The career of Chaucer's Knight is made difficult to follow by Chaucer's mentioning the scenes of his exploits as they came to his mind. If we put his battles and sieges in their chronological order, it will be seen that not only do they fall into groups, but that these groups allow for the knight taking his fair share of fighting 'in his lordes werre,' although Chaucer has only specified campaigns against the infidel. [By Edward III.'s time the Moors in Spain had been confined to the province of Granada, but here fighting was plentiful. In the north-east of Europe the Teutonic knights had completed their conquest of Prussia and were engaged in a long struggle with the Lithuanians. In the south-east the pressure of the infidel was continually more severe, and the chief centres of resistance were the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus and the attenuated kingdom of Armenia in the angle of Asia Minor. It thus became we may almost say ' fashionable' for young knights to make a kind of military 'grand tour,' passing from one of the Christian outposts to another. Thus Henry, Duke of Lancaster, had begun his campaigning with the Teutonic knights in Prussia, and went thence to Rhodes and Cyprus, and finally to Granada. To quit England on such a tour it was necessary to obtain the king's leave and this would only be granted, as a rule, in time of peace.
Now in January 1343 Edward III concluded a truce with France for three years, and we must imagine that Chaucer's knight started off at once to fight the Moors, possibly accompanying the aforesaid Henry, Duke of Lancaster, at that time Earl of Derby, who in the spring of the year was sent on a mission to Alphonso XI of Castile, and took the opportunity of doing a little fighting at the siege of Algeciras (Algezir) in Granada. Henry, however, had to return to England, whereas our knight was at the capture of the town in 1344, and about the same time must have taken part in raids in 'Belmarye' and 'Tramyssene,' the two provinces in Africa immediately opposite Spain, from which the Moors poured over to Granada to help their kinsmen, passing back again when the tide of war went against them. In May, 1345, the truce with France was declared broken, and we may hope that our knight got back again in time to fight the next year at Crecy. For the next fourteen years there was small chance of his obtaining leave to go crusading. But in May, 1360, the treaty of Bretigny (ratified the following October) would set him free again, and he must have hastened at once to the aid of Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, who the following year made a sudden expedition against Attalia (Satalie), a town on the coast of Asia Minor, a little to the west of Cyprus, which he captured August 24th, 1361. King Peter, on the ground of this success, started at once on a round of visits to the courts of Europe whence aid might be expected, coming to England, where Chaucer must have seen a great deal of him, in November, 1363. In England he only stayed some six weeks, but he was in no hurry to return to Cyprus, and it was probably during his absence that our knight went 'with the lord of Palatye Agayn another hethen in Turkye.' At last, in 1365, King Peter was at work again, and the knight was among the numerous Englishmen who took part in the capture of Alexandria. Most of the Englishmen seem to have hastened home with their booty, but the knight must have remained with the king, since he was present at the 'Capture of Lyeys’ (Lyas, Ayas) in Armenia, in October, 1367. Peter then went to Rome in quest of further aid, and on his return was assassinated on January, 16th, 1369, a tragedy which Chaucer's Monk is made to bewail (Canterbury Tales, B 3581-88).
It was then, we may suppose, that the knight transferred his services to the Teutonic Order in Prussia, and raided in Lithuania and Russia, for the high honour of oft times 'beginning the bord' would hardly have been granted to anyone but a veteran. If we choose, we may imagine that these Lithuanian and Russian raids, which no Christian man of his degree made so often, filled up his time until 1386, the year in which the Lithuanians, much, it is said, to the chagrin of the Teutonic knights, turned Christian, and thus made the war against them no longer attractive on religious grounds. If this were so, our knight must certainly have been ‘Lately come from his viage' when Chaucer met him, for it is about this year that the Prologue must have been written.
Of course this reconstruction of the knight's career is quite hypothetical, but it has the merit of a good hypothesis in that it takes account of all the facts, and the haphazard way in which Chaucer strings together his exploits really suggests that he was writing down from memory the adventures of an actual knight, which had been told him, without his quite following out their sequence. As it is, the dates of the four sieges he mentions come in the strange order, 1365 (Alisaundre, 1. 51), 1344 (Algezir, 1. 57), 1367 (Lyeys, 1. 58), 1361 (Satalye, same line).]
43. worthy, notable: here and in 11. 47 and 68 used especially of bravery. So in 1. 46 fredom means not 'liberty' but 'generosity' in its fullest sense, as the opposite of meanness.
43, 44. That... he, frequently used by Chaucer for who.
45. To riden out, to go campaigning, not simply to travel.
47. his lordes werre, i.e. the war of his feudal superior, ultimately or immediately, Edward III. Some of the old commentators took 'his lord' to refer to Christ, probably from misunderstanding 'therto,' which means 'moreover, in the next line, as if it stood for 'thither.'
51. At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne. Alexandria was captured by Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, 10th October, 1365.
52. hadde the bord bigonne, taken the head of the table as the most honoured person in the company. [In the Festial, a volume of English sermons of the fifteenth century, Christ is said to have told the servants at the marriage at Cana ' that they sholde bere' the newly made wine 'to hym that began the table,' i.e. ' the ruler of the feast.' Appolinus in Gower's Confessio Amantis, viii. 720, 'was mad beginne a middel bord' as a mark of honour (a reference usually attributed to Warton but in which Morell had forestalled him).]
