Why Did Valarte Die? Death of a Danish Knight during Expedition to West Africa in mid-15th Century
By Michał Tymowski
Acta Poloniae Historica, Vol.98 (2008)
Introduction: The journeys of knights to various European courts were a common phenomenon in the Middle Ages. With regard to the problem of fight with the Muslims or pagans, three journey directions were of special importance in late Middle Ages: At the Hungarian court, fight with the Turks was possible; in the Teutonic Knights’ Order State — fight with pagans; at the Portuguese court — fight with the Muslims from North Africa, as well as with pagans from West Africa. Among the works published recently on that subject, an especially important one is Werner Paravic in his study on the knights’ journeys to the Teutonic Knights’ Order State. Doubtlessly, Portugal gave Christian knights a chance to win such a merit.
Among the knights from Central and North Europe who journeyed to Portugal there happened to be one called Valarte. We can learn about him from Gomes Eanes Zurara’s chronicle, written down starting from 1453, that is, not so many years after the knight’s journey, though later completed and rewritten again and again until the chronicler’s death in 1473 or 1474. Another source of information about Valarte are also the memoirs of a Portuguese knight, explorer and courtier Diogo Gomes, written down at the end of his life, at the break of the 15th and the 16th centuries, as well as a later work by João de Barro’s, dating back to the 1550s.
The figure of Valarte is well known and described in the historical literature, though neither the knight’s country of origin, nor his name, his patron in Portugal, or even the moment of his death are known with full certainty — to the contrary, there are several equally probable hypotheses regarding the above. In this article I would like to deal with the reasons for the failure of Valarte’s mission and for the attitude of the Africans who had contacts with Valarte. Investigation of a cultural contact requires studying and analyzing the actions and attitudes of both sides of that contact. This methodological principle is difficult to observe in case of the early (15th century) Portuguese expansion in Africa, since most of the available sources describes the attitudes and actions of the Europeans. However, the fragment of Zuarara’s chronicle we are interested in provides us with a rare opportunity to analyze the attitudes and actions not only of the Europeans, but also the Africans.