Gerald of Wales (Latin: Giraldus Cambrensis; Welsh: Gerallt Gymro; French: Gerald de Barri; c. 1146 – c. 1223) was a Cambro-Norman archdeacon of Brecon and historian. As a royal clerk to the king and two archbishops, he travelled widely and wrote extensively. He studied and taught in France and visited Rome several times, meeting the Pope. He was nominated for several bishoprics but turned them down in the hope of becoming Bishop of St Davids, but was unsuccessful despite considerable support. His final post was as Archdeacon of Brecon, from which he retired to academic study for the remainder of his life. Much of his writing survives.
Gerald of Wales
|Born||Gerald de Barri|
Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales
|Died||c. 1223 (age about 77)|
probably Hereford, England
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
|Notable works||Topographia Hibernica|
De principis instructione
Born c. 1146 at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Gerald was of mixed Norman and Welsh (Cymru) descent. Gerald was the youngest son of William Fitz Odo de Barry (or Barri), the common ancestor of the De Barry family of Ireland, a retainer of Arnulf de Montgomery and Gerald de Windsor, and one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman barons in Wales. His mother was Angharad FitzGerald, a daughter of Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, Constable of Pembroke Castle, and his wife Nest ferch Rhys, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of South Wales. Through his mother Angharad, Gerald was a nephew of David FitzGerald, Bishop of St Davids, as well as a great-nephew of Gruffydd ap Rhys, the son and heir of Rhys ap Tewdwr, and a cousin of Rhys ap Gruffydd, the famous Arglwydd Rhys and his family.
Gerald received his initial education at the Benedictine house of Gloucester, followed by a period of study in Paris from c. 1165–74, where he studied the trivium. He was employed by Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, wherein he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove supposed abuses of consanguinity and tax laws flourishing in the Welsh church at the time. He was appointed in 1174 as Archdeacon of Brecon, to which was attached a residence at Llanddew. He obtained this position by reporting the existence of the previous archdeacon's mistress; the man was promptly sacked. While administrating this post, Gerald collected tithes of wool and cheese from the populace; the income from the archdeaconry supported him for many years.
Upon the death of his uncle, the Bishop of St Davids, in 1176, the chapter nominated Gerald as his successor. St Davids had the long-term aim of becoming independent of Canterbury, and the chapter may have thought that Gerald was the man to take up its cause. King Henry II of England, fresh from his struggle with Archbishop Thomas Becket, promptly rejected Gerald, possibly because his Welsh blood and ties to the ruling family of Deheubarth made him seem like a troublesome prospect, in favour of one of his Norman retainers, Peter de Leia. According to Gerald, the king said at the time: "It is neither necessary or expedient for king or archbishop that a man of great honesty or vigour should become Bishop of St Davids, for fear that the Crown and Canterbury should suffer thereby. Such an appointment would only give strength to the Welsh and increase their pride". The chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Gerald, disappointed with the result, withdrew to the University of Paris. From c. 1179-8, he studied and taught canon law and theology. He returned to England and spent an additional five years studying theology. In 1180, he received a minor appointment from the Bishop of St Davids, which he soon resigned.
Gerald became a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England in 1184, first acting mediator between the crown and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd. He was chosen to accompany one of the king's sons, John, in 1185 on John's first expedition to Ireland. This was the catalyst for his literary career; his work Topographia Hibernica (first circulated in manuscript in 1188, and revised at least four more times) is an account of his journey to Ireland; Gerald always referred to it as his Topography, though "History" is the more accurate term.
He followed it up, shortly afterward, with an account of Henry's conquest of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hibernica. Both works were revised and added to several times before his death, and display a notable degree of Latin learning, as well as a great deal of prejudice against a foreign people. Gerald was proud to be related to some of the Norman invaders of Ireland, such as his maternal uncle Robert FitzStephen and Raymond FitzGerald, and his influential account, which portrays the Irish as barbaric savages, gives important insight into Anglo-Norman views of Ireland and the history of the invasion.
Having thus demonstrated his usefulness, Gerald was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, on a tour of Wales in 1188, the object being a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade. His account of that journey, the Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) was followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194.
His two works on Wales remain very valuable historical documents, useful for their descriptions—however untrustworthy and inflected by ideology, whimsy, and his unique style—of Welsh and Norman culture. It is uncertain whether Gerald was a Welsh speaker; although he quotes Welsh proverbs and appears familiar with the language, he seems not to have been employed as an interpreter for the expedition.
