Alexandre: introduction

Verse narratives recounting stories about Alexander the Great in the French vernacular were composed as early as the first decades of the 12th c. Some of these episodic accounts, by that time already arranged into various text collections, were brought together by Alexandre de Paris (otherwise known as 'de Bernay' [in Normandy]), who integrated them into a metrically uniform biography of the Macedonian conqueror, now generally referred to as the vulgate Old French (as distinct from Anglo-Norman - see below) verse Roman d'Alexandre (RdA). In their edition of the text, Armstrong et al. argued that, about a decade before Alexandre de Paris started his venture, anonymous compilers had already lumped together into formally heterogeneous anthologies pre-existing accounts of Alexander's youth, oriental adventures, and death by poisoning. Remnants of these proto-collections are found in three extant MSS: Paris Bibl. de l'Arsenal 3472, Venice Museo Civico Correr VI 665, and Paris BnF 789, all of which were also influenced by the later, more successful version. The RdA was also influenced by the Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, and is usually dated to sometime after c. 1184, the year in which William of Tyre probably completed his chronicle. Further possible termini a quo are provided by the prequel Florimont, completed in 1188 by Aimon de Varennes (Harf-Lancner 1994) and the vengeance sequel, Vengement Alixandre, composed before 1191 by Gui de Cambrai (Armstrong 1926; Edwards 1926).

The prehistory of the 'vulgate' RdA demonstrates that older (partial) Alexander biographies followed quite a remarkable trajectory before ending up on Alexandre de Paris' writing desk (Armstrong 1937; Gosman 1997, 32-3). This path began c. 1100-35, in Southern France. At this time, Albéric de Pisançon composed an octosyllabic versified biography based on popular Latin sources. Unfortunately his text only survives in one fragment and in a translation by a German priest called Lamprecht, dated to as early as 1130-55. Circa 1160, a Poitevin poet adapted this account into decasyllabic verse. Fragmentary as it may be, this evidence suggests that Albéric at least described Alexander's youth. About a decade after its initial composition, Lambert le Tort, a clerk hailing from Châteaudun in Central France, amplified the decasyllabic poem with a description of Alexander's Asian expedition and the marvels encountered there. Later revisions of le Tort's cyclic narrative and the addition of the Mort Alixandre constituted further stages in the development of the Old French Alexander romance.

Around the mid- to late-1180s, Alexandre de Paris must have laid hands on one of these compilations and decided to improve and reorganize it into a more complete and coherent entity. He refashioned the anonymous decasyllabic Enfances into dodecasyllabic verse, and added the Siege of Tyre. After this first branch and before Lambert's prologue, he interpolated his own adaptation of a fourth poem, the epic Fuerre de Gadres, written before c. 1160 by a certain Eustace. This latest addition to the Alexander complex detailed the raid on Gaza, the taking of Tyre, and the Macedonian's entrance into Jerusalem. Interestingly, Alexandre de Paris did not obscure the contribution of his predecessors, Lambert and Eustace. However, in his prologue, he referenced the unaccomplished attempts of other trouveour bastart, probably to promote the success of his own more complete, and thus superior, account. Although obscured in many of the later MSS (see Busby 2002), the phased realization of the RdA is reflected by the scholarly division into four branches (see Meyer 1882, and Segmentation), which to some extent coincide with the earlier poems.

Notwithstanding the above, the resulting compilation remained (purposefully) ambivalent in a number of ways. Alexander is not presented unambiguously as an exemplary hero; especially in the later parts of the story, he is also characterized by human flaws. His desire to attain divine status is particularly underlined. Additionally, it has not always been clear if the compilation should be appreciated as a chanson de geste, as suggested by its arrangement in epic laisses, or as a romance. Busby's codicological research has shown that the RdA behaved as a textual chameleon. In extant MSS it allies itself with epic texts (e.g. Paris BnF 368, which also has texts from the Guillaume d'Orange cycle) as easily as with romance collections (e.g. Nottingham UL WLC/LM/6). This observation is further confirmed by the different formats and layouts in which the text appears. The modest, smaller single-column manuscripts would be associated with epic, while larger, illustrated folio formats copied in two columns may have had a romance flair (Busby 2002, Codices, 260-4).

The success of the vulgate RdA is not only evidenced by the number of extant MSS (see: Manuscripts and periods of production); Alexandre de Paris' compilation also eclipsed earlier versions of the Alexander story and affected these in MSS which were produced at the periphery of its main action radius in the North of France (see above). Moreover, episodes borrowed from the RdA were copied into the manuscripts of other biographies (e.g. Thomas of Kent's Anglo-Norman Roman de toute chevalerie), thus partially body-snatching concurrent narratives. More than a century after its assembly and in the face of competition from the wide-circulating Roman d'Alexandre en prose, the RdA still inspired the composition of new stories, in which Alexander's universe became imbued with contemporary courtly and chivalric values (see: Textual tradition). Finally, in the 15th c., when the production of RdA MSS had come to a standstill, it provoked reaction in the prose biographies of Jean Wauquelin and Vasco da Lucena. All of this, and more, justifies the recent interest in Alexandre de Paris' shape-shifting Alexander, not only in this project, but also in its broader, European context (e.g. Gaullier-Bougassas 2015).

To: Manuscripts and periods of production.