Lady Godiva

Was pleased to receive a Christmas treat from a college friend of mine: a box of Godiva chocolates. The company’s well-known logo features Lady Godiva riding naked on a horse.


The Godiva episode is one of the more popular medieval legends, even outside of England, where it is alleged to have taken place (the company was founded in Belgium in 1926). The idea is that Leofric, earl of Mercia (d. 1057), oppressed his subjects with heavy taxation. His wife Godgifu (Godiva) repeatedly besought Leofric to change his mind, to no avail. Finally, an exasperated Leofric said that he would grant relief, if Godgifu  rode naked through the streets of Coventry. His request was seemingly impossible by the standards of aristocratic feminine behavior, but Godgifu took him up on it and rode through the town clothed in nothing but her long hair (although she ordered everyone to stay indoors first; only a certain “Peeping Tom” violated the edict).

Leofric and Godgifu were real people. Godgifu died between 1066 and 1086, i.e. some time after the Norman Conquest; unlike most Anglo-Saxons, she retained her lands and position in the face of the regime change. The legend of her naked ride started to be told in the thirteenth century, so this is an interesting example of medieval medievalism. A good book on the phenomenon is Daniel Donahue, Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (2002), which details the erotic, aristocratic, and decadent strands of the legend that made it so appealing as the name of maker of fine chocolates.

Rowan Williams on King Arthur

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the New Statesman (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.


Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

More at the link.

It’s interesting how some figures who resisted invasion are later appropriated by the invaders themselves. King Arthur is one such; if he ever existed, he would have been a Romanized Briton defending an (unwillingly) independent Britannia from Anglian and Saxon invasion. The Britons lost, of course, and were pushed into Wales and Cornwall, where they consoled themselves that some day Arthur would return and vindicate their claim to their ancestral homeland. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095-c. 1155), a man of Welsh background who entered the church and who ended up at Oxford, wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which included a long chapter on Arthur. From that point on, Arthur ceased to be a Welsh figure and became an English one, since he defended the island from invaders.

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

World History

From my friend John Terauds, an interesting article on History Today:

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single global calendar enables us to place events everywhere on a single timeline. Without it, temporal comparisons across cultures and traditions would be impossible. It is no exaggeration to say that this common understanding of time and our common calendar system are the keys to world history.

It was not always the case. Most countries, cultures or religious groups have lived according to their own calendars. Each designated its own starting point for historical time, be it the Creation, Adam and Eve or some later event, such as the biblical Flood. Even when they acknowledged a common point in time, as did both Greeks and Persians with the birth of Alexander the Great, they differed about when that event took place.

More at the link, including the detail that it was the Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni (973-1039) who first attempted a universal scheme to harmonize all extant dating systems.

Outlaw King

My friend Kevin Harty reviews David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King (2018) for Medievally Speaking. The king in question is Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), who ruled Scotland from 1306. Excerpt:

The medieval historical epic has been a cinematic staple for more than a century.  The reasons are obvious—such films present larger than life characters whose stories are the stuff of legend.  But the golden age of the medieval historical epic has long past. In Outlaw King, except for two very brief scenes, a wedding and a funeral, in which the costume and wardrobe department seems to have decided to blow the budget, gone is the pageantry, the epic sweep, the panoramic long shot—think how Charlton Heston as the eponymous hero in Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid goes riding off into the sunset in the film’s final, awe-inspiring scene, and compare that scene and ride with the domesticity more than evident in Robert’s final rush on horseback to embrace his wife, who has been uncaged and returned to him as part of a prisoner exchange. Robert is not here riding off into history and legend. He is simply going home to his wife and daughter. Outlaw King goes for the close-up—the personal rather than the epic. Instead of pageantry, we get gore. Instead of history, we get a gritty costume piece. The lulls in action are brief, and few, quickly giving way to more violence and gore. The camera wants us to see Robert’s scarred and bloody face, and Edward’s puking crawl through the mud as he feebly tries to reunite with troops who have abandoned him.

Read the whole thing.