As a royal clerk, Gerald observed significant political events at first hand, and was offered appointments as bishoprics of Wexford and Leighlin, and apparently at a little later time the bishopric of Ossory and the archbishopric of Cashel, and later the Welsh Bishopric of Bangor and, in 1191, that of Llandaff. He turned them all down, possibly in the hopes of landing a more prominent bishopric in the future. He was acquainted with Walter Map, whose career shares some similarities with Gerald's. Retiring from royal service, he lived in Lincoln from c. 1196 to 1198, when his friend, William de Montibus, was now chancellor of the Cathedral. It was in this period that De principis instructione was probably first written, a useful historical source on contemporary events. It was an influential work at the time, spreading, for example, the legend of MacAlpin's treason. Here Gerald is frequently critical of the rule of the Angevin kings, a shift from his earlier praise of Henry II in the Topographia. He also wrote a life of St Hugh of Lincoln.
On the death of Peter de Leia in 1198, the chapter of St Davids again nominated Gerald for the bishopric; but Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused confirmation. Representatives of the canons followed Richard I to France, but before they could interview him he died; his successor, King John, received them kindly and granted them permission to hold an election. They were unanimous in their selection of Gerald, and Gerald acted as bishop-elect for much of the next four years; and, as Hubert still refused to confirm the election, Gerald started for Rome to have his election confirmed, where he had an interview with Pope Innocent III. He visited Rome on three occasions (1199–1200; 1201; 1202–3) in support of his claims. In 1198 the archbishop, however, had anticipated him and his agents in Rome undermined Gerald's case, and, as the pope was not convinced that St Davids was independent of Canterbury, the mission of Gerald proved a failure. Gerald had pleaded not only his own cause, but that of St Davids as a Metropolitan archbishopric (and thus of the same status as Canterbury) reviving the earlier claims of Rhygyfarch and Bishop Bernard of St Davids. It was in connexion with this cause that he wrote his books De jure Menevensis Ecclesiâ and De Rebus a Se Gestis. Gerald returned, and his cause was now supported by the Princes of Wales, most notably Llywelyn the Great, and Gruffydd ap Rhys II, while King John, frequently in conflict with the Welsh, warmly espoused the cause of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1202, Gerald was accused of stirring up the Welsh to rebellion and was put on trial, but the trial came to nothing in consequence of the absence of the principal judges. After this long struggle, the chapter of St Davids deserted Gerald, and having been obliged to leave Wales, he fled to Rome. The ports had been closed against him so he travelled in secret. In April 1203 Pope Innocent III annulled both elections, and Geoffrey of Henlaw was appointed to the See of St Davids, despite the strenuous exertions of Gerald. Travelling back to France, he was briefly imprisoned in France for these actions. He was afterwards reconciled with the king and was forced to make a vow never to support the primacy of St Davids over Canterbury ever again. The expenses of his unsuccessful election were paid by the crown. Gerald maintained that fear of the effect that his appointment would have on the national politics in Wales had prevented his appointment. He famously complained in a letter to Innocent III "Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it". At this point he resigned his position as archdeacon of Brecon.
Gerald spent the remainder of his life in academic study, most probably in Lincoln, producing works of devotional instruction and politics, and revising the works on Ireland and Wales he had written earlier in his life. He spent two years (1204–6) in Ireland with his relatives and made a fourth visit to Rome, purely as a pilgrimage, in 1206. The controversy over St Davids soured his relationship with the crown. In 1216 a baronial plan to put Louis VIII of France on the throne of England in the First Barons' War was warmly welcomed by him. He died in about 1223 in his 77th year, probably in Hereford and he is, according to some accounts, buried at St Davids Cathedral.
There is a statue, by Henry Poole of Gerald in City Hall, Cardiff, and he was included in the vote on 100 Welsh Heroes for his Descriptio Cambriae and Itinerarium Cambriae. His reputation in Ireland, due to his negative portrayal of the Irish, is much less friendly.
Gerald's writings in good-quality Latin, based on a thorough knowledge of Classical authors, reflect experiences gained on his travels as well as his great knowledge of the standard authorities. He was respected as a scholar in his time and afterward. The noted scholar Edward Augustus Freeman, in his Norman Conquest, said he was "the father of comparative philology," and in the preface to the last volume of Gerald's works in the Rolls Series, he calls him "one of the most learned men of a learned age," "the universal scholar." His writings were prolific, running to about ten volumes in modern printed editions. Gerald was a man of strong opinions whose works are frequently polemical, including bitter attacks on his enemies, but he also had an intense curiosity, recording much valuable detail of everyday life in his ethnographic works.
