Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the treatment of the central protagonist of Alexander the Great in the Vorauer and Straßburger romances (c.1130AD)

The fascination with enigmatic, almost mythologised figures for a modern audience is clear: it represents a link to an exotic and ancient world, half-remembered through oral tradition, half-remembered through the efforts of archaeologists. But what is important to remember is that for Lamprecht, writing in the late 12th century, this world was almost as distant. Alexander the Great of Macedon had been born more than 1,500 years before the composition of these works. Accordingly, the author of the Vorauer and Straßburger romances treats Alexander with as much reverence and awe as could be given to a pre-Christian figure. And yet neither work shies away from criticism of the protagonist – sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly – which lends the reading a somewhat uneasy, uncertain tone, as though we are complicit in enjoying a certain type of narrative which is full of unhealthy, ethically questionable undertones.
There is little doubt that the ‘idealised’ side of Alexander is present. Lienert identifies elements of a ‘Heilsgeschichte’ in the narrative and refers to the author’s treatment of him as a ‘Werkzeug Gottes’ (instrumentum Dei)[1]. Significant effort is made to join up the world as presented in the Alexanderroman with the geographical locations known to medieval audiences from the Bible: Tyrus at line 1015, Samaria at line 693, Bethulia in 686, Nicomedias in 601, and so on. Early in the telling, Lamprecht assures the audience ‘diz mugit ir wol hôren/in libro Machabeorum’ (11-12), and similarly describes Darius as the same seen by Daniel in his dream (466-470). Alexander is seen as part of the translatio imperii, taking us from the second empire, that of Persian dominance, to the third – the rule of the Greeks, which will in turn lead to that of the Romans and beyond to the salvation Christendom will bring. His importance in history is beyond question, and he is placed into his spiritual narrative context even if some of the historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed.
Alexander is not just linked to the Biblical narrative, but consciously and explicitly praised for his individual greatness. He is the ‘tapferster König und erfolgreichster Eroberer aller Zeiten’[2] as we can see in line 46: ‘im ne gelîchet nehein ander’. The constant word used to describe him throughout the work is ‘wûnderlich’ – such that it becomes ‘ein bezeichnendes Beiwort’[3] labelling the hero ‘ein kluger und wohlausgebildeter Mann’[4]. It is the moment of Darius’ death, in particular, which sees Alexander ‘als heroische Sieger typisiert’[5]. Even beyond praising such worth, Lamprecht draws explicit parallels to the courtly knights of his own era – labelling both Alexander’s appearance and dress as ‘rîterlich’ (lines 174 and 429) while his education and upbringing is ‘umfassend’[6]. The narrative appears to side with him too: his is the journey that is followed throughout, and on the whole we are encouraged to identify with him as he, European as Lamprecht’s readership would have been European, braves the far-flung and unknown world of the Orient.
Another important aspect of the narrative to note is that war itself (and thus by extension, a key part of Alexander’s warrior ethos) is very rarely presented in a wholly negative aspect. As Markus Stock puts it, ‘Kampf [wird] als schrecklich aber nicht grundsätzlich als negativ oder verdammungswürdig gezeigt’[7]. It is presented as brutal, certainly, and we may mourn the carnage, but the Straßburger version in particular keeps a certain distance from describing the horrors of war. Alexander is indeed a charismatic captain and we hear of his troops’ good morale when they follow behind him: ‘di sâlde volget sînen vanen’ in line 1987. Maurer describes his brutal actions as being in defence of honour, which would certainly place them beyond reproach in the eyes of those accustomed to chivalric romance: Alexander ‘sucht Rache für die Ehre seines Reichs, die durch die Zinsforderung des Darios verletzt ist; er vollbringt ritterliche und kriegerische Heldentaten, und er vollzieht die Rache bis zum letzten Ende, indem er Darios bestraft und tötet’[8].
And yet the Lamprecht versions idealise Alexander significantly less than does their French influence, the Roman d’Alexandre of Albéric de Besançon. It is not Alexander’s warring that is his fatal flaw or hamartia, rather it is his over-striving, his ambition, his greed. Lienert describes his unceasing lack of satisfaction as being indicative of superbia or ‘menschliche Hoffart’[9] and his early death as being indicative of vanitas or the ‘Nichtigkeit und Vergänglichkeit irdischer Herrlichkeit’. This is an ambition which culminates in the surreal ‘Iter ad Paradisum’, taking Alexander literally to the gate of Paradise. (Such observations regarding Alexander the Great are not exclusive to Lamprecht. Alexander’s epitaph, as reported in the tenth book of the Satires of Juvenal, included the famous Latin dictum orbis non sufficit in its judgment of him: ‘a tomb now suffices for him for whom the world was not enough’; the phrase has even passed into popular culture as the title of a 1999 James Bond film. This epitaph appears to have influenced Lienert’s words ‘von allem Besitz bleibt Alexander nur so viel Erde, wie man für ein Grab braucht’[10]).
