Tuesday, March 17

Medieval Ireland

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh- Happy Saint Patrick's Day to you all! Yes, it's the day when much of the globe celebrates all things Irish by a) donning green and b) taking leave of their senses. Fair enough. As an Irish person, it's nice to see that the small island from which I hail is so widely/wildly celebrated, and I was very pleased that I could snag today's posting date to add to the acclaim.

Letter P Detail of decorated initial 'P'(lacuit). 
Much has been written about Ireland's history, but not many people are aware of a history of Ireland that was written in the 12th century, Topographia Hiberniae, or The History and Topography of Ireland. It was written by Gerald of Wales, a cleric and chronicler at the court of England's Henry II. (In case anyone's disappointed, please be assured that there will be snakes.) Gerald also included helpful illustrations: the manuscript images in this post are all his.

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' 
Gerald divided his book into three parts. the first part he called The Position of Ireland. For the medievals, Ireland was the most westerly point in the world. Sorry, Americas, but there was simply nothing else. As Gerald so beautifully puts it: " Beyond these limits, there is no land, nor is there habitation either of men or beasts- but beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space." He describes Ireland as about half the size of "greater Britain and ...more round."

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.
The fertile land and the mild temperatures, along with the ease with which grass could be grown also pleased Gerald: "The grass is green in the fields in winter, just the same as in summer." But like so many visitors to Ireland, Gerald quickly found out what made all that green in the first place: the Irish weather. (Or as we natives like to call it, the rain.) Gerald is not happy: "[The harvest] can scarcely be reaped...because of the unceasing rain. For this country more than any other suffers from storms of wind and rain... There is such a plentiful supply of rain, such an ever-present overhanging of clouds and fog, that you will scarcely see even in the summer three consecutive days of really fine weather." 

Gerald was cheerier about the plentiful supply of birds and the lack of mammals that would pose a threat to man. He even mentions snakes, (I did promise), or rather, lack of them. He assures us that "Ireland has no serpents or snakes, toads or frogs, tortoises or scorpions."  His readers will also have been relieved to know "It has no dragons." For those of you waiting to see if Gerald has the definitive answer on Saint Patrick and the snakes issue, Gerald provides one. But you may be disappointed: "Some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick...purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times...the island was naturally without these as well as other things." 

The first part of the Topographia is a wonderful read, in that so much of it is recognizable as the Ireland that still exists. The second part is also remarkable but in a way that is less based in reality. In it, Gerald relates The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.

Fish & Deer With Golden Teeth.
Under Wonders, we have reports of a small island where corpses don't rot. A bearded woman with a mane on her back at the court of the King of Limerick. A priest who conversed at length with a wolf. A whale that was found with three gold teeth. Wonders, indeed, but the lake that was formed in a flood because the people were addicted to bestiality is probably the show stopper.

Women mating with animals.
Moving swiftly onto Miracles, Gerald includes (among many others), the fleas banished by Saint Nannan, a cross in Dublin that speaks the truth and the inextinguishable fire of Saint Brigid. My personal favourite is The Mill that Women Do Not Enter. The mill in question was carved by Saint Féchín, and women weren't allowed in. But an archer of Hugh de Lacy (de Lacy was Henry's man) dragged a woman in "and lustfully violated her there."  Happily, according to Gerald, the archer was "stricken in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died that same night." Good for Saint Féchín, I say. 

A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver. 
The third part of the Topographia is where Gerald gets up close and extremely personal with the Irish people. Its title is The Inhabitants of the Country. One gets a sense of what is to come when he begins it by restating the legitimate claim that the kings of Britain have over Ireland. Following a brief mention of "beautiful, upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces", there are positives no more.

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.
If only it were some nifty axe-work we were accused of. Gerald has more. He cites the example of a new and outlandish way of confirming kingship by the Irish in Ulster (where he never went). A white mare is brought before the ruler, who has intercourse with the animal, slaughters it, then boils up the meat and has a bath in the broth, "quaffs and drinks of it...in which he is bathed...just dipping his mouth into it round about him." 

Kingship ritual.
The Irish Church isn't spared either. Gerald despairs that all the Irish saints are "confessors and there is no martyr...to cement the foundation of the church with his blood, not a single one." 

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. 
So positives no more, except for an unexpected section in the third part of the Topographia where Gerald acknowledges and praises the Irish as highly skilled and talented musicians. Mind you, even this is qualified with a statement that the Scots have probably overtaken them.

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.

Gerald was bemoaning  to Tatheus the fact that the Irish had never produced a martyr. Tatheus replied: "But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on, Ireland will have its martyrs, just as other countries."

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.

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