes of landscape bathed in angry fire descending from the heavens: “unas iradas flamas”, “flamas cuemo rayos agudos” (sts. 952c, 953a). The flames burnt the dwellings of the Greeks and Alexander was captured alive and chained at the neck (st. 954c).

Note that Darius reports a lower status sueño rather than a visión, and although he assures his nobles, “¡lo que será de vero, segundo que yo fío!” (st. 954d), it shortly becomes apparent that it was the work of the Devil, “mal pecado” (st. 960d).11 While Darius is rendered “mal cofondido” (st. 959d), Alexander enjoys an unusual moment of tranquillity and praises God for the opportunity to defeat his foe: “¡de toda cueita tengo que me has öy quito!”; “¡Todos nuestros contrarios viénennos a las manos!” (sts. 962d, 965a). He subsequently triumphs decisively, forcing Darius to flee the battlefield (st. 1074). The defeat of Darius as prophesized in the Bible is retold to further emphasize that Alexander is a force of God-given power: “vernié en la sierra un cabrón mal domado; / ¡quebrantarié los cuernos al carnero doblado!” (st. 1339cd). The goat, ‘king of Greece’ (Daniel 8:21), forces the ram to relinquish his stronghold over the two kingdoms of the Medes and the Persians, and ‘then the male goat grew exceedingly great’ (Daniel 8:8).12

Losing Sight of Christian Purpose

Alexander’s power is indeed great. Despite suffering many hardships, he even manages to overcome Porus and his troops, yet his many victories do not satisfy him. After the attack on Sudracae, in which he sustains a [End Page 218] serious injury (sts. 2245–49), Alexander tires of warfare and perceives a new challenge in further development of the intellectual and martial training he received from Aristotle. He will explore the natural world in a journey to the Antipodes: “si ál non apresiéssemos, en balde nós viniemos” (st. 2290b). Like the contemporary Iberian cleric, Alexander is concerned with “la cuestión del justo papel de la erudición en la vida del hombre” (Surtz 265). As Casas Rigall notes, apresiéssemos signifies both aprendiésemos and conquistásemos: “en el programa de Alejandro se conjugan ambas acciones” (639n2290b). Significantly, it is during this foray into natural philosophy that Alexander angers Nature and brings about his condemnation by God.

Fig. 2. “Alexander being lowered from a ship in a glass barrel to view the wonders of the sea”, The Old French Prose Alexander Romance, 1445. © British Library Board (Royal 15 E. VI, fol.20v).
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Fig. 2.

“Alexander being lowered from a ship in a glass barrel to view the wonders of the sea”, The Old French Prose Alexander Romance, 1445. © British Library Board (Royal 15 E. VI, fol.20v).

After enduring terrible weather, Alexander descends into the deep suspended from his ship in a tiny barrel, a scene likely borrowed from the Roman d’Alexandre, yet containing detail of an unknown source that is probably original to the Alexandre (Willis 50). The image of Alexander so enclosed in the magnitude of the ocean depths, “sedié grant coraçón en angosta posada” (st. 2311b), is at once awe-inspiring and comical (see fig. 2). The warrior, who has walked the breadth of the globe and surveyed landscapes from the tops of mountains, is, paradoxically, most comfortable here “en su casa çerrada” (st. 2311a). Such confinement, which in the monastic context signals a visionary state of mind (Carruthers 174), evokes the ascetic dwelling places of saints in the mester de clerecía. In the Vida de San Millán de la Cogolla, Millán constructs a capiella for contemplation, a “casa angosta e poquiella” (st. 107ac), and in the Poema de Santa Oria, the protagonist [End Page 219] shuts herself away “en un rencón angosto” (st. 20b).

Yet Alexander is no monk who abhors the world, and rather than suffering in confinement with anxiety and sleeplessness in order to receive divine message, or crusading the globe to unite its people, he now sits in comfort imbibing knowledge from observation in the manner of his philosopher teacher, Aristotle. His mind is free to travel to seemingly infinite depths under the sea and his desire is for empirically gleaned knowledge, rather than edification through faith. Alexander sets to work to “saber e mesurar / e meter en escripto los secretos del mar” (st. 2309cd). In this failure to be moderate in his intellectual pursuits, Alexander deprives Nature of her honour: “¡Alexandre la avié aontada!” (st. 2326d), and falls unknowingly under the sway of the Devil: “¡nunca mayor sobervia comidió Luçifer!” (st. 2327d).

