Alexander the Great’s Submarine – Plus Cat

Just a quickie cut-n-paste post today, but I’m sharing because this illustration is awesome (I love the fish with the pointy fins and teeth!), and so is the story to go with it.


…Alexander the Great, whose fictional explorations of the natural world were retold throughout the Middle Ages, included a cat, along with the cock and the dog, as his companions in a proto-submarine. Here, the animal was not merely a pet, but a natural rebreather, purifying the air so Alexander would not stifle in the enclosed space. The dog was more unfortunate, chosen as an emergency escape mechanism: water, medieval readers were assured, would expel the impurity of a dog’s dead carcass. If Alexander encountered danger, he had only to kill the dog, which would be expelled to the surface, bringing Alexander with it. As for the cock – everyone knows how valuable they are for telling time with their crows, a useful function underwater, out of sight of the sky.

— Nicole Eddy, Lolcats of the Middle Ages, Medieval manuscripts blog of the British Library

A link to a bigger image and more details about the illustration can be found here. According to the annotations, Alexander’s unfaithful wife is trying to murder him by cutting his glass-barrel-submarine free from the ship. In this version of the story, Alexander kills the cat, rather than the dog, so that the ocean spits him back up to the surface.

The illustration is from the French manuscript Le livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, circa 1420. The illustrations are online courtesy of the British Library. Do click through to see them, they’re beautiful. And the Lolcat article is cute, too.


8 thoughts on “Alexander the Great’s Submarine – Plus Cat

  1. I see that not even Alexander the Great is safe from a reinterpretation of his life. Still, it does expand the number of reasons to consider the dog as “man’s best friend.”

    1. Alexander the Great was definitely more fiction than fact to the people of the Middle Ages. And I suspect that dogs wouldn’t appreciate our “friendship” under the circumstances….

  2. If I’m interpreting Alexander’s body language correctly, this might be one of the earliest cases of a “royal” saying, “We are not amused.”

  3. Hi Nina,

    (Sorry, I meant to comment on this post when it was first published but got distracted) I absolutely love the illustration also (and I have just spent half an hour browsing through the other pictures at the link you provided – my morning is off to a productive start! 🙂

    Anyway, I was unaware or had forgotten about Alexander’s reputation and mythology that evolved in the Middle Ages. As a classics minor, I studied him in college and remember writing a paper on “siege warfare and Alexander the Great” (Nerd alert!). He was truly a larger life figure. There was a great four-part(?) PBS series on him in 1997 that I watched religiously.

    Another bit of Alexander trivia: not everyone knows that the four “kings” in a deck of playing cards presumably represent four historical kings. The King of Clubs = Alexander. (Maybe this only interests me because of my “Deal Me In” short story reading project… 🙂


    1. Alexander was quite an influence on his known world, wasn’t he? All the cities named after him, and I do have vague memories of having heard folk legend pertaining to him from Egypt and other countries. I didn’t know about the Middle Age legends about him either, until I read the British Library Article. I’ll have to find that PBS series about him….

      And I did not know the King of Clubs is Alexander! What a cool factoid. Who are the other three kings, do you know?

      1. Hi Nina,
        King of hearts = Charlemagne
        Diamonds = Julius Caesar
        Spades = King David

        I had to look it up. Couldn’t remember if Caesar was one or not… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.