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6 - Absent Presence: Auchinleck and Kyng Alisaunder

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2021

Susanna Fein
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Kent State University.
A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, School of English, University of Kent
Helen Phillips
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Cardiff University
Derek Pearsall
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus of English, Harvard University, Honorary Member, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York
Cathy Hume
Affiliation:
Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University, Illinois.
Ralph Hanna
Affiliation:
Emeritus Professor of Palaeography, University of Oxford
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Summary

ACCORDING to Chaucer's Monk, Alexander the Great's presence in the

Auchinleck manuscript is unremarkable:

The storie of Alisaunder is so commune

That every wight that hath discrecioun

Hath herd somewhat or al of his fortune.

For the Monk, Alexander's story is an exemplum of ‘false Fortune’ despite his chivalric glories (‘of knyghthod and of fredom flour’). The use of Alexander as an exemplum is indeed ‘commune’ in late-fourteenth-century literary culture, as shown by contemporary texts like John Gower's Confessio Amantis, in which Alexander (educated by Aristotle) is the perfect kingly ruler. Gower's deployment of Alexander in this way is not an innovation, since the Macedonian is found as an exemplum throughout his medieval literary career. Yet not all treatments of Alexander are equally didactic. The ‘storie of Alisaunder’ found in romance material is a multifaceted weaving together of ethical and philosophical reflection, battle prowess, and marvels both Oriental and magical. As his legend develops from late antiquity, the common feature in the accreted narratives is variety, making Alexander and his story a complex phenomenon, based in history yet depicted in fictive literature from an early date, and ethically ambivalent despite the conqueror's frequent extrapolation as an exemplum. The Monk's statement that Alexander is ‘commune’ is therefore accurate only up to a point. The Macedonian hero may well have been ubiquitous, but his ‘fortune’ was not a single one nor always easy to interpret from an exemplary standpoint. Before individual narratives and witnesses are considered, Alexander himself, a hero-villain who occupies indeterminate territory between history and fiction, makes contextualizing his narratives a difficult business.

The issue of contextualization is especially acute for the Alexander narrative in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19. 2. 1), the latethirteenth- century Middle English romance Kyng Alisaunder based on the c. 1175 Anglo-Norman Roman de toute chevalerie by Thomas of Kent. Present in Auchinleck booklet 8, it is now largely lost because many relevant folios are missing, making it difficult to assess its immediate positioning in the manuscript. Kyng Alisaunder also raises questions beyond its local context because its place in Auchinleck's compilatio as a whole is difficult to understand.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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