Manuscript Study of Bodley 264

Study of Bodley 264 “The Romance of Alexander”

Kimberly Rainey Woolery

San Jose State University

Prof. Elizabeth Wrenn-Estes

LIBR 280-12

March 25, 2012

Medieval and Renaissance Europe created some of the most beautiful and fascinating manuscripts still in existence today. One such manuscript is the Bodleian Manuscript 264, known as The Romance of Alexander. Containing three separate works bound together, Bodley 264 is an exquisite example of illumination and gothic script. This study of Bodley 264 will examine the physical characteristics of the text such as illuminations, decorations, and script, some aspects of the content of text, as well as what is known of the history of the manuscript and the time period in which it was created.


Historical Context
Manuscript History
Physical Format
Decoration and Illumination

Historical Context

Medieval France

By the 1300s, France was considered one of the most powerful and prosperous nations in Europe, with 20 million inhabitants, five times that of England. It was a center of international commerce and banking.  The annual fairs held in Champagne offered goods from all over the world (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011). It was also powerful militarily and able to expand its lands by taking land from England.

However, the 14th century was a difficult time for France. In 1337, England engaged France in a battle over land ownership that would come to be known as the Hundred Years War.  Though the French ultimately won the war, it did have a negative effect on population (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011; Dutch, 1998).

Perhaps even more devastating, in 1348 the Black Death reached the shores of France.  The exact number of deaths is not known, but large portions of the population suffered this horrific disease.  It is estimated that some cities lost up to two-thirds of their population.  The Black Death was a bubonic plague spread by rats and their parasites (Smitha, 2011).  People at that time did not understand how the disease had originated or spread and therefore blamed it on witchcraft and sin. Many believed it was a sign of the end of the world.  Some scholars attribute this time period to a rise in violence and a devaluation of human life due to the quick deaths of so much of the population, the fight over resources, and the waves of rebels and religious flagellants traveling Europe persecuting those they believed had caused the plague (Cohn, 2002).  Europe was in turmoil and France’s population and power decline.

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Manuscript History


The first work contained in the manuscript, Roman D’Alixandre, was completed by the scribe in 1338 and the illuminator in 1344 (Davenport, 1971).   The creation dates of the two later works, Alexander and Dindimus and Li Livres du Graunt Caam are unknown, but they were bound with Roman circa 1400.


The earliest mention of ownership of the manuscript was in a 1397 inventory of the library of Thomas, 1st Duke of Gloucester (Strickland, 2008).  At this time, it would have been only the Roman, without the other works bound with it. The next known owner can be identified by a name listed in the manuscript.  The name Richart de Widevelle, seigneur de Rivières (Richard Wydeville, Lord Rivers), along with the inscription “’le dist Seigneur acetast le dist liure l’an de grace mille cccclxvi. le premier jour de l’an a Londres.” is written on the end cover.  A rough translation would suggest that he came into ownership of the manuscript on January 1, 1466 in London (Macray, 1868).  At this time, the second and third work would have been bound with the Roman; however, their origination and ownership prior to being bound together is unknown (Strickland, 2008).   Three later owners’ signatures are also recorded on the cover: Gyles Strangwayes, Jaspere Ffylolle, and Thomase Smythe.  At some point prior to 1605, Thomas Bodley came into possession of the manuscript.  In his history of the Bodleian Library, Macray (1868) notes that the manuscript was most likely give to the library by Bodley as it is listed on the Register in 1605, but not listed as being donated by one of the other benefactors.  Since that time, The Bodleian Library has housed the manuscript.