Specific negative judgments of Alexander are, of course, made explicit in the text. Alexander is condemned for his stupidity (‘tumpfheit’, l.6172), greed (‘giricheit’, l.6235), arrogance (‘hôhmût’, l.6166), hedonism (‘unmaze’, l.6467) and indeed general moral bankruptcy (‘wider got ist er sculdih’, l.6475). Perhaps most explicitly of all, we hear during the battle that ‘Alexander tet in unreht’ (878). But it is the more unusual and subtler methods of undermining Alexander’s status as the narrative’s protagonist that are of principal interest.
Firstly, there is the matter of Alexander’s appearance, already referenced earlier in this essay as being ‘rîterlîch’. The full phrase, however, is ‘rîterlich er ze tale schein’ (174). In fact, his head is presented as being of a rather unusual appearance, and far from any Schönheitsideal. His disturbing appearance symbolically links Alexander to various creatures – a fish (‘nâh eineme vische getân’, 151), a lion (‘und was ime ze mâzen dicke/und crisp als eines wilden lewen locke’, 153-4), and perhaps most dramatically of all, a dragon (‘ein ouge was ime weiden/getân nâh einen trachen’, 158-9). This is indicative of the way the text presents us with an uneasy view of Alexander as both heroic and somehow visceral, bestial. This has a reasonably evident parallel with the Indian King Porus’ claim that Alexander is a devil or ‘tûbil’ (4002).
Secondly, we see more of this uncomfortable side of Alexander in the Straßburger’s elongated tale of the quest through the Orient than we do in the earlier Vorauer version. Edward Said’s identification of the Orient as the ‘Other’, the feared or the unknown, which he reached in his 1978 work Orientalism, has been applied to many other texts written centuries before his conclusions, including ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, but it is just as relevant to the Alexander mythos. Said describes the Orient as an end to which European leaders turn both military and intellectual conquest, both labels which we can ascribe to Alexander. As Volfing notes[11], the Orient as it’s described in the Straßburger Alexander is very much a fantastical place, but it retains sufficiently close ties to the geographical locations as specified in the Bible that it avoids becoming one of Foucault’s heterotopias. It is recognisably concrete and a part of our real world, but with a fantastic stratus overlaid on top. As Alexander journeys through this space of Otherness, we see him attempting to control his weird surroundings; from the Blümenmädchen to the Occidraten to the pig-man, the discrepancies between cultural norms are an explicit part of his travel eastwards. Yet Alexander is the focaliser without exception: we see the strangeness through his eyes, and his adventures are collected, edited and narrated by him in first-person to his mother and his old teacher Aristotle. The narrative is his to command, just as are the armies and the lands he takes. That he distorts the narrative around him, rendering other areas and spaces footnotes to his own journey and ambition, is part of what makes his exploration of the Orient so uncomfortable to us.
This is given explicit reference in the pig-man incident. Volfing describes how this short passage casts serious aspersions on Alexander’s role as triumphant conqueror, and hints at his perversion and animalism[12]. Placed as it is after the demise of the virginal Blümenmädchen, the incident in which Alexander tests the pig-man’s lust by placing a young girl in front of him has strong undertones of both eroticism and death. Sexuality here is something debasing, foul; and yet the pig-man is sufficiently portrayed as a character or indeed a noble or civilised figure (by both the narrator and Alexander) that it is in fact Alexander who the passage reflects most badly on. The lines ‘Ih wolde scowen dar in/ob wêre dihein man/den di wîbis minne/nit ne brêhte ûzem sinne’ (4933-6) in particular make it seem as though he has a sadistic, unhealthy interest in debased sexuality.
The texts therefore make it clear that there are two Alexanders: he is a figure with ‘zwei unterschiedliche Identitäten’[13]. Crucially, neither is conclusively rejected or confirmed by the work’s end. After hearing the warning words of the ‘alte Jude’ Alexander appears to take them to heart, but the tale ends with his death and burial in a coffin the same size as that of even the least significant person, and still more damningly, the epilogue warns us away from ‘giricheit’ (6837). Greed, ambition does not pass away when Alexander’s physical body dissolves in the ground. The narratives of Alexander survive, and specifically both of them do. Lamprecht’s refashioning of the story appears to be both an upholding of the traditional Alexander-mythos, in which the central protagonist is dashing and heroic and resourceful, every inch the optimal male figure, and a rejection of the ugliest parts of such a narrative for the sake of transcending them. The two sit very much side by side, much as Alexander’s appearance is both imposingly impressive and unnervingly bestial, and while this may deny the comfortingly familiar position of a definition of Alexander as a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ central protagonist, its very ambiguity keeps the narrative enlivened, because we never quite know if we are being encouraged to frown or cheer. And Lamprecht’s epilogue, with its final warning, warns that we are in some way complicit in the development of Alexander’s ugly, rash, warring narrative. These are the kinds of stories that, historically, people have enjoyed hearing. One need not point out examples, as they are too many to number. What makes this work interesting is that it gives us that familiar narrative as it has always been, but with an isolating perspective that condemns the tale and the listeners for their endorsement of a man for whom the world will never be enough.



