The Old English 'Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem'

The Letter in its Christian Context

Seminar Paper, 2007

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Manuscript

3. The Christian Dimension of the Letter
3.1. Superbia
3.2. Punishment for Alexander's superbia
3.3. The Monsters
3.4. The Oracle

4 . Literature


Much time and ink has been spent on the study of the so called Beowulf manuscript 1 which nowadays constitutes the presumably "most discussed" (LUCAS 1990: 363) Old English manuscript. Contained in this manuscript is the apocryphal Letter of Alexander to Aristotle that will be central to this paper. The multitude of medieval manuscripts (cf. GUNDERS ON 1980: 48) of the Letter leave little doubt that it certainly belongs to some of the "most successful literary impostures of the medieval ages" (RypINS 1971: xliii). However, its Anglo-Saxon version "has excited little attention over the years" (ORCHARD 1995: 116). Scholar's interest seems to have been much more with the study of the earlier Latin form of the manuscript (RypINS 1971: xxx): the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem 2, which seems to derive from an older Greek version (cf. GUNDERS ON 1980: 48). The version of the Letter dealt with here is a copy of an earlier (and apparently lost) Old English translation of the Latin Epistola: Thus "it is at least twice removed from the Latin" (Rypins xxxvii).

It is my purpose to show within this paper that neither the various monstrous beings (vs. SISAM 1962: 96) nor their "aggression as a particular problem for foreign rulers" (vs. p OWELL 2006: 1) that are most commonly said to be the connecting theme of the 'community of manuscripts' of the Norwell Codex are the central aspects of the Letter. Until further studies prove me wrong, we may assume that the Anglo-Saxon scribe3 consciously altered the Latin Epistola in a way as to ply the reader's attention to the biblical view on Alexander. He did so by opting for biblical phrasings rather than those found in the Epistola. Thus the Letter stresses that Alexander indeed is an paradigm of superbia, as ORCHARD suggests (1995: 135): an eorocyning ' earthly king', who does not accept his limits and rather than being content with his glory (cf. II Regum 14:104) provokes malum. This interpretation perfectly harmonizes with

POWELL's suggestion that "Wonders [...], the Letter [...], and Beowulf form an ideal core for a collection focused on rulership" (P oWELL 2006: 15).

Beginning with a rather short introduction to the Norwell Codex and the discussion concerning its thematic unity (ch. 2) I shall focus my attention to the Christian dimension of the Letter (ch. 3). Countering SISAM (1962:88) I shall argue that the Letter indeed serves a moralizing function.

The amount of literature published on Beowulf and the Beowulf manuscript is vast. Any better bibliography of relevant material could easily fill five times the volume of this paper. Hence it is clear that any appraoch to the topic must be highly selective and will be ultimately restricted not only by the author's abilities but also by time and ressources available. This paper's purpose, however, was to focus attention upon the Anglo-Saxon Letter of Alexander to Aristotle s. At least in this regard I hope to have been able to lived up to my own expectations.

The abscene of a final chapter shall not be regarded as a shortcoming of this paper.


What is now Cotton Vitellius A xv are actually two separate codices (cf. e.g. ORCHARD 2003:12ff.). The second one, the so called Norwell Codex 5, being the one of interest for this paper. It contains five texts, three prose and two verse, written by two scribes6. Probably none of them was written for the manuscript (cf. SISAM 1962: 68). The following table (based on ORCHARD 2003: 12ff.) may illustrate the present make-up of the codex:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

However, scholars "are not yet in accord over the original construction of the Norwell codex" (KIERNAN 1996: 120). So, Christopher and Judith might well present later addings to the manuscript (cf. e.g. ORCHARD 1995: 2-5), though the latter was compiled by the same scribe that copied the second part of Beowulf and Christopher by scribe A.

Against this background LUCAS (1990) convincingly argues that it was "much simpler, and more plausible, to assume that Judith always belonged with the Beowulf-manuscript" (LUCAS 1990: 468). I will take over this viewpoint for my argumentation. However, what LUCAS said on Judith holds for the very same reason for Christopher as well, though the "original position [of both texts, M.B.] within the manuscript has [...] been called into question" (ORCHARD 2003: 23).

If both, Judith and Christopher, were indeed part of the codex from the very beginning this casts justified doubts on SISAM's theory that the manuscript was best described as a "Liber de diversis monstris, anglice" (SISAM 1962: 88). Many after him have accepted this viewpoint (cf. e.g. P OWELL 2006: 1). Judith and arguably Christopher, however, hardly fit into this scheme, since they do not share the same kind of preoccupation with monsters as do Wonders, the Letter and Beowulf. P OWELL's suggestion (2006: 15), which lends a more prominent role to the question of rulership as a connective topic of the manuscript, seems much more convincing to me in that case.