Title and Author

Though academically known as Bodley 264 or MS Bodl. 264, this manuscript is often referred to by the name of the first and longest work contained within it – Roman D’Alixandre or The Romance of Alexander.  The Romance of Alexander is the name given to the collection of legends surrounding the life of Alexander the Great.  The stories first originated in Greece in 200 AD and are usually attributed to an unknown author called Pseudo-Callisthenes (Peacay, 2009; “Alexander Romance,” n.d.). Following its creation, the collection of stories spread through Europe and the Middle East, resulting in numerous variations in several languages.  Most of those translating and retelling the stories did not simply copy the original, but instead added or changed details of the stories or focused on certain types of events over others.  Certain authors chose to focus more on Alexander’s heroicisms, some on his lovers, and others on his travels.  The Roman became an amalgamation of stories that added to the legend of Alexander’s life (Rogers, 2008).  Several famous French versions, like this one, began to appear in the early 12th century.  Many of those versions embellished the love stories in the text to satisfy the tastes of the readers at that time.

The largest part of the Roman version contained in this manuscript is that of Alexandre de Paris, written during the reign of Philip II Augustus, most likely in the 1180s (Kibler, 2002; Rogers, 2008).  Unfortunately very little is known about Alexandre de Paris, other than that he was born in Bernay, Normandy and is often referred to as Alexandre de Bernay (or Bernai) (Rogers, 2008).  His version of the Roman came from an effort to compile and adapt many of the previous medieval versions to create one unified version.  This resulted in a 16,000 line poem, the style of which gave rise to the name “alexandrine” (Rogers, 2008).

Five additional Alexander poems have been added to Alexandre de Paris’ Roman to form the first 208 folio work.  Though the author of four of the works cannot be identified, the fifth is La Venjance Alixandre by Jean le Névelon (also known as Jehan le Nevelon and Jehan le Venelais)  (Benton, 1961; Muimnech, n.d.).  Again, information about this author is lacking.  There are records of several men with that name who were alive in that time period, but definite author identification and dating of the work is difficult (Benton, 1961).

The second work is a Middle English poem titled Alexander and Dindimus.  The title refers to Alexander the Great and Dindimus, King of the Brahmans. This is a fragmentary version of another of the Alexander Romances, different from that of Alexander de Paris.  It contains an alliterative poem outlining correspondence between Alexander and Dindimus (Skeat, 1878).  It was most likely authored in the mid to late 1300s, but the exact date and author are unknown.

The final work differs from the first two in that it concerns the travels of Marco Polo not Alexander the Great and, though written in French like the first work, it is prose rather than poetry.  Li Livres du Graunt Caam (The Book of the Grand Khan) is a part of The Travels of Marco Polo, originally co-written by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa.  Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant and explorer who spent the years of 1271–95 traveling Asia.  Seventeen of those years were spent in the court of Kublai Khan in China (“Marco Polo,” 2012.).  It is these years that are outlined in the section contained in this manuscript.  Polo served many functions in Khan’s court, including that of emissary and tax assessor.  In 1298, Polo, then a captain, was captured by the Genoese and thrown into jail with Rustichello da Pisa as his cellmate.  He told his travel stories to Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote them down in broken French (The Washington Times, 2008). Rustichello da Pisa was an Italian romance writer who had previously compiled a version of the Arthurian legends in French (Gardner, 1930).

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Physical Format


The pages of Bodley 264 are 415mm by 295mm and the entire manuscript is approximately 462mm tall.  It includes 274 folios.  The length and width, coupled with the number of folios, makes this a rather large manuscript.


Bodley 264 was written on parchment.  Parchment was made from the skin of an animal, most particularly that of a sheep or goat, that has been de-fleshed, stretched, and scraped to form a suitable writing surface (Brown, 1994).  It consists of a flesh side and a hair side, which are generally easily to distinguish from each other.  The hair side tended to be darker and smoother, with evidence of hair follicles.   However, occasionally the parchment would be scrubbed with pumice to smooth the surface or treated with chalk or another type of pounce in order to whiten it (Brown, 1994; Tillotson, 2005).  The pages of the Roman do appear to be quite smooth and light in color, so it’s possible they received this treatment. The other two works are slightly darker, however.

Binding and Collation

Bodley 264 consists of foliated leaves.  The number of the folio was written in the top right corner of the recto and top left of the verso.  The first work occupies folios 003r-208r.  The second occupies folios 209r-215v.  The third work occupies folios, 218r-271v.  All three of the works were ruled to guide the scribe.