53. In Pruce, i.e. among the Teutonic knights, who fought against the heathen of Lithuania (Lettowe) and Russia (Ruce).
54. reysed, gone on expeditions. [Dr. Flügel (in an article on Gower's Mirour de V Omme and Chaucer's Prolog in Anglia, Bd. 24, to which we shall often have to refer) notes (p. 444) that both in Middle-English and in Old French 'reyse' or 'reze' was the technical term for these Prussian expeditions. O.N. Reisa (cp. German Reise, 'a journey')]
56. In Gernade at the seege eek hadde he be. Of Algezir, Algeciras, near Gibraltar. Both places were captured from the Moors in 1344.
57. Belmarye, Benmarin, a Moorish kingdom in North Africa. [According to Leo Africanus "the Benmarini, a generation of Zeneti are said to have reigned for the space of 170 years," and the limits of their kingdom would vary with the fortunes of their perpetual wars. At the beginning of Book xvi. of the Historia de rebus Hispanicis of Mariana we read that Albohacenus, the ninth king of Morocco, of the family of the 'Merini,' was only kept from attacking Spain by a hereditary war with Botexesinius, king of Tremesene, and at the end of Chap. 4 of the same book the defeat of Botexesinius is recorded under the year 1335, whereupon Albohacenus began to attack Spain.]
58. Lyeys, Layas, or Lajazzo, the modern Ayas, in Armenia, attacked by Pierre de Lusignan in October, 1367. The town was 'won' easily enough, but the citadel resisted all the efforts of Pierre's small force, and after burning the town he retired.
Satalye, Attalia, a stronghold on the coast of Asia Minor to the north-west of Cyprus. Captured by Pierre de Lusignan, August, 1361.
59. the Grete See, the eastern portion of the Mediterranean, of which Mandeville writes (Chapter XVI., Macmillan's English Classics, p. 97), 'the sea Mediterranean, the which sea dureth in length from Morocco, upon the sea of Spain, unto the Great Sea.'
60. At many a noble armee. 'Armee,' the reading of the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, is a translation of the Latin armata or armata navium commonly found in the chronicles of the time. It can be used indifferently for an expedition (or the force which goes on it) whether by sea or land. [The New Eng. Dict. follows this instance by one from Caxton's Faytes of Armes, 'They that by the see wol goo, be it in armee or to som other adoo.' The Harley Ms. 7334 and Cambridge Gg. read 'ariue' (aryve), explained as meaning an arrival or disembarkation of troops, but of which no other instance has been found. The two words would easily be confused by scribes, as Professor Skeat (who says that 'armee gives no good sense') has pointed out. But even if it could be proved that 'ariue' has any existence, the epithet 'noble ' seems more suited to 'armee,' and we may note that Pierre de Lusignan's expeditions against Attalia and Alexandria were exactly what was understood by an 'armata.']
62. Tramyssene, Tremezen, a Moorish kingdom on the north coast of Africa, next to that of Benmarin, under whose domination it passed in 1335. See note to 1. 57.
63. In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo: Challenges to single combat were a frequent incident in medieval warfare; thus Edward III challenged the king of France, and the eagerness of Richard Cœur de Lion to encounter Saladin is well known.
65. with the lord of Palatye. 'Palatye' is said to be 'Palathia,' and this again to be one of the Christian lordships in Anatolia (Asia Minor) which survived the general Turkish supremacy, sometimes by paying tribute. It may possibly be the 'Palice' mentioned by Froissart is a district adjoining Satalie, and if so may well have been the scene of fighting in 1361 or thereabouts.
68. though that he was worthy, E Hng., Cam. read 'were' instead of ' was,' but the indicative seems more suitable, as there is no doubt implied.
70. no vileynye ne sayde, 'villainy' was any language, whether foul or of unmannerly abuse, which was unworthy of a gentleman.
73 But for to tellen yow of his array, etc. 'The countenance our Knight (i.e. in the coloured pictures in the Ellesmere manuscript, here reproduced in black and white) expresses great sedateness and dignity. His folded headcovering is of a dark colour. His gipon is also dark, but his under-coat red, which is discernible through the sleeves at his wrists; his legs in armour, with gilt spurs; his dagger in a red sheath, by his side; and little points or aiglets of red tipped with gold near his neck and shoulder' (Todd's Illustrations of Gower and Chaucer, 1810, p. 229).
74. His hors was goode, E has 'weren' for 'was,' a quite possible reading, since 'hors' is plural as well as singular, and the plural might refer to those of the Squire and Yeoman who rode with the Knight. But as these have not yet been mentioned the singular seems slightly preferable.
76. Scan: Al | bismot | er'd with | his hab | ergeon. The last syllable of habergeon is pronounced 'joun,' not 'geon.'
78. And wente for to doon his pilgrymage. Just as sick people would vow to go on pilgrimage should they recover, so travellers and soldiers would make similar vows as a thank-offering for their safe return. Chaucer's language here takes it for granted that a pilgrimage would be the natural end of the knight's campaigning. It may be noted that ‘viage' in the previous line may be influenced by the use of the Latin viagium for a military expedition.
These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are generally enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.