The Battles of Alexander the Great

Reference: Peniarth MS 481D

Peniarth 481D is a manuscript written on parchment in the late 15th century. The manuscript is in two parts, and it is likely that both parts were bound together as one volume from the outset, probably in England. This is one of the most elaborately decorated medieval manuscripts in the Library, and a rare survival in its original binding.

Contents

The first part of the manuscript was written by an English scribe and illustrated by a Flemish artist. It contains two texts:

  • the popular Latin textbook of proverbial advice called Disticha Catonis (‘The Distichs of Cato’), with Benedict Burgh’s Middle English paraphrase in rhyme royal interposed (ff. 1-27);
  • the Latin text of Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni (‘The History of Alexander’s Battles’, J1 version), based on a 10th century translation into Latin by Leo of Naples of a Greek text (ff. 30-98).

The second part of the manuscript was written and illuminated in Cologne (ff. 99-167). It contains John of Hildesheim’s 14<sup>th</sup> century Historia trium Regum (‘History of the Three Kings’), accounting for the presence in Cologne of the relics of the Magi mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel.

Illustrations

The first part of the manuscript is illustrated with 30 miniatures in a Flemish style. Four miniatures, mainly of author and translator, illustrate the Disticha Catonis, whilst the Historia de preliis has 26, several subdivided to give a total of 47 subjects. The popular medieval legendary account of the life of Alexander the Great was an ideal text for the illustrator, and the text is also lavishly decorated with borders and gilded initials.

Binding

This is one of a few medieval manuscripts at the National Library of Wales to retain its original binding. It is bound in wooden boards, covered with crimson velvet, and retains brass bosses, corner pieces and pins and fastenings for thongs. It was probably bound in England in the late 15th century.

History of the manuscript

The manuscript’s early history is shrouded in mystery. It was owned by Sir John Cutts of Childerly, Cambridgeshire (d. 1615) and his near-contemporary Thomas Gawdy of Snitterton, Norfolk. Subsequently, it may have been part of the library of Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), whose grand-daughter married Richard Mostyn (1658-1735) of Penbedw, Flintshire. The Penbedw bookplate attests to its presence there at the beginning of the 19th century, before the manuscript passed by descent and marriage to Peniarth, Merioneth. It was excluded from the sale of Peniarth manuscripts to Sir John Williams in 1904, but was later bought by philanthropists Miss Gwendoline and Miss Margaret Davies of Gregynog, who presented the volume to the National Library of Wales in 1921.

Bibliography

  • W Ll Davies, 'Disticha Catonis', The National Library of Wales Journal, Vol.2, no.1, Summer 1941, 38
  • D.J.A. Ross, Alexander Historiatus: A Guide to Medieval Illustrated Alexander Literature (London, 1963)
  • R. Telfryn Pritchard, The History of Alexander’s Battles: Historia de preliis – the J1 version (Toronto, 1992)

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