Unfortunately, none of the images of Bodley 264 hosted by Bodleian Library clearly show the binding clearly, though some sources mention it was bound to a board cover.  Given the time period in which it was created, the folios were most likely put into quires which were then sewn together using cords along the spine.  After that they would be attached to the board (Baranov, n.d.).

One of the more interesting features of this manuscript is the fact of the three works being bound together.  The first work was completed in 1344 and the second and third works were added to it circa 1400.  It was at that time that the three works were bound together.  In the nearly 60 years between the completion of the first work and the addition of the second and third, there is no hard evidence of how the first work was originally bound or why the second and third works were added to it.

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Decoration and Illumination


Bodley 264 contains some truly beautiful illuminations, especially in the Roman.  Not only is it considered one of the most impressive manuscripts about Alexander, but as one of the most impressive secular manuscripts currently in existence (Davenport, 1971). The Roman was illustrated by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his atelier during the years of 1338-1344.  It was likely illustrated in Bruges based on the dialect of the text, directions to the illustrator present in the margins, and the rubrics (Davenport, 1971).  Little information can be found about de Grise or his process, however.

The Roman contains several full and partial page illustrations, as well as smaller illustrations decorating the borders.  Many of the illustrations show courtly scenes, which was typical of the Burgundian style popular in Flanders during that time period (Brown, 1994).  The use of color and the polished style also exemplifies Burgundian illustrations.  The illustrations contain numerous rich colors, intricate designs, and gold leafing.

Of particular interest are the miniatures decorating the borders of the page. Though many sources indicated that the illustrations were simply showing scenes of medieval life and recreation (including sports and a Punch and Judy show), in his study of the illustrations, Davenport (1971) argues that the illustrations are actually more directly related to the text than thought.  His example is on folio 164v and 165r.  It has been previously suggested that these are simply pictures of a smithy, but Davenport (1971) argues that this actually refers to the title and circumstances of the poem in which it is included, Restor du Paon. “In the preceding episode, the Voeux du Paon, Edea swore to commemorate the occasion of the vows by having a gold peacock made, and these margins record the fashioning of the peacock…A part of the marginal scene on fol. 165v recurs on fol. 171 v (P1. 25c), and although the peacock is not visible in this instance, the duplication of the earlier marginal scene suggests that, like fol. 165v, the subject here is the construction of the peacock” (p. 84).  He is able to identify sixty-one of the one hundred and eighty illustrations as being directly related to the text and suspects that the other illustrations are as well.

The illuminations in the second work, Alexander and Dindimus, are slightly coarser and smaller than those of the Roman.  Though they are colorful and gold leafed, they are not as intricate or well-done as those in the Roman.  Rather than featuring any full or half page illuminations, it contains only a few miniatures.  The illuminator for this work is unknown. Unlike the other two works, no attribution was included.  The illustrations show scenes of Alexander meeting Dindimus and the other Brahmans and scenes mentioned in their correspondence.

The third work, Li Livres du Graunt Caam, is attributed to Johannes and his school and was most likely completed sometime between 1400 and 1410 (Strickland, 2008). Again, little is known about the illuminator and his process.  Like with the second work, the illustrations are smaller and contain images found in the story.  However, they are more intricate and detailed,  similar in style to the first work.


Bodley 264 also contains intricate textual decorations in all three works.  In the first and third works, there are both major and minor initials.  The major initials are a veritable study in the various types of textual decorations that were often used.   Every type of initial decoration is used at one point or another, though floral decoration does seem to be the most frequent.  Faces or entire bodies were also common.  I’ve included a few examples here.

The minor initials often contained floral elements or pictures of human heads.  They were also worked into other decoration surrounding the text which wasn’t usually the case with the major initials.

The second work is slightly different.  Its initials are smaller, less intricate and coarser than the other two.  With one exception, the enlarged letters themselves are gold and then various combinations of two colors were used to create a checkered background.

Initials can be created either with pen and ink or by painting (Brown, 1994).  The initials in Bodley 264 were most likely painted, due to the style and the colors used.  They match that of the painted illuminations present throughout the manuscript.