In such a position Alexander is unaware of his sobervia. He notes that in the imperio (st. 2315d) of the deep: “la mesura non puede su derecho aver”; “qui más ha más quïer’, muere por ganar ál” (sts. 2318c, 2319b), and while pronouncing such judgements, cannot see that he is describing his own lack of restraint.13 In contrast to those of saints enclosed in prayer, the image of the hero “en su casa çerrada” (st. 2311a) foreshadows his dishonourable death and the burial of his cuerpo chico (st. 2191b) in a narrow tomb (st. 2672). Shortly after, in an extraordinary scene, the hitherto absent Christian God intervenes in the narrative with a speech original to the author of the Castilian poem (Willis 64): “¡Este lunático que non cata mesura / Yo’l tornaré el gozo todo en amargura!” (st. 2329cd). The poet of the Alexandre places the greatest emphasis possible on the consequences of lack of intellectual measure such as that demonstrated by Alexander.

Despite the vehement condemnation of Alexander by God, the hero’s worldly life does not end at this point in the tale. On the contrary, he is permitted one last glorious exploration that brings the narrative to a dazzling crescendo. The episode, an innovative composite of several sources (Willis 51), [End Page 220] is a portrayal of God as logos whereby “to know God is to understand or to decipher the message that is God’s creation” (Kelley 66), in which man, landscape, and God are understood as essentially related. Alexander is given a final chance to redeem his perspective of the world while still pursuing his exploratory objectives. Having surveyed land and sea, he now has the opportunity to look down on Earth from the heavens.

A Corrected Perspective

Increasing the physical confinement he experienced in the barrel under the sea, Alexander has a pouch, casa (st. 2498a), constructed to accommodate one man “a anchura posado” (st. 2498b); “fízose él demientre en el cuero coser” (st. 2499c). Starving gryphons pull the King up to the heavens in his carriage (see fig. 3), “knowledge and violence in harness” (Weiss 131–32). Alexander views the world he has so thoroughly conquered below:

Tanto pudo el rëy a las nuves pujar: veyé montes e valles de yus’ de sí estar; veyé entrar los ríos todos en alta mar, mas cómo yazié o non nunca lo pudo asmar.

(st. 2504)

Fig. 3. “Alexander’s attempt to ascend to heaven”, Romance of Alexander, 1338–44. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (MS. Bodl. 264, fol.81r).
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Fig. 3.

“Alexander’s attempt to ascend to heaven”, Romance of Alexander, 1338–44. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (MS. Bodl. 264, fol.81r).

As the poet informs us, Alexander is not capable of imagining the extent of the landscape despite his superior perceptive capacity (st. 2507cd). Indeed, the hero is startlingly humbled by the enormity of what he views. It would take days, the poet reports to his audience, to adequately describe just what Alexander perceived (st. 2507ab) and he will not attempt to do so. Instead, he will provide an interpretation of the “panorama nunca visto”, “una síntesis de todo conocimiento” (Rico, El pequeño mundo 53), borrowed from authoritative scriptures: “Solémoslo leer, diz’lo la escriptura, / que es [End Page 221] llamado mundo el omne por figura” (st. 2508ab).

To summarize the true appearance of the earth from the heavens, to gather the infinite together into an accessible whole, a figura likened to the form of man is employed that, gazing down with the hero, the audience is encouraged to contemplate:

Qui comedir quisier’ e asmar la fechura entendrá que es bien razón sin depresura:

Asïa es el cuerpo, segunt mio esçïent’; Sol e Luna, los ojos, que naçen de Orient’; los braços son la cruz del Rëy Omnipotent’, que fue muerto en Asia por salut de la gent’. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Es por la pierna diestra Ëuropa notada. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . La carne es la tierra, espessa e pesada; el mar es el pellejo que la tiene çercada.

