Conclusion (BNF fr. 837)

BNF fr. 837 is an exceptional manuscript. It provides us with insights into medieval ideas about genre, text length, authorship and obscenity. It also introduces us to a wide variety of fascinating texts, many of which are found only in this manuscript.

If you want to read more about this manuscript, follow this link.

If you want to return to the index for this manuscript, follow this link.

Or explore a manuscript from our Dutch, English or German corpora.

BnF fr. 837: an exceptional French text collection: Introduction

This room of the virtual exhibition will introduce you to one Old French manuscript, BnF fr. 837.

It is a huge codex, containing a large number of short texts, in a variety of genres. Some are anonymous; some have authors. The manuscript contains a ‘book within a book’, a subsection devoted to one particular author, Rutebuef. Various readers have left their traces on the book, some of whom disagreed rather violently about the use of swearwords.

Interested? Enter the exhibition room.

Minnereden (Discourses on Love)

This is a very important genre in late medieval German literature. What are they exactly?

We have chosen one example to give you a closer idea of this genre. Click here to read an excerpt (and its translation) and listen to how it might have been sounded in the 15th century

A collection of minnereden can be found for instance in Berlin, SBB-PK, Ms.germ.qu. 719 or Berlin, SBB-PK, Ms.germ.qu. 2370.



Intriguing 'topless' illustration next to the tale 'Ivresse' from the Old French verse Vie des Pères Paris, BNF, fr. 20040, f. 89r Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Intriguing ‘topless’ illustration next to the tale ‘Ivresse’ from the Old French verse Vie des Pères
Paris, BNF, fr. 20040, f. 89r
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France :

Medieval (and post-medieval) readers frequently could not resist commenting upon, highlighting or correcting the works in their codex.

Ranging from a simple nota bene (?) to marginal illustrations inspired by the textual content, the traces left behind by readers offer us fascinating insights into the reception of medieval texts as well as a variety of different impulses, both vaguely familiar and utterly bewildering.

Go to one reader comparing the texts of two German manuscripts.

BNF. fr. 12581, f. 357v Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

BNF. fr. 12581, f. 357v
Reproduced by courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Or take a look at the variety of reader interventions in the French manuscript BNF, fr. 837.

Interested in learning more about medieval texts?

West Meets East

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 212r (detail)

A very medieval-looking King Alexander received messages from the land of the brahmins.

Modern and medieval audiences both know Alexander the Great as a conqueror, but the events in Alexander and Dindimus (the unique English poem in Bodley 264) aren’t conquests, or mighty battles, or even long journeys.  Instead, it is an exchange of letters between Alexander and a figure called King Dindimus.  In the letters, Alexander questions Dindimus about the unusual ways in which he runs his kingdom, cut off as it is from Europe and European social norms.

This is a rare, but by no means unique, example of the ways in which medieval Europe came to terms with the mysterious and shadowy world beyond the borders of its own culture and knowledge. Dindimus is called ‘lord of bragmanus lond’ because of a misunderstanding: when Europeans encountered the word ‘brahmin’, they understood it to mean ‘an inhabitant of the land of Bragmanus’. In fact, it comes from a Sanskrit word meaning a member of one of the four varnas or castes in Hindu society.  In this poem, we can see Christian Europe (in the person of Alexander) trying to make sense of the Hindu east at the dawn of the modern era.

Alexander ultimately rejects the society of the brahmins, and the poem makes it clear that the barrier between the two worlds cannot be bridged.  Nevertheless, Dindimus shows himself to be a shrewd critic of Christendom, and points out hypocrisy and illogic in how it operates.

This is the end of this case-study.  Where would you like to go now?

  • Listen to some of the English poem being read
  • Find out where you can read more about this manuscript
  • Return to the beginning of the exhibition.

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The Medieval Alexander

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 66r (detail)

Alexander was a great military leader, but the Middle Ages saw him as much more than a soldier.

Alexander the Great was a figure who fascinated medieval writers and audiences.  He is the subject of a Latin epic poem, several retellings in French verse (including one which is over 16,000 lines long), a very popular French version in prose, and three poems in English alliterative verse.  One of these, known as Alexander and Dindimus (or as it used to be called Alexander B), exists only in Bodley 264.  It shows how Alexander was perceived by medieval audiences, and why he was important to them.

Although medieval readers and listeners probably regarded most, if not all, of the things that the stories about Alexander told them as being reliable history, they weren’t just interested in what we would now think of as the ‘historical’ Alexander the Great.  For them, he was an exemplary figure, famous for his bravery, his victories, his leadership, his wisdom, and his ability to go further and do better than ordinary men. That meant his story attracted additions that medieval people thought appropriate to his character.  For medieval Europeans, he represented the best that their culture was capable of, and perhaps how medieval audiences like to imagine they might be themselves.

Click here to find out what happens when this great European figure comes to the edge of Europe.

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Scribes and the (re)making of books (2)

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 67r (detail)

The scribe’s note directing the reader to read the English poem at this point, before continuing with the French account.

On f. 67r of Bodley 264, the scribe (?) has taken advantage of a blank column in the French part of the manuscript to add a note of his own (shown in the image to the right), which explains the problem as he perceives it, his solution, and how the reader should use the manuscript to read the text ‘properly’:

‘Here fayleth a prossess of þis rommance of alixander / þe wheche prossesse þat fayleth 3e schulle fynde at þe ende of þis bok ywrete in engelyche ryme / and whanne 3e han redde it to þe ende turneþ hedur / a3en and turneþ ouyr þis lef and bygynneþ / at this reson   Ehe fu el mois de may que li tans tenouele / and so rede forþ þe rommance to þe ende whylis þe / frenche lasteþ.’

