|Letter P Detail of decorated initial 'P'(lacuit).|
Partly Anglo-Norman and partly Welsh and a member of the hugely powerful and successful fitzGerald family, Gerald wrote seventeen books and planned several others. He wrote the Topographia following two visits to Ireland in 1183 and 1185. It is a remarkable work, shedding light on many aspects of medieval Irish life and society. However, it is at all times Gerald's light, and Gerald was on the side of the conquerors. Bearing that in mind, let's look at the Ireland of 850 years ago from a man who was there.
|Initial 'L'(oqui) and a partially damaged map of islands |
including Ireland (labelled 'Hybernia') and 'Britannia'
Ireland's natural resources greatly impressed Gerald. He writes of rivers of magnificent size, with their "abundance of fish...beautiful lakes full of fish of magnificent size...a kind of speciality here."
|Detail of a miniature of an osprey diving for fish.|
|Fish & Deer With Golden Teeth.|
|Women mating with animals.|
|A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver.|
Firstly, the Irish are "barbarous..and cannot be said to have any culture. they are a wild and inhospitable people...they live on beasts only and live like beasts." Secondly, they are lazy, "think that the greatest pleasure is not to work and that the greatest wealth is to enjoy liberty." Gerald really gets into his stride with the third national trait, which is incest: "This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice." Fourth has us always treacherous, and he warns "You must be more afraid of their wile than their war." The fifth is the tendency to "always carry an axe as if it were a staff...beyond being raised a little, it inflicts a mortal blow."
|Man killing another with an axe.|
Gerald ends by countering his earlier statements about handsome Irish people. Yes, there might be some. But he has never seen so many suffering from defects and "turn out in a horrible way." What can the Irish expect? They are a people "that is adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices."
|A disabled man.|
|Woman with harp.|
What to make of the Topographia, with its praise for a country but its condemnation of a people? Well, as I remarked at the start of this post, Gerald was on the side of the invaders. And if you make those you seek to conquer less than civilized, less than human, then you have the sword of justification in your hand. It's a very powerful weapon and has never been sheathed for very long in human history. The history of Ireland is no exception. The Topographia records some sadly prescient words to that effect, attributed by Gerald to Tatheus, Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland.
Reading them with the hindsight of eight centuries of Irish history, these words are heartbreaking. And what did Gerald make of them? They were, according to him, "sly."
|Man carrying another.|
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Otway-Ruthven, A.J.: A History of Medieval Ireland: Ernest Benn Limited (1968)
Note: I originally posted this article or an edited version of it on English Historical Fiction Authors on March 17th 2015.