"And riden in Belmarye": Chaucer's General Prologue, Line 57

Jeanne KrochalisANQ. Lexington: Fall 2005.Vol. 18, Iss. 4;  pg. 3, 6 pgs



























Abstract (Document Summary)

Geoffrey Chaucer's knight was widely traveled, and the places he fought have been identified by generations of scholars. Krochalis suggests that one of those identifications, Belmarye, might be worth some further thought, based on an additional piece of a 15th-century English evidence--Chaucer's general prologue, line 57.

Full Text (2810   words)


Chaucer's knight was widely traveled, and the places he fought have been identified by generations of scholars. I suggest here that one of those identifications, Belmarye, might be worth some further thought, based on an additional piece of fifteenth-century English evidence:

At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.

Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne

Aboven alle naciouns in Pruce;

In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,

No cristen man so ofte of his degree.

In Gernade at the seege eek hadde he be

Of Algezir, and riden in Belmarye.

At Lyeys was he and at Sataiye,

Whan they were wonne, and in the Grete see

At many a noble armee hadde he be.

At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,

And foughten for our feith at Tramyssene

In listes thryes, and ay slayn his foo.

This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also

Somtyme with the lord of Palatye,

Ageyn another hethen in Turkye;

(Riverside Chaucer 24, 51-66, 801)

Gernade is obviously Granada, the name for both the region of Al-Andalus and its capital city. Algezir is Algeciras, in the province of Cadiz, gateway to the straits of Gibraltar, and port for ships to Tangier and Ceuta in northern Africa. It had been in Arab hands since the eighth century but was recaptured by an international Christian force that included Henry, the future Duke of Lancaster, and William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, on 3 August 1342 (Cook 217-25). But what are we to make of "riden at Balmarye?" Since Tyrwhitt quoted the spelling in Froissart for the inhabitants of a part of Morocco, the Bel Marini, Belmarye has been identified as their kingdom. The reference occurs in his account of the death of John Douglas in the campaign of 1328-1330, when he was assisting the king of Castile in fighting the kings of Granada, Bougie, Thunis and Belmarie (Froissart 167-68). These last three rulers were allies of the Arab rulers of Granada, and Tyrwhitt locates them all in Africa (see Chaucer, Complete Works 5:7; Chaucer The Prologue ). There are several problems with the identification of Belmarye. While plots, counterplots, and tribal warfare were endemic to the region, no recorded fighting between Spanish Christians and Saracens took place in Belmarye in the knight's time; the English troops got no closer than the port of Ceuta. Even Terry Jones, who thinks that the knight was probably one of those soldiers of fortune who would fight for a Moslem sultan for pay, has trouble placing an English knight in that part of Africa (65). Why else would a knight be riding in Belmarye? Between local politics and the slave trade, it was no place for the casual traveler.

That Belmarye is the kingdom of the Ben Marini has, however, been generally accepted; it is in Magoun's standard article on Chaucer's place names, and is the only identification offered in The Riverside Chaucer (but see Chaucer, Variorum Edition 1B:68). The African association seems clear in the one other Chaucerian reference to Belmarye, which comes in the knight's own tale. Arcite is compared to a tiger of the vale of Galgopheye in India whose whelp is stolen, and Palemon, is compared to the lion of Belmarye, hunting or mad from hunger (Chaucer, Chaucer The Prologue 2625-31). Barbary lions are now so endangered that efforts are underway to work with their DNA to rebreed them, but they were prevalent in Northern Africa in the Middle Ages. Outside Africa, lions were found-like Arcite's tigers-in India, but the only lions in Spain were heraldic and possibly alchemical (Leeman; "Lions"). If an uncommon place name is mentioned twice, once about the knight, and once by him, it would seem logical to assume that the same place is meant both times.