[‘Here a passage of this romance of Alexander is missing.  You will find the missing passage at the end of this book, written in English verse; and when you have read it to the end, turn back here and turn over this page and begin at this point: “Ehe fu el mois de may que li tans tenouele,” and so carry on reading this romance to the end, as long as the French [text] continues.’]

This little note gives us evidence about a lot of things: how the two texts came to be put together; how important it was for the scribe or owner that the new book was as complete an account of Alexander as possible; that the scribe also thought it was important to have the events in the right order; that the audience was expected to be able to understand English and French. It also suggests that, at the time this note and Alexander and Dindimus were copied, the English text was the last thing in the manuscript, since it is said to be ‘at the end of this book’, which means that the book of Marco Polo musts have been copied in later, but before the whole book was bound together.

But why was Alexander the Great such an important figure for the people who owned this book? Click here to find out.

Click for more on: languages • scribes • the making of books

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Scribes and the (re)making of books (1)

In Bodley 264, there is a fascinating example of how scribes (?) could interact with the material they were copying, showing us their thought processes at work. The scribe (or the new owner of the original manuscript from Tournai) believed that there was a gap in the French poem, because an episode that he knew from the story of Alexander the Great wasn’t included in it.  So the English poem, which recounts the story of Alexander’s exchange of letters with King Dindimus was added to the manuscript to fill the perceived lacuna.

By comparing all the surviving copies of the Roman d’Alexandre, we now know that the French poem never contained this episode in the first place.  It was nevertheless important for the scribe or the new owner of Bodley 264 that it should be as complete as possible in its account of the great King.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 67r (detail)

The scribe directs the reader how to read…

So how did the scribe join these texts together?  Click here to find out.

Click for more on: scribes • the making of books

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford


Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 8r and fol. 209r (details)

Texts in French (above) and English (below) are both found within the covers of this manuscript.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there were three languages in use in England.  English was the most widely spoken, and as the fourteenth century progressed the tradition of writing in English began to flourish more than it had for centuries.  Latin was the educated language of all Europe, used for almost all writing on learned subjects (such as law and theology, medicine and science), but it could also be used for literature, from the grandest epic to the bawdiest lyric.  French had been introduced by the conquering Normans in the eleventh century, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it came to be the language of sophisticated literature in England.  Even as this began to change in the 1300s, it was still unremarkable for texts in French to circulate and be enjoyed among the educated classes of England, especially at court.

Bodley 264 contains texts in two of these languages, French and English.  This suggests that the owner of the book who had the English Alexander and Dindimus added to the French Roman d’Alexandre could understand both languages.  Such multilingualism would have been a more common accomplishment amongst the wealthy nobility, who were also the people most likely to be able to afford such a fine book.  However, the fact that both Alexander and Dindimus and the French Marco Polo text were both added after the book came to England suggests that book producers in London had stock in both languages at their disposal.

Alexander and Dindimus has sometimes been called a ‘romance’ by scholars of literature from England in this period, because it deals with Alexander the Great and with exotic far-off places (although some of the other features used to identify romance, such as a quest, are absent). It is very unusual to find English romances sharing the leaves of the same manuscript with a text written in French: our research has discovered that this only happens on a handful of occasions.  Without other evidence, we might deduce that the unusual nature of Alexander and Dindimus was the reason why it has happened in Bodley 264.  But amazingly (and very unusually) in this case the manuscript itself tells us why these texts were brought together.

Click here to discover the misunderstanding that brought these texts together.

Click for more on: medieval languages • genre

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

A well-travelled manuscript

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 218r (detail)

Travel to exotic lands is a theme that links all three texts in this manuscript.

Books were comparatively rare and valuable objects in the Middle Ages, especially an unusually decorated codex like Bodley 264.  Owning a book like this was a mark of prestige, and an indicator of great wealth and some sophistication.  It’s not surprising that it should have passed through the hands of a series of wealthy owners – indeed, it probably travelled much more than the people who made it ever did.

There was a lot of traffic between England and continental Europe in this period. The rulers of England were, after all, descended from the nobility of France, and from 1337 to 1453 soldiers and statesmen travelled back and forth across the English Channel to fight and negotiate, carry messages or gather intelligence, as part of the long-running series of territorial and dynastic conflicts that we know as the Hundred Years’ War.  There was also a lot of trading between England and the continent, and churchmen would cross the sea to communicate with or visit each other, or to bear requests or instructions to and from the Papal authorities in Rome.

Books could be useful on all of these trips: as gifts to impress and gain favour; as written authorities or historical precedents to help win an argument; or as a leisure activity to ease the discomforts of staying in temporary shelter on the road or the battlefield after an arduous journey.  All three of the texts in Bodley 264 are concerned with travel to distant and exotic places, and meeting remote people with bizarre customs, so journeys are one of the themes of the book, too.   Travel also provided opportunities for books to be bought, sold, lent, borrowed, or robbed.  Perhaps Bodley 264 came to England in the luggage of a soldier returning from fighting in France? If so, was it a purchase, a gift, or the spoils of war?

Click here to learn about the languages in this manuscript.

Click for more on: manuscripts linked to particular places • medieval tales of travel

(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford