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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2019

2 - Sic et Non: The Alexandreis and the Ylias

Summary

The previous chapter outlined Alexander the Great's literary history from the classical era to the early medieval period, demonstrating the varied interpretative possibilities in his translatio that arose from early on in his afterlife as a literary figure. This chapter and the one that follows it set two Alexander texts, one in Latin, one en romanz, in what is recoverable of their twelfth-century compositional contexts (as defined both by location and also by contemporary works) in order to investigate the range of meanings in which Alexander participates at this later moment in literary history. Looking at these texts in this comparative way will uncover the political and cultural narratives into which Alexander is co-opted. This in turn will help to reveal the part his literature plays in the construction of the literary identities, whether political, religious, or linguistic, which are important in the northern France of this period, where different dynasties, institutions, and languages meet and compete, and therefore enable us to see whether similarly complex relationships between texts and contexts exist in the Middle Ages as well as in antiquity.

In this chapter I shall consider the Latin epic poem the Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon (published c. 1180) with another Latin epic, the Ylias of Joseph of Exeter (1183–90), providing some contemporary context. I shall argue that despite their shared erudite Latinity and classical subject matter they differ in their views of translatio studii, and that this difference indicates an ongoing debate about how and why it should be done, a debate that has so far mainly been identified between Latin and vernacular French texts. I shall claim that this debate is a major concern of the Alexandreis in particular, and one that expands the poem's frame of reference beyond its immediate context. This interest in larger concerns is the basis for the idea that the Alexandreis, whilst implicated in local literary and political circumstances, is primarily a transnational text in its conception, allowing us to look beyond the confines of its local circumstances to set it and its impact in a wider perspective.

Literary Contexts: Exemplarity, History, and Fiction during the Twelfth Century

The twelfth century is one of the touchstone moments in Alexander's history, where ancient narratives, increasingly available to authors as classical studies flourished in newly important intellectual centres in northern France, became the focus for new literature.

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