In the Middle Ages, the study of medicine consisted largely of mastering the theories of Galen, a Greek physician active in the second century AD. Among his insights, he imagined that, just as the physical world was made up of the four elements fire, water, earth, and air, so also were humans were made up of four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Each person had a unique combination of humors, which determined his personality; I like to point out that the adjectives sanguine,* melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic derive from Galen’s theory of humorism (not that any of my students has ever heard of these words, alas). Illness was caused by your humors getting out of balance: unfortunately, a naturally melancholic person who had acquired an excess of blood did not get temporarily happy, he just got sick, and it was the doctor’s job to determine the person’s unique blend of humors, and to try to bring them back in proper balance. One way to do this was to prescribe a substance with the opposite qualities of the excess humor. Humors were either hot or cold, and either wet or dry, as illustrated by this table:

DRY Yellow Bile Black Bile
WET Blood Phlegm

So if you had a disease that caused an excess of phlegm (cold and wet), you took something like pepper (hot and dry) to counter it. In the opposite direction, oil of earthworms was cold and wet, and so was useful against anything producing an excess of yellow bile, which was hot and dry. And so on.

Another way to counter an excess humor was to employ some way of removing it from your body. Getting bled by leeches (or simply by being cut by a barber) was a common way to get shed superfluous blood, while purgatives (either emetics or laxatives) took care of the others.

I suppose there may have been a placebo effect with such treatments but it’s easy to see how visiting a doctor in the Middle Ages was useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.

I don’t wish to condescend to the Middle Ages too much; I am a medievalist, after all, and part of my job is to rehabilitate them from the popular notion that it was a dark, ignorant, superstitious, and backward time. Some of their theories are models of subtlety, and they make complete internal sense. The main problem is that the theories were treated as ends in themselves – and did not actually have any relation to reality. Or rather, they “worked” enough that they just kept on going.** Only with the Scientific Revolution, which featured such things as the accurate collection of data and experimentation to test one’s hypotheses, were Galen’s (and Ptolemy’s, and Aristotle’s) theories seriously challenged. And even then humorism was not completely demolished until the nineteenth century.

But there’s nothing particularly medieval about devotion to elaborate and plausible-sounding theories that aren’t really true (e.g. Marxism, Freudianism, etc.).

* I recently read an interesting use of “sanguine” on Mitch Berg’s Shot in the Dark blog, about the Korean War defector No Kum-Sok:

Parts of the story were less sanguine; while his father was already dead and his mother had fled to the south before the war, No’s uncle and all members of his family apparently disappeared. And No’s commander and five other pilots were executed.

But this use of “sanguine” is somewhat ironic. “Sanguine” generally refers to something happy or jovial. But the disappearance of No’s family and the executions of his comrades were also “bloody” in the other, more usual sense. I would have picked a different word here.

** Theodore Dalrymple once wrote that:

The Galenical theory was an article of uncritical faith for university-trained physicians. Training consisted of indoctrination, memorization, and regurgitation. No deviation was permissible, and even refinement or elaboration was hazardous. Outright challenge was professionally dangerous. The theory therefore took many centuries to overthrow; mastery of it, and the treatments it entailed, distinguished real physicians from mere empiricks and quacks.

Viking Tar


Was the Vikings’ Secret to Success Industrial-Scale Tar Production?

Evidence suggests that the ability to mass-produce tar bolstered their trade repertoire and allowed them to waterproof and seal their iconic longships

The Vikings are often viewed as brutish, destructive village-pillagers, but their knack for innovation is perhaps overlooked. Viking-age Scandinavia was kind of the Silicon Valley of shipbuilding in the early medieval period. Their iconic longboat designs, advanced navigational skills, and perhaps even legendary sunstones gave them the ability to raid, trade and establish settlements as far away as Russia, Italy and North Africa. A new study adds another bit of technology to the list of things that gave Vikings a leg up on their adversaries: they may have been capable of making industrial scale quantities of tar, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity.

Tar was probably essential to the Vikings’ lifestyle since each longship would have required about 130 gallons of tar to coat all of its wooden elements, the study suggests. Tar was also needed to coat the ships’ wool sails, and the boats would need to be regularly re-tarred between voyages as well. Multiply all that to fit the needs of a fleet and we’re talking about a lot of tar here.

However, little was previously hypothesized about how they would have been able to produce the sticky substance en masse. The new study, authored by Andreas Hennius, an archaeologist from Uppsala University in Sweden, proposes a possible outline of how small scale tar production in the early centuries of the first millennium gave rise to potentially industrial use of tar by Vikings.

