The Alexandreis, Walter of Châtillon

Lately, I feel like I’ve lost some of my connection to the Medieval world.  I’m rooted in Honorius, but not in the Middle Ages more broadly.  In an attempt to rectify this, and to get through some books that I’ve long had on my to read/to reread list, I’m going to try to read a number of “medieval” books during my free time for the next few months.
For accountability, I’m going to try to post my thoughts on each here.

First up, the Alexandreis, a 12th century epic poem on the life of Alexander the Great by Walter of Chatillon.  It’s pretty fun and was rather popular in its day, well worth a read.
Like any good epic poem, the Alexandreis also serves as a primer on geography, and I found Walter’s description of Jerusalem especially beautiful.  It was perhaps my favorite passage in the book:
Then over all the fields of Palestine
towers the one Judaea of one God,
and at the center of the earth, Jerusalem
is set, where, sprung from virgin womb, Life died,
nor was a reborn world content to stand,
but shuddered, stricken, at the death of God.
Tarsus also:
He therefore sent a force under Parmenion
to save a half-dead Tarsus from their flames —
Tarsus that was adorned, as Scripture tells,
by his illustrious birth through whom faith’s lamp
shone on nations long blinded by their error.
Pure and unsullied, through the city’s midst
there flows the Cignus, drawing its cold streams
from bubbling springs.  Content with its own waters,
receiving none from other falling torrents,
it tosses pebbles in its swirl, and sand
rolls playfully beneath its swift descent.
Interesting the use of the past tense in both passages, the cities are somehow already adorned by events of centuries later.  That the Incarnation’s effects echo backward and forward in time (I picture ripples in a pond after a stone’s been dropped in) is, I think, an underappreciated facet of medieval thought.  I’m certain it has interesting implications for their understanding of history, which I’d love to explore one day.
Early on we also run into Zoroas of Memphis, whose story deserves to be recounted at length.  Zoroas is quite the impressive figure,
…whom none surpassed
in starry lore, or in foreknowledge of
mundane affairs.  He knew beneath what star
the fields suffer a dearth, what year bears fruit,
the source from which come winter’s snows, what mildness
impregnates the warm soil in early spring,
why summer burns, what grants autumn a robe
hung round with grapes.  He knew whether the circle
can be squared, whether music forms
celestial harmonies, and what proportion holds
among the four elements; what force compels
the planets on a course against the world,
what grades divide them, and which star impedes
the rage of the adverse Old Man, which tempers Mars;
how each seeks out its house, which holds its sway
within this hemisphere.  He sought their paths,
noted their hours, and all human events
perceived among the stars.  I say too little-
all heaven’s vault he held within his breast.
And since he presaged fate and coming death
by heaven’s portents, nor could turn aside
the fatal sequence, boldly he pushed through
to meet the Macedonian’s commander.
Alexander is reluctant to kill such a distinguished man,
“Portent that you are, live on,
whoever you may be.  Do not destroy
in death, I pray, the lodging of such arts.
O never may my right hand an my sword
endeavor to make gory such a brain
The world has use of you.  What error, then,
drives you in longing towards the Stygian banks,
where knowledge never flowers?”
Yet, Zoroas refuses to relent in his attack and is brutally killed, having his legs sliced off at the knee before,
A varied rabble then hacked him to pieces,
and set the man again among the stars.
I just find so much fascinating here, the interaction of fate and free will, Zoroas containing within himself “all heaven’s vault”, discerning all human affairs in celestial motion (a sort of semi-sanctioned “white magic” during the Middle Ages), and his death placing him back amidst the stars, a happy cap to a gruesome end.
The tenth book is extremely interesting, and I think I’ll try to dedicate a separate post to it.

One response to “The Alexandreis, Walter of Châtillon”

  1. […] Alexandreis by Walter of Chatillon – Written about here and here.  Another medieval poem, one which has been unfairly (to my eyes) neglected by subsequent […]

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