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For the text, the scribed primarily employed black and red ink, which were common for that time period.  Gall ink, made from a combination of gall nuts, ferrous sulphate, and gum, was the most commonly used black ink in medieval manuscripts, so it is likely that is the type used in Bodley 264 (Brown, 1994; Baranov, n.d.). The use of gall ink worked well with parchment, due to its ability to soak into the pages rather than remaining on the surface and easily wiping off (Baranov, n.d.). Gall ink also has the tendency to fade to brown, as has happened with the second and third work.

The red ink was primarily use for rubrication.  Rubrication was typically used for parts that weren’t part of the main text, but were important such as titles or chapter headings (Brown, 1994).  This seems to be the case with Bodley 264.  In two of the works, red ink was also used to mark the beginning of each line of text with a slash.  Marks like this were occasionally used as place markers, though it is unclear if these were the purpose in this manuscript.


All three works contained in the manuscript are written in of gothic textura, which was relatively standard at the time (Tillotson, 2005).  Gothic textura came into use in the 12th century and remained in use through the 17th century, though some areas of Germany continued to use it well into the 20th century.  It is a descendent of the Carolingian minuscule type and came into use as a result of higher demand for texts.  Carolingian was a large, intricate script that was time-consuming to create.  In order to produce texts more efficiently and cheaply, a script style was developed that was quicker to create and smaller so as to require less writing surface.  This script was more angular and compressed than its predecessor.  Various formations of Carolingian had been in use in Europe since the early 11th century, but it was the mid-12th century before Gothic scripts were clearly distinguishable (“Blackletter,” 2012)

There are many variations of Gothic textura, but the construction of the bases of the letters indicates that it was mostly likely gothic textura quadrata formata (Tillotson, 2005, Matsuda, n.d.).  This a formal script that has angular letters with precise feet and hairline flourishes.   The first work is the clearest example of the flourishes of this style.  The other two works aren’t as evident, but still seem to be similar in style.

The three works contained in the manuscript were created at different times by different scribes and therefore do show evidence of multiple contributors.  Even without that knowledge, though, a close examination of the text would show that they had been created by different individuals.

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Incipit and Explicit

Defining the incipit and explicit for this manuscript is far from simple.  As previously mentioned, this manuscript contains three works and therefore doesn’t have just a single incipit and explicit.  Each work must be examined separately.  When looking at the first work, defining the incipit and explicit becomes even more complicated.  In his The Twelfth-Century Psalter Commentary in French for Laurette d’Alsace, Stewart Gregory (1990) discusses the manuscript and identifies five poems, each with at least one incipit and explicit.   The first poem, the titular Roman d’Alixandre, includes two sections, one with one incipit and explicit and another with two.  One of the poems – Prise de Defur – is split into two parts with two other poems in between, which explains the odd location of its incipit and explicit.  Gregory lists the incipits and explicits as follows:

Roman d’Alixandre

Incipit (003r):  Qui vers de riche estoire veult entendre et oïr/Pour prendre bon example de prouesce cueillir

Explicit (100v): Alixandre li rois cui li mons apent/Devoit porter coroune lendemain hautement

Incipit (185r): or en vait li bons rois qui maint en gentillise/Tout droit vers Babilone ou sa voie e emprise.

Explicit (188r): Descendus est li rois cui la mort est prochainse/A joie le rechurent, en la cite demaine.

Incipit (189r): A l’issue de May tout droit en cel termine/Que li biau tans revient et yvers se decline.

Explicit (195v-196r): Sor l’eu de Tygris la dousime estoras/En letres de greiois el mur les as./Chin finent le regres d’Alixendre.

Prise de Defur

Incipit (102r): Alixendres cevauche a loi d’empereor/Amazone a conquise, Inde et terre major

Explicit (185r): Li prine se herbergent sus l’eue de Faraigne/Au matin mut le rois qui malvestie ne daigne


Incipit (110r): Apres ce qu’Alixandres ot Dedefur conquis/Et a force d’espee occis le duc Melchis.