Neither Judith nor Christopher are preserved completely, as the table above shows. Most interestingly it is the beginning of Christopher that is missing, so that "we do not know if St. Christopher was characterized as one of the Cenocephali [sic!] in this text" (KIERNAN 1996: 140). Apparently the first folios were lost already in 1563 when Lawrence Norwell wrote his name on the first surviving leaf (cf. e.g. SISAM 1962: 65). However, there is fairly good reason to assume that Christopher, indeed, was depicted as such a half-dog7 also in the Anglo-Saxon Passion. Actually there is even proof enough within the text to show that KIERNAN is far too cautious with his statement, as ORCHARD (1995: 13) works out:

That [...] the Passion of Saint Christopher in the Beowulf-manuscript does not mention explicitly that he was one of the cynocephali is scarcely surprising, since the fact is usually mentioned at the beginning of parallel accounts, but even in the mutilated text [...] he is described as [...] 'the worst of wild beasts' (wyrresta wildeor)

Certainly the current composition of the manuscript is owed to a certain degree to the compiler's intention to satisfy the medieval reader's "taste for the spectacular" (GUNDERS ON 1980: 1). In this respect I fully accord with SISAM: the monstrous beings and beasts are undeniably a common theme of most texts contained in the manuscript. But they are in no respect central to the Letter and hence hardly can be so for the manuscript. Much more I see them fulfilling something roughly comparable to a delectare function, whereas the prodesse function of the Letter is an entirely different matter8. "It cannot be an accident that the three Anglo-Saxon pieces [ Wonders, Letter, Beowulf, M.B.] are all together in one manuscript", SISAM (1962: 66) says with regard to the assumed original make-up of the manuscript. I do not intend to contradict this, but taking LUCAS' findings into account I do see the need to modify this statement and include Judith and Christopher.

Whereas the theory that it is the monstrous that constitutes the thematic unity of the Codex is the probably most common one, the insight that Beowulf, despite it's apparently secular content, can be "read as a cleverly masked theological work" (IRVING 1997: 175) is neither new (e.g. SCHUBEL 1979; BLACKBURN 61980; GOLDSMITH 61980; ORCHARD 2003: 130-168) nor is this Christian coloring subject to especially controversial discussion: „[C]ritics agree that the poem is the unified work of a Christian author" (BENSON 2000: 35).


1 I consider this term somehow awkward, because it seems highly capable of being misunderstood, since in literature it frequently is left unclear whether certain statements are meant with regard to Beowulf itself or the Norwell Codex that frequently goes under the name Beowulf manuscript.

2 Following I will refer to these texts as Letter and Epistola respectively. The division into sections is acc. to ORCHARD 1995.

3 For convenience I assume in this paper that the alterations are the work of the Anglo-Saxon scribe, who copied the Letter for the Norwell Codex. ORCHARD did already indicate that he was altering the Latin source as to parallel some descriptions to Beowulf (ORCHARD 2003: 30), so it is possible that he did undertake other changes as well. Of course these adjustments might well be the work of the original translator, but this is circumstantial to this paper.

4 For this see p. 8 of this paper. All cit. from the Latin Bible acc. to: Biblia sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem. Recensuit et brevi apparatu instruxit R. Weber. Editio tertia emendata, quam paravit B. Fischer, 2 vol. Stuttgart 1983.

5 It was named after its 16th century owner Sir Lawrence Norwell: cf. e.g. LUCAS 1990: 463.

6 A detailed account of the manuscript is given for example by KIERNAN 1996, see also: ORCHARD 2003: 12-57 and ORCHARD 1995: 1-27.

7 On possible consequences for the interpretation of the Codex see p. 14 of this paper.

8 The division into prodesse and delectare is following Horace, De Arte Poetica.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Old English 'Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem'
The Letter in its Christian Context
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Department for English and American Studies)
Historical Linguistics and Medieval English Studies
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Paper written in English. Other languages of sources/works cited: Latin, Old English.
Old English, altenglische Literatur, Alexander, Beowulf, Manuscript, Rypins, History, Literature, Culture, Christianity, Hybris, Superbia, Seven Deadly Sins, Ira, Luxuria, Religion, Oracle, Bible, India, Monster, Monsters, Christopher legend, Wonders of the East, Beowulf Manuscript
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Jörn Martin Behrens (Author), 2007, The Old English 'Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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