It is generally agreed today that his most distinguished works are those dealing with Wales and Ireland, with his two books on his beloved Wales the most important: Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae which tell us much about Welsh history and geography and reflect on the cultural relationship between the Welsh and the English. Gerald, despite his desire for an independent Welsh Church and admiration for parts of Welsh life, was very loyal to Norman Marcher rule, regarding the Normans as more civilised than the Welsh, a feeling reflected in his writings. Professor Davies tells us that Gerald, whom he calls "an admirable story-teller", is the only source for some of the most famous of the Welsh folk tales including the declaration of the old man of Pencader to Henry II which concludes Descriptio Cambriae:
This nation, O King, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will also prevail by its laudable exertions, but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth.
It was Gerald who also wrote (of the Welsh) that "If they would be inseparable, they would be insuperable", and that, unlike the English hirelings, who fight for power or to procure gain or wealth, the Welsh patriots fight for their country. He had pleasant things to say about the poetic talents of his people, too:
In their rhymed songs and set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious that they produce, in their native tongue, ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and the sentences... They make use of alliteration in preference to all other ornaments of rhetoric, and that particular kind which joins by consonancy the first letters or syllables of words.
Gerald could not have predicted the later perfection of cynghanedd, the complex system of sound correspondence that has characterised the strict-meter poetry of the Welsh for so many centuries and that is still practised today, especially in competitions for the eisteddfod chair. Cynghanedd did not become a formal system with strict rules until the fourteenth century, but its uniquely Welsh forms had been honed for centuries before that.
Finally, in Descriptio Cambriae, Gerald penned the following words that give so much pride to Welsh singers of today, especially those who participate in the immensely popular Cymanfaoedd Canu (hymn-singing festivals) held throughout Wales and North America:
In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts... You will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers who all at length unite with organic melody.
Another part of the above work, however, is less positive. As Gerald puts it, "an attention to order now requires that, in this second part, we should employ our pen in pointing out those particulars in which it seems to transgress the line of virtue and commendation". David Powel published an abridged version of Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae in 1585 omitting Gerald's negative comments about the Welsh. Due to translations into English, the first being done by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart., and other translations such as in Everyman's Library and Penguin Classics, Gerald's works on Wales are well known today.
In Gerald's writing on Ireland his love of music is very evident too.
Chapter XI of Distinction III (Topographia Hibernica, Of the incomparable skill of the Irish in playing upon musical instruments): The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments; in which they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their modulation on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the harmony is both sweet and gay. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved........ it must be remarked, however, that both Scotland and Wales strive to rival Ireland in the art of music......
Gerald's works on Ireland although invaluable for their detail are obviously biased, and have been attacked by Irish writers such as Stephen White. The following passage from his Topographia Hibernica shows why the Irish might not always be too enamoured with Gerald's views:
Distinction III *Chapter XXXV (Of the number of persons in this nation who have bodily defects): Moreover, I have never seen in any other nation so many individuals who were born blind, so many lame, maimed or having some natural defect. The persons of those who are well-formed are indeed remarkably fine, nowhere better; but as those who are favoured with the gifts of nature grow up exceedingly handsome, those from whom she withholds them are frightfully ugly. No wonder if among an adulterous and incestuous people, in which both births and marriages are illegitimate, a nation out of the pale of the laws, nature herself should be foully corrupted by perverse habits. It should seem that by the just judgements of God, nature sometimes produces such objects, contrary to her own laws, in order that those who will not regard Him duly by the light of their own consciences, should often have to lament their privations of the exterior and bodily gift of sight.
Gerald was a keen and observant student of natural history, but the value of his observations is lessened by credulity and inability to distinguish fact from legend. He gives a vivid and accurate description of the last colony of the Eurasian beaver in Wales on the Teifi, but spoils it by repeating the legend that beavers castrate themselves to avoid danger. Likewise he gives a good description of an osprey fishing, but adds the mythical detail that the bird has one webbed foot. His description of Irish wildlife has been the subject of much adverse comment for its inaccuracies and lapses into fiction but nonetheless, despite its faults, it gives an important glimpse of Irish fauna in the 1180s. Certainly the book has valuable details about Irish birds: while the common kingfisher is now common in Ireland, Gerald states clearly that it was not found there in his time: on the other hand the white-throated dipper, which he had evidently not seen before, was very common in Ireland. He also observed the great numbers of birds of prey in Ireland, including the golden eagle and the Eurasian sparrowhawk, which he said were more numerous in Ireland than in England.
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