Tuesday, March 22

Gerald of Wales: Colourful Medieval Chronicler.

I think that most lovers of history would agree that very little beats a first-person account. There is something very special about reading the words of someone who was there, who witnessed momentous events or who was in the presence of individuals famous and infamous. And the further back in history one goes, the scarcer such accounts are. Yet in the world of the twelfth and early thirteenth century, we have the work of a prolific chronicler to bring much of it to life.

 Scribe writing the Gospels of Kildare.

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, was born around 1146 in his noble family’s castle at Manorbier. He could count leading Anglo-Norman families in south-west Wales as well as native Welsh princes among his kinsmen. Unlike his older brothers, Gerald had no desire to become a knight. From an early age, he was destined for the Church and was educated in Paris. In 1184, Gerald entered into the service of Henry II as a royal clerk and remained so for twelve years. Though he harboured a lifelong ambition to become bishop of the see of Saint David’s in Wales, he was ultimately to be thwarted which caused him much bitterness.

Saint Kevin and the blackbird.

Gerald’s written output was considerable. He wrote poems, the lives of saints, letters, opinion pieces- and histories. Arguably Gerald’s four most important books are those he wrote on Ireland and Wales. The two volumes on Ireland are the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). The images in this post are all from his Topographia Hibernica. His Welsh books are Itinerarium Cambriae  (Itinerary of Wales) and Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales). The books contain some controversial views, especially the Topographia Hibernica (I have written a previous post on it and you can find it here.)

 Bernard blowing the horn of Brendan.

Gerald has also been described as gossipy, opinionated, quarrelsome, prejudiced and critical and that he veers into anecdote. While one can see examples of all of the above, his works also contain a wealth of information about the world as he experienced it. So much of what we know about Ireland and Wales at the time comes from him. And that includes Welsh teeth. In the Description of Wales, Gerald informs us: ‘Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.’

Woman playing a harp.

That, for me, is the type of detail that makes a time and a place come alive. Gerald makes people come alive, too and that is one of the aspects of his writing that I enjoy the most. Here are some of my favourite examples.

Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) was the Irish King of Leinster. In 1166, Mac Murchada appealed to Henry II of England for help in the recovery of his kingdom, from which he had been exiled by his enemies. Because of this act, Mac Murchada is regarded as the instigator of English involvement in Ireland. Gerald describes him thus:‘Diarmait was tall and well built, a brave and warlike man among his people, whose voice was hoarse as a result of constantly having been in the din of battle. He preferred to be feared by all rather than loved. All men’s hands were raised against him and he was hostile to all men.’

A man killing another.

Of fellow Cambro-Norman, the second earl of Pembroke Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (familiar to many as Strongbow), Gerald has this to say:‘He had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes, a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other aspects he was of a tall build. He was a generous and easy-going man…In war he remained steadfast and reliable, in good fortune and bad alike. In adversity, no feelings of despair caused him to waver, while lack of self-restraint did not make him run amok when successful.’

A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver.

Gerald’s description of his king brings Henry vividly to life with its detail: ‘Henry II was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence, which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing.’

Men of Connacht in a boat.

Less favourable is Gerald’s assessment of Henry’s relationship with his young mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the Fair Rosamund of many mythical stories. ‘The King, who had long been a secret adulterer, now blatantly flaunted his paramour for all the world to see, not a rose of the world, as some vain and foolish people called her, but a rose of unchastity. And since the world copies a king, he offended not only by his behaviour but even more by his bad example.’ 

Gerald also provided an opinion of Henry’s sons. Of Richard I, the Lionheart, Gerald states the he ‘cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries.’

A priest and a wolf.

Geoffrey, Henry’s son who was Duke of Brittany fares very badly under Gerald’s pen. Geoffrey was ‘overflowing with words, soft as oil, possessed, by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, of the power of dissolving the seeming indissoluble, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue; of tireless endeavour, a hypocrite in everything, a deceiver and a dissembler.’ Ouch.

Gerald was of the view that Geoffrey and John (the future King John) looked alike physically: ‘one was corn in the ear, the other corn in the blade.’ As for Gerald’s opinion of John, describing him as a ‘tyrannous whelp’ gives us some idea.

A fox and a wolf.

It is of course easy to criticise Gerald. Much of his writing is his personal, embittered opinion and it can veer into the ludicrous and/or downright dangerous. Yet it can also be wonderful and shines a brilliant light on the medieval world. His words still have the power to surprise, inform and entertain, even after 800 years—and that’s pretty remarkable.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Bartlett, Robert‘Gerald of Wales', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Giraldus Cambrensis: The Description of Wales (Public Domain Books)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
Note: I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on February 22 2016.

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