The Medieval Alexander
We’ve already seen how Alexander took on many different roles in the millennia or so following his death. From a Jewish convert to an Islamic prophet; a philosopher-king to a protector of men against enemies of the Apocalypse. The number of Alexander-legends in existence made it easy for different groups to incorporate him into their mythologies (or just invent myths around him), whatever their culture, beliefs, or agenda. So it should come as little surprise then that during the Middle Ages, the ancient Macedonian came to be reinvented as a chivalric knight, a pious holy man, and a brave Christian king.
While versions of the Alexander Romance existed all across Europe, translated into almost every language, there was no consistency. In Medieval Franceâthe cradle of chivalryâAlexander might have enjoyed an unblemished reputation as a perfect knight, but among German literary circles, he had a much more sinister reputation. Many German theologians equated Alexander with the devil or the antichrist while in Italy, puritanical writers such as Petrarch rallied against him for his immoderacy and excessive drinking.
Part of the reason for Alexander’s negative characterizations was due to his ambivalent role in the Bibleâmainly how appeared alongside the much-hated Antiochus Epiphanes in the Book of Maccabees (I). Another reason was that different countries had access to different literature; German writers had access to different texts to their French or Spanish counterparts, for example, with German authors relying on a fifth-century Christian called Orosius. Far from the knight in shining armour of the French tradition, in Orosius’s “History against the Pagans“, Alexander is described as a “bloodthirsty tyrant”.
From the late twelfth century onwards, interest in the fantastical stories of Alexander’s life started to wane in favour of more historical accounts. This was mostly due to renewed interest in classical literature across medieval Europe, with scholars and literates understandably placing more value in the historical/biographical accounts of Plutarch, Arrian, and Curtius Rufus, rather than in stories about Alexander meeting naked philosophers and talking trees.
This isn’t to say the Romances died out completely. The early fifteenth century saw the appearance of a Scottish version, “the Buik of Alexander”, while in Eastern European countries new stories appeared in Slavonic and non-Slavonic languages for hundreds of years. In fact, a Bulgarian version of the Alexander Romance appeared as late as 1810, in which Alexander appears as a messenger sent by God to punish those who stray from the righteous path.