Indonesian Commodities in The Canterbury Tales

In my short series on Indonesian commodities in medieval European manuscripts we have looked at texts from (what are now) Spain, Germany, Hungary, and even southern Russia (albeit in a Latin Christian context). So far I haven’t looked at anything from England. Today, because it’s my birthday and I’m feeling generous, I’m going to talk about eastern Indonesian commodities in The Canterbury Tales.

Although this blog has a diverse readership, including plenty of readers in Indonesia who can’t be expected to know much if anything about Middle English, I’m not going to spend too much time here describing the text. Suffice it to say that The Canterbury Tales is one of the most famous works of English literature. It was written in London in the late fourteenth century by a well-travelled and well-read government official named Geoffrey Chaucer, and consists of 24 surviving tales (more may have been planned), each ostensibly told by a pilgrim en route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury in southeastern England. It survives in a large number of manuscripts and incunabula.

Chaucer appears as a character in the work, and it is in one of the tales that the fictive-Chaucer tells, The Tale of Sir Thopas, that the Indonesian commodities appear. This tale is now thought to be a sort of parody, a spoof of romances about knights and their adventures. Sir Thopas (where Thopas = topaz, the semi-precious stone), a Flemish knight, wants to marry an elf-queen and goes off on an adventure to fight a giant. It’s quite silly. You can find the complete text here.

The references to exotic spices appear near the beginning of the tale (lines 70–75). Here I’m using the text as found in the Hengwrt Chaucer, an early manuscript of the Tales now in the National Library of Wales (Figure 1). There are some differences between the manuscripts — <grene> in the first line below should probably be <grete> ‘great’ — but the spices are the same in every version. The spelling may seem a bit strange at first glance but the words shouldn’t be too hard to understand; nutmeg is mentioned by name, and I would also read the text as referring to cloves. It is tempting to see these references to exotic spices as part of the parody: it is said that they ‘spring’ up around Sir Thopas as he travels through a wood full of doves and parrots, which would be rather extraordinary for a knight in Flanders:

Fig. 1 — The bit on Indonesian spices in the Hengwrt Chaucer. Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 392D, f.214r.

<There spryngen herbes, grene & smale,
The licorys, and cetewale,
And many a clowe Gylofre (1)
And notemuge, to putte in ale, (2)
Wheither it be moyste or stale,
Or for to leye in cofre>


(1) <clowe Gylofre> is sometimes translated as ‘gilliflowers’, but I think Chaucer means ‘cloves’ rather than carnations. The formula is found in plenty of medieval texts as the name for cloves (as in French clou de girofle). The term ‘clove’ (from French clou) originally meant ‘nail’ (the iron kind), and it was applied to cloves (Syzygium aromaticum, the spice) because cloves look like nails; the term was then applied to carnations/gilliflowers because the flowers smell like cloves. The ‘clove’ meaning thus has priority. The context also suggests that the plant in question is exotic — liquorice and nutmeg were hardly local plants in England or Flanders (or anywhere, really, given that they grew in different places).

In the Middle Ages cloves only grew on a small number of islands in eastern Indonesia, in what is now the province of North Maluku (Figure 2). The distance between Southwark, where Chaucer set the Canterbury Tales frame story, and Ternate, the main power in Maluku when the Portuguese arrived in the early sixteenth century, is 12,404 kilometres (7,707 miles); cloves would have made their way to England in a kind of relay, stopping off to be transshipped at any number of ports between Java and Cairo. Most cloves would then have come to Europe by ship from Alexandria. (I’ve said more about this elsewhere.)

Fig. 2 — The clove-producing islands of North Maluku in eastern Indonesia: Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan.

(2) There’s no doubt that Chaucer’s <notemuge> is nutmeg, the seed of a tree (Myristica fragrans) that also only grew on a small number of tiny islands in eastern Indonesia. I’ve discussed nutmeg and Banda — the name of the archipelago that was the only source of nutmeg in the Middle Ages — in a number of other posts (here, here, and here), so I won’t go on too much about it in this post. Banda is in central Maluku, a little to the south of the clove islands, and nutmeg would have got to London in much the way as cloves (and probably in the same ships). I will note, though, that the line here suggests putting nutmeg in beer, something that seems to have continued in England into the twentieth century (as you can see in this charming British Pathé film from 1958). (I’m drinking a ‘mulled ale’, as the narrator in the clip calls it, while writing this. Cheers!)

My literal-ish translation of the lines above would be:

‘There herbs were springing up, great and small,
Liquorice and zedoary,
And many a clou-de-girofle [=cloves],
And nutmeg to put in ale,
Whether it be fresh or stale,
Or for to lay in a chest.’

The idea of fresh nutmeg growing in a forest visited by a European knight is ridiculous, and that’s probably the point. An earlier Middle English text — The Land of Cokaygne, written in Ireland in the 1330s (and surviving in one manuscript — London, British Library, Harley 913, f.3r-6v) — also imagines an elaborate fantasy of a world in which spices grow in profusion, and the association between spices and fantastical paradises was in any case well-established in medieval European literature. So there is precedent for what Chaucer is (probably) doing here.

The image of spices ‘springing up’ is also found in at least one other fourteenth-century Middle English text: Pearl, a beautiful and elaborate allegory included in London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A X/2, alongside Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of which were written in the English Midlands by the same poet. Near the beginning of Pearl the narrator loses his peerless pearl (which is oute of oryent ‘from the Orient’) in the grass and from it spice bushes spring forth (Figure 3):

Fig. 3 — <that spryngande spyces up ne sponne / of that precios perle wythouten spotte> — London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f.41v (the illustration) and f.43r (the text).

My point here, as with all the entries in this series, is that Europe cannot be studied as if it were cut off from the rest of Afro-Eurasia in the Middle Ages. References to commodities from the edge of the Pacific, both direct and oblique, can be found in European texts of many kinds, including some of the most famous works of medieval English literature. These references are more than just reminders of the existence of non-white and non-European peoples during the Middle Ages: They show that Indonesian (and other Asian and African) goods had real meaning to people in medieval Europe.

Surprising though it may seem, Chaucer’s ability to conjure up a spoof romantic woodland depended in part on the labour of Bandanese arboriculturalists and Javanese sailors (among many other people otherwise invisible in the historical record).

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Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.