(sts. 2508–12)

This image of the world as human, with a torso, eyes, limbs, and skin is indebted to Plato’s Timaeus (Fedoruk), and is reinforced in association with the cruciform “T-O” map depicted earlier in the poem.14 Despite its classical source, the image is accounted for and explained through the optics of Christian theology in the Alexandre. As Alexander is humbled gazing upon the figura, God’s panoptic gaze is exalted. The value of Christian interpretation over empirical observation is made manifest to the audience of the poem.

In the final scenes of the Alexandre, Alexander returns to Babylon and enters his infamous tent to celebrate before his death. His dominion of the globe is made complete only just before his demise (st. 2515d). The tent is painted with images of legend and history, of Original Sin and the deeds of Alexander himself: a vision of a universal empire. On the third panel of the tent is a map of the world set forth with such skill that it brings the globe to [End Page 222] the viewer’s mind, “como si la oviesse con sus piedes andada” (st. 2576d). Yet unlike previous visions of landscape in the Alexandre, this map is a depiction of man’s insignificance rather than one of his prospects. Gazing upon the representation, Alexander, poet, and audience are emphatically reminded of humankind’s ultimate humility in accordance with Christian doctrine:

Tenié el mar en medio a la tierra çercada: contra la mar, la tierra non semejava nada. Era éssa en éssa más yerma que poblada; d’ella yazié pasturas, d’ella yazié lavrada.

(sts. 2576–77)

Furthermore, the world map shows Europe and Africa “muy renconadas” (st. 2578c) that they are insignificant in size compared to Asia. They are more like stepchildren than daughters to the continent (st. 2578d). Such an illustration of the globe and the interrelations between the continents points to religious schism and the political chaos that will reign after Alexander’s death. It is also an apt final emblem for the troubled human capacity to perceive Christian truth, the major theme and premise of the text.

Alexander’s proud perception of his own limitations and purpose has been corrected and despite the gravity of his sin of pride –equal to that of Lucifer– the audience can be fairly certain that this pastor of the Lord’s sheep is welcomed into Heaven at the end of the tale. Alexander is a prefiguration of Christ, in the words of Arizaleta, “une sorte de faillible figure christique” (“Le miracle exégétique” 155): “¡señor, non fue en omne tan maña caridat!” (st. 2662c); “que mal tienen en uno ovejas sin pastor” (st. 2664b). As well as pastor, Alexander is referred to as “gentil señor” (st. 2651d) and “buen padre” (st. 2655b), and he encourages the audience to believe that he shall be warmly received into Heaven: “¡todos me laudarán porque non fue vençido!” (st. 2631d).

A problematic figure who is nonetheless favoured by God for the majority of his life, the Castilian Alexander’s sins are ultimately more akin with those of the prodigal son than a traitor of the faith. Though he strays from an acceptable path of military crusade to transgress the frontiers of knowledge, the hero is edified by his mistake. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates God’s love for the sinner (Maas, “The Character”). It reads, ‘for this son of [End Page 223] mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:24).15 Despite his worldly fame, Alexander is reduced to spiritual starvation under the sea, as the prodigal son finds himself with less to eat than swine after squandering his fortune (Luke 15:13–16). Permitting him the gryphon flight, God gives Alexander a second and splendid chance, just as the prodigal son is welcomed back into his father’s home with merry-making and feasting (Luke 15:23).

This article has argued that the Alexandre portrays a significantly recalibrated pagan hero of progressive allegiance to a God consonant with Christian revelation. His development is plotted by a series of visions of unfamiliar territory that pace the narrative, an allegorical tale of man’s preoccupation with the frontiers of knowledge. The Alexandre explores tensions in contemporary theology in the schools of the Iberian Peninsula where pagan philosophy was being studied in conjunction with scripture. The highly erudite author of the Alexandre chose the studiously pagan, historical school text, the Alexandreis, as his primary model, yet he recast Châtillon’s narrative of Alexander’s life and times in accordance with his Christian purpose. He presents the audience with an Alexander at once epic hero, natural philosopher, and prefiguration of Christ, a protagonist who has affinity with those of hagiographic literature.