Bibliography.

Kragl, Florian, Die Weisheit des Fremden.  Studien zur mittelalterlichen Alexandertradition.  Mit einem allgemeinen Teil zur Fremdheitswahrnehmung, Bern 2005.
Lamprecht, der Pfaffe, Alexanderroman (Vorauer/Straßburger), Reclam, 2007.
Lienert, Elisabeth, Introduction to Alexanderroman (Vorauer/Straßburger), Reclam, 2007.
Maurer, F., Deutsche Literatur, Reihe: Geistliche Dichtung des Mittelalters, Band 5, 1940.
Schröder, Werner, Zum vanitas-Gedanken im deutschen Alexanderlied, in: Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum 91 (1961), pp. 38-55.
Stock, Markus, Kombinationssinn.  Narrative Strukturexperimente im 'Strassburger Alexander', im 'Herzog Ernst B' und im 'König Rother', Tübingen 2002.
Volfing, Annette, ‘Orientalism in the Straßburger Alexander’, Medium Aevum, 79.2 (2010), pp. 278-299.




[1] Lienert, Elisabeth, Introduction to Alexanderroman (Vorauer/Straßburger), Reclam, 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Stock, Markus, Kombinationssinn.  Narrative Strukturexperimente im 'Strassburger Alexander', im 'Herzog Ernst B' und im 'König Rother', Tübingen 2002.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Cölln 2000: quoted Lienert, Elisabeth, Introduction to Alexanderroman (Vorauer/Straßburger), Reclam, 2007.
[6] Stock, Markus, Kombinationssinn.  Narrative Strukturexperimente im 'Strassburger Alexander', im 'Herzog Ernst B' und im 'König Rother', Tübingen 2002.
[7] Stock, Markus, Kombinationssinn.  Narrative Strukturexperimente im 'Strassburger Alexander', im 'Herzog Ernst B' und im 'König Rother', Tübingen 2002.
[8] Maurer, F., Deutsche Literatur, Reihe: Geistliche Dichtung des Mittelalters, Band 5, 1940.
[9] Lienert, Elisabeth, Introduction to Alexanderroman (Vorauer/Straßburger), Reclam, 2007.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Volfing, Annette, ‘Orientalism in the Straßburger Alexander’, Medium Aevum, 79.2 (2010), pp. 278-299.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Stock, Markus, Kombinationssinn.  Narrative Strukturexperimente im 'Strassburger Alexander', im 'Herzog Ernst B' und im 'König Rother', Tübingen 2002.

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