There is an alternative suggestion, made orally to F. N. Robinson by the editor of Iberian chronicles Alois Richard Nykl (see Galvão), tucked into the notes in Robinson's second edition of Chaucer's works at line 57, apart from his general note on places the knight had traveled (652). Nykl identified Belmarye with Almeria, the name of both the next province east of Granada and its capital city. The province, an independent taifa, or Arab region, in the eleventh century, formed the eastern part of the kingdom of Granada in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The city of Almeria was the major seaport, while Granada was the inland capital. The entire region was in Moorish hands until 1489, although periodic efforts at recapture were made (Gari). The knight could well have ridden there while based in Granada. No major fighting occurred in the African Bel-marine territory in the second half of the fourteenth century, though a few Englishmen were at the Algerian campaign of Tramissene in 1382. That comes later, however, in time, and in Chaucer's text.

One thing that also makes the Almeria suggestion attractive is that it links Belmarye with Granada and Algezir, making all three place names part of the same campaign. At first glance, the order of the knight's travels is not strictly chronological; it begins with the most familiar. Alexandria, regarded as a major victory in 1367, leads the list. A modern soldier might start by mentioning Dunkirk, then back it up with the rest of his career, in chronological order. First come the undated long campaigns of the Teutonic Knights, in Prussia, Lithuania, and Russia, which the knight could have joined at almost any time. Rowell describes the 1348 Lithuanian defeat at Strava and the years from 1349-1351 as "one proselytizing attempt punctuated by military interludes" (152), but there were campaigns earlier and later, as well. The knight could have begun his career in the Baltic, then moved on to the Spanish reconquest of Algeciraz 1342-1343. Finally, come the less familiar campaigns led by Peter of Cyprus in 1361 at Lyeys and 1367 at Satalye, both in Asia Minor; the African Tramyssene in 1382; and "somtyme"-perhaps an indication that here the chronological order breaks down-Palatye, in Turkey, in 1365. If these are chronological, the later campaign in Palatye in 1390 must be the one mentioned, but this is later than contemporary critics want to put the General Prologue (but see Cook 234-35). Belmarye is part of the same expedition as Algezir, and it would be satisfying logically to be able to put it, too, in Spain.

One would not like to lay much stress on the evidence of spelling. Froissart writes of the Saracen kings of Granada and Bougie and Tunis "et au roi de Belmarie" (168). Neither Manly and Rickert (5:107) nor the Variorum Edition of the General Prologue (1A: 133) record any variants for Belmarye in any of the MSS, and the word is not in the Middle English Dictionary. But there is no n in Palemon's lion's home, which must be in Africa, or in the Sowdone of Babylon's Belmore (line 3121, cit. in Chaucer, The Prologue 132). The only Middle English occurrence with an n is Balmeryne in Barbour's Bruce, xx. 393 (cit. in Chaucer, The Prologue 132). However, two places can have the same name, and the second passage is not narratively linked to the first in any way.

There is one additional bit of evidence, supplied by a medieval Englishman, for Belmarye as a name for Almeria. William Wey, Devon-born graduate of Exeter College and founding fellow of Eton College, went on a pilgrimage to Compostela in 1456 (Pollard; Emden).1 Wey wrote an account of his travels sometime before his death in 1470, when he was living in retirement at the house of the Bonneshommes at Edington. It survives in a holograph MS, Oxford, Bodleian Library 565, and has been edited for the Roxburghe Club. The account includes two trips to Jerusalem, and for those he provided a map, also in Bodley (MS Douce 350), and edited in a separate Roxburghe Club volume. He left no map for Spain, but identified the various parts of the region. The transcription in the Roxburghe Club volume is very accurate, but in order to be sure there was no possibility of error, I have transcribed the passage directly from the MS, Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley 565, fol. 100v2:

In Hyspannia sunt quinque regiones, regio Hispannie, regio Castelle et Legionis, regio Portingale. Et iste sunt Christiane. Regio Granate, et regio Belmarie, et iste due sunt regiones Sarazenorum, quarum regionum rex Granate Sarazenus captus erat a domino Henrico, rege Castelle et legionis, anno Domini m^sup lo^. cccc^sup mo^. lvj^sup o^., quo anno accepit maximam civitatem Granate, vocatam Malaga, a qua veniunt ficus vocati figis of Malike, et habuit regem ilium Sarazenum in suo regno in custodia, et scribit sub proprio suo sigillo civitatibus et villis illius et habitantibus in illis. Et in signum victorie rex Castelle et Legionis mittebat ad Sanctum Jacobum in Compostella coronam auream vel deauratam illius regis Granate; et hec corona posita erat super capud ymaginis sancti Jacobi sedentis in medio summi altaris die sancte Trinitas anno Domini supradicto et anno indulgencie apud sanctum Jacobum.