Explicit (163v) Cascuns ot boin cheval isnel et remuant/Au palais d’Ephezon s’en repairent atant./Chi finent li veu du pavon


Incipit (165r): Seignor, prince et baron et dames et borgois/On dist en .i. proverb et si l’aporte drois.

Explicit (182v) Et comme Emenidus sa nieche maria/Au jouene Gadifer quant a lui s’acorda./Explicit du paon, bien ait qui le lira/Et qui en tous endrois le dit en prisera./Due bie doit on bein dire, ch’oidire piecha.


Incipit (197r) Seignore or faites pais un petit m’escoutes./Li sense de nul sage home ne doit ester celes.

Explicit (208r): Riens nel porra garir que il nel faice afflire/Or s’en vont tuit ensamble el regne de Sartie./Cist qui cest romans fist n’en volt avant plus dire./Chi fenist la vengeance du boin roy Alixandre.

Gregory does not include the English translations of these verses, and the archaic spellings make it difficult for one not well-studied in medieval French to successfully translate the verses.  However, Kibler (2002) translates part of the first poem in his essay “Counsel for Kings in the Roman d’Alexandre”.  He shows that the first incipit reads “He who wishes to hear verses rich in history/to find therein a splendid example of prowess.”   This incipit and the verses that follow set up the poem as providing a moral lesson to the reader.

The second work is less complicated; however, it does not contain a clear incipit or explicit.  As Skeat (1878) noted in his examination of the work, the poem is imperfect and fragmentary.  Because of this, it is difficult to determine if an incipit or explicit is present.  Though the first and last lines would typically be considered so, the fact that it is a fragment rather than the entire poem could mean that those lines would not be the same if the poem appeared in its entirety.

The incipit in the third work is easier to define.  It reads “Pour savoir la pure verite des diverses regions du monde, si prenez cest livre et le faites lire…” which roughly translated states “To find the truth of the various regions of the world, take this book and read…”.  The explicit is more difficult.  Menard (2001) defines it was the final lines which read “Explicii la Livre nommé du Gerunt Gann de la Graunt Cité de Cambaluc, Dieux ayda Amien.” However, other sources do not consider that line to be part of the actual text and perhaps would be better defined as a colophon (“Note of MSS,” 2009).


The colophon at the end of the first work contains multiple parts, identifiable by their slight differences in terms of style and, in the case of two of them, language. The first is a similar size, style, and ink color as the rest of the work and reads “Chi define li romans du boin roi Alixandre.  Et le veus du pavon.  Les acomplissemens.  Le Restor du Pavon – et le pris – qui fu parascript le .xviiie. jor de decembre l’n M.CCC.XXXVII.”  The second, though similar in style, is smaller text than the first.  It reads in Latin “Explicit iste liber, scriptor sit crimine liber, Xpristus scriptorem custodiat ac det honorem.”  The third is written in gold letters and reads “Che liure fu perfais de le enluminure au xviiie jour dauryl. Per Jehan de grise, Lan de grace, M.ccc.xliij.”  According to Busby (2002), the full translation of the colophon reads “Here ends the romance of good King Alexander and the vows of the peacock, the fulfilling, the restoration and prize of the peacock, the copying of which was finished on December 18. 1338.  Here ends this book.  May the scribe be free from reproach.  May Christ protect the scribe and give him honor.  The illumination of this book was completed by Jehan de Grise on April 18, the year of Grace 1344.” This identifies Jehan de Grise as the illuminator and suggests that the work took five years to complete (Macray, 1868).  All three sections are believed to be original to the text (Gregory,1990).   A fourth part, written in a different hand and in Latin rather than French reads “Laus tibi sit Christe, quoniam liber explicit iste. Nomen scriptoris est Thomas Plenus Amoris. Qui ultra querit.”  Again translated by Maddox and Maddox to read “Praise be to Thee, o Christ, for this book ends here.  The Scribes name is Thomas full of love. If anyone seeks more…”  However, Macray notes that Plenus Amoris was also a name of a family of scribes – Fullalove.  In either case, this would suggest that Thomas [Fullalove] is the scribe for the text.  However, as the hand doesn’t match any of the rest of the text, it’s unlikely this is so.  In fact, it’s believed by some that this was added in the 15th century when the other two works were bound with it (Gregory, 1990).