The digression of the gryphon flight, the crescendo of the narrative, is an exploration of the natural world as understood with Christian doctrine. I suggest that such a crescendo is a poignant example for contemporary scholars who wished to go about their intellectual pursuits with humility. It is also a potent allegory of the transgressor redeemed, and the Christian heights to which worldly exploration can lead. Looking down on the world as cruciform figura, Alexander, poet, and audience envision the body of Christ and remember his death to redeem sin. Though a pagan king, Alexander’s achievements are prophesized in the Bible and his heritage overcome to a surprising extent through experience of transformative Christian vision.

This reading of the Alexandre is important for understanding of the mester [End Page 224] de clerecía. The corpus is highly didactic and erudite with a strong focus on eschatological matters. Although crucial for their political and cultural reference and entertainment power, secular and courtly topics are of secondary concern in the Alexandre, a poem for the learned about the perils of learning. The most influential Castilian verse of the thirteenth century sought, above all, to advocate the Christian message within the classical tradition.

Florence Curtis
University of Oxford

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1. The Libro de Alexandre (Alexandre) is notoriously difficult to date precisely. Isabel Uría Maqua links the poem with the newly founded University of Palencia, suggesting the second decade of the thirteenth century, and Julian Weiss (24) makes association with the reign of either Alfonso VIII (1158–1214) or Fernando III (1217–52). Alan Deyermond suggests the late 1220s as the most likely date (146n7). Although Amaia Arizaleta generally advocates the first thirty years of the thirteenth century (“El Libro” 75), I am persuaded by her suggestion that the text could have been written as early as the late twelfth century (La translation 215). I therefore concur with Geraldine Coates (28), who opts for ca. 1200.

2. The theological conception of Alexander is greatly influenced by the book of Daniel in which the warrior appears, in two allegories, as a leopard and a he-goat. Further references include 1 Maccabees 1:1–10 and 6:2. Alexander is also supposedly spoken of in Daniel 2:39, 7:6, 8:5–7, and 11:3–4 (Maas, “Alexander”).

3. “Without the angry hero (Achilles, Roland, the Cid) or god (Poseidon in the Odyssey, Juno in the Aeneid), there is no epic” (Curtius 170).

4. Quotations from Berceo’s works are from the complete edition edited by Isabel Uría Maqua.

5. The source for the excursus is probably the Ilias Latina (Michael 256).

6. The “new Jerusalem” trope, as associated with the visions of John and Ezekiel, was readily associated with the meditative life of every medieval monastery (Carruthers 195).

7. In the Vida de San Millán de la Cogolla and Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos the eponymous protagonists develop the gift of prophecy, but only after considerable monastic training. See stanzas 283 and 287, respectively.

8. The description of Alexander’s world domination may also derive in part from Psalm 71.8 (see Arizaleta, “El Libro” 100): ‘May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth’ “et dominabitur a mari usque ad mare et a flumine usque ad terminos orbis terrarum” (New Oxford Annotated Bible; Biblia Sacra vol. 1).

9. In the Libro de Fernán Gonçález, Fernán experiences visions from God. San Pelayo appears to him, for example (López Guil 269–70; st. 400).

10. “Ubi multa sunt somnia, plurimæ vanitates et sermones innumeri, tu vero Deum time” (Biblia Sacra vol. 2).

11. It is notable that the Devil’s “iradas flamas” and “flamas cuemo rayos agudos” (sts. 952c, 953a) are akin to the force of Alexander, “rayo irado” (sts. 1166b, 1410a), and the wrath of God: “¡non valen escantos quando Dios es irado!” (st. 1567d). Such an equivocal use of language further highlights the difficulty of discerning whether a vision is divine or diabolical.

12. “Rex Græcorum”, “Hircus autem caprarum magnus factus est nimis” (Biblia Sacra vol. 2).

13. Those closest to God are often the most vulnerable to a poverty of perspective, such as Satan, Adam and Eve, and Judas, for example.

14. I suggest that Alexander also recalls the seven spheres of the Timaeus earlier in the Alexandre: “Dizen las escripturas ——yo leí el tratado—— / que siete son los mundos que Dïos ovo dado” (st. 2289ab). See Cooper and Hutchinson for Plato’s text (1242; sect. 38cd).

15. “Quia hic filius meus mortuus erat et revixit perierat et inventus est” (Biblia Sacra vol. 2).