In Spain there are five regions: the region of Hispania, the region of Castile and Léon, the Region of Portugal, and these are Christian; the region of Granada, and the region of Balmarie, and these last two are Saracen; the Saracen king of those regions was captured at Granada by the lord Henry, king of Castile and Leon, in the year of our lord 1456, in which year he accepted the greatest city of Granada, called Malaga, from which come the figs called figs of Malaga. And he has that Saracen king in his custody in his own kingdom, and writes under his own seal to the cities and villages and to the inhabitants in them. And as a sign of victory the king of Castile and Leon sent the golden or gilded crown of that king of Granada to St. James in Compostela, and this crown was placed on the head of the image of James in the middle of the high altar on Trinity Sunday in the aforementioned year of our Lord (1456), and a year of indulgence at St. James.

This is an eyewitness account of the ceremony at Compostela. The capture of the Sultan by King Henry was shortlived; a treaty was a quickly arranged. As Washington Irving put it:

In the year 1456, on the occasion of a great foray into the Vega by the Christians, Aben Ismael, to secure a peace, agreed to pay the king of Castile a certain tribute annually, and at the same time to liberate six hundred Christian captives; or, should the number of captives fall short, to make it up in Moorish hostages. Aben Ismael fulfilled the rigorous terms of the treaty, and reigned for a number of years with more tranquillity than usually fell to the lot of the monarchs of that belligerent kingdom. Granada enjoyed a great state of prosperity during his reign, and was the seat of festivity and splendor.

There can be no doubt that Wey's Balmarye is Almeria. In the course of what one historian has called the "smoldering border warfare with Granada" (Payne 155) the moment of triumph at Compostela must have been a rare impressive occasion. Ceremonies were especially elaborate in years of indulgence, when the feast of St. James (26 June) fell on a Sunday, and the crown would have added an extra note of splendor.

The careful, perhaps ironic, note of the gold or gilded crown is typical. Wey had an eye for memorable detail. He counted the ships in the harbor, by nationality and by whether or not they had topcastles. He recorded the names of the first rocks the returning pilgrim saw that meant England was on the horizon-Browsam Rocks, Long Ships, Popyl Hoppyl, Mounts Bay, and the Lizard-and wrote down the tune and words of the song that the boys sang in the square outside the cathedral of Compostela. He was unlikely to have been mistaken or confused over a name. We do not know who provided him with information about Spain, but when their ship was becalmed in the harbor on the return trip, Wey's party stayed with the Franciscans at La Coruna for several days, and noted that the English called it Grwne. The English party were treated as honored guests, and talked with the fathers, and with a learned Jew, which Wey clearly regarded as a privilege. His other Spanish place names are all accurate and identifiable. Perhaps his Belmarye is an indication that the knight rode from one end of the kingdom of Granada to the other-from Algezir to Belmarye-in honorable warfare or negotiation.



1. Information on Wey comes mostly from the introduction to the Roxburghe Club edition of his Itineraries and from Emden, s.v. Wey. The account by A. F. Pollard in the Dictionary of National Biography is taken almost completely from the introduction to the Roxburghe Club edition, though other sources are cited at the end of the account. For the various editions and translations of Wey, see Wey, Davey, Hogarth, Krochalis, and Vasquez de Parga 3: 127-32. The Roxburghe Club volumes are difficult to find, and the 1987 reprint is out of print. Vázquez de Parga's compilation is not commonly found in American libraries. Davey contains the Roxburghe Club text, his own translation, and additional materials, some of them maritime identifications. Hogarth takes his text from Vázquez de Parga, and provides his own translation, with minimal notes. My translation here was made from the MS text; it differs slightly from the version on the Italica Press CD-Rom. For Wey and other travelers to Spain in the fifteenth century, see Zacher item 13.

2. University of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 565, fol. 100v is transcribed with permission.






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[Author Affiliation]


Pennsylvania State University, New Kensington