There is no colophon present in the second work.  As I mentioned earlier, there is contention over whether the last lines in the third work are an explicit or a colophon.

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Though the history of the manuscript is spotty, Bodley 264 offers much for study and what little is known is fascinating.  The illuminations and script are beautiful examples of the craftsmanship offered during that time period. The text itself, telling of adventure and heroism, satisfied the hunger of people of that time had for stories of legendary figures. To view images of the entire manuscript, please visit the Bodleian Library’s website.

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Baranov, V. (n.d.).  Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production.  In Medieval manuscript manual. Retrieved from

Benton, J.F. (1961). The court of Champagne as a literary center. Speculum, 36(4), 551-591.

Blackletter (2012). Retrieved from

Brown, M. P (1994). Understanding illuminated manuscripts: A guide to technical terms.  Los Angeles, CA:  Getty Publications.

Busby, K. (2002) “‘Codices manuscripts nudos tenemus’: Alexander and the New Codicology In D. Maddox & S. Sturm-Maddox (Eds.), The Medieval French Alexander (pp.112-126 ) Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Cohn, S. K. (2002). The black death: End of a paradigm.  The American Historical Review, 107(3). Retrieved from

Davanport, S.K. (1971). Illustrations direct and oblique in the margins of an Alexander Romance at Oxford.  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 34, 83-95.

Dutch, S. (1998). The disastrous 14th century.  Retrieved from

Gardner, E. G (1930). The Arthurian legend in Italian literature. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Gregory, S. (1990) The twelfth-century psalter commentary In French for Laurette D’alsace.  London: Modern Humanities Research Association

Kibler, W.W. (2002) “A paine a on bon arbre de malvaise rais”: Counsel for kings in the Roman d’Alexandre. In D. Maddox & S. Sturm-Maddox (Eds.), The Medieval French Alexander (pp.112-126 ) Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Macray, W. D. (1868). Annals of the Bodleian Library Oxford, A.D. 1598-A.D. 1867; With a preliminary notice of the earlier Library founded in the Fourteenth Century. London: Rivingtons.

Marco Polo. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Matsuda, T. (n.d.) European illustrated books and manuscripts, c. 1400-1700. Retrieved from

Mendard, P. (2001) Introduction.  In Le devisement du monde (pp.9-116) Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz

Muimnech, C (n.d.) Heraldic Devices from Bodleian Manuscript 264 [blog]. Retrieved from

Note of Mss. of Marco Polo so far as they are known ( 2009). In The travels of Marco Polo: The complete Yule-Cordier edition. Adelaide, Australia: The University of Adelaide eBooks@Adelaide.  Retrieved from

Peacay (2009, September 20). The romance of Alexander the Great [blog]. Retrieved from

Rogers, P.H. (2008). Myth, the marvelous, the exotic, and the hero in the Roman d’Alexandre. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (3331011)

Skeat, W.W (1878) Alexander and Dindimus: or, The letters of Alexander to Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, with the replies of Dindimus; being a second fragment of the alliterative romance of Alisaunder. London: N. Trübner & Co

Smitha, F. (2011) Plague and progress in the 1300s. Macrohistory and world report. Retrieved from

Strickland, D. H. (2008) Text, image, and contradiction. In S.C. Akbari & A. Iannuci (Eds.), Marco Polo and the encounter of East and West (pp.23-59 ) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2011). France, 1000–1400 a.d. Heilbrunn timeline of art history. Retrieved from

The Washington Times (2008, February 3). Explorer Marco Polo, and first President Bush. Retrieved from–and-first-president-bush/

Tillotson, D. (2005). Medieval writing: History, heritage, and data source. Retrieved from

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One response

  1. […] by monks in the margins of illuminated manuscripts.  I love this, since I recently complete my own study of a fascinating illuminated […]

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