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