“I suggest that tar production in eastern Sweden developed from a small-scale household activity in the Roman Iron Age to large-scale production that relocated to the forested outlands during the Vendel/Viking Period,” Hennius writes in the paper. “This change, I propose, resulted from the increasing demand for tar driven by an evolving maritime culture.”

Read the whole thing. It’s interesting how many historians don’t tend to consider technology like this; thank goodness there are people who are willing to.


I thought of something today while lecturing. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the church tended to downplay the importance of relics, and to play up the importance of the sacraments. I suppose the obvious fraud involved in the relic trade might have been embarrassing, but the main reason for the shift is because sacraments were performative, and required a priest to deliver them. Thus, they were easier to control than relics. You could cut someone off from the sacraments in a way that you could not prevent him from acquiring relics, or gifting (or selling) them to someone else.

It reminded me of the current movement to digitize everything and to deliver it wirelessly. If I buy a codex, the publisher and the author get their cut. But the book, as an object, is mine forever – or until I sell it on to someone else, at which point originators don’t get a cut at all. CDs and DVDs are dead media – songs and movies now exist mostly in cyberspace, and you have to pay to download them – and you can’t sell them on, and they can disappear from your “library” if you’ve watched or listened to them too many times, or you somehow violate the terms of service. My hunch is that the secondary market for content has always been highly annoying to its creators, and they will do anything they can to delegitimize it. Having everything electronic, and under their control, must be a godsend to them.

Mass was probably the most important sacrament, since it represented spiritual sustenance. The medieval Catholic understanding of this was that “this is my body” meant exactly that: that when a priest uttered these words in a liturgical context, the bread transubstantiated into the actual flesh of Jesus, and the wine into his actual blood. Even though these elements retained the forms of bread and wine, their essences had been fundamentally altered, and to consume them meant that you were physically united with your lord and savior. It also meant that wine was optional: if you were to tear off a hunk of your flesh, it would have some blood in it. Thus does the consecrated bread “count” in a way that the wine doesn’t (although I’m sure there was also a practical, cost-saving impulse behind this custom).

Since consuming bread and wine “in memory of me” had been instituted by Jesus himself, Protestants are not free to disregard it, as they did monasticism and extreme unction. However, what it actually meant was a topic of great debate during the Reformation. Generally, the more Protestant you were, the less frequently you took it, and the less miraculous it was. This has led to a great variety of Christian customs, which I have jotted down. When you go to consume bread and wine as part of a church service:

What will you call it (Mass, Eucharist, Communion, Lord’s Supper, etc.)?
What is the nature of the bread and the wine once consecrated?
Will your altar be made of stone or wood? Will you even have one?
Will you take it standing, kneeling, or sitting?
Will you take it at the altar, or in your pew?
How often will it be served (weekly, biweekly, quarterly, etc.)?
Will you take bread alone, or both bread and wine?
How old will you need to be before you can take it, and will you have to pass through some other rite (e.g. confirmation) before you can?
Will your bread be leavened or unleavened?
Will wine be served, or grape juice?
Will the wine/grape juice be served in a chalice, or in little cups? Will you allow these things?
If you serve wine in a chalice, will you allow intinction (dipping the bread in the wine)?
Is it an expression of sectarianism, i.e. do you have to be a formal member of the denomination in question, before you can take it?

Some of these are arbitrary, but others are of great significance indeed.


In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Amy S. Kaufman of the Public Medievalist blog writes in the Washington Post:

Chivalry isn’t dead. But it should be. The medieval defense of Brett Kavanaugh

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been fueled by deep rage among conservatives, who think his position in the American nobility guarantees his fitness for the job. Wayne Allyn Root, for instance, defended Kavanaugh as “a great man” by comparing their pedigrees: “Brett Kavanaugh graduated near the top of his class in his high school while starring in sports. I graduated number one in my high school while starring in sports. Then he went on to Yale. I went on to Columbia.” Kavanaugh himself dodged Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-Hawaii) questions about college drinking by responding, “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country.”

Supporters not only pointed to Kavanaugh’s elite credentials to defend his nomination, they also have extolled his chivalry, from parading around the young girls he coaches to sharing support from women who knew him in his prep school days. Kavanaugh stressed his chastity and his care for women in an interview with Fox News: “Just ask the moms,” he said. Heather Mac Donald touted Kavanaugh’s “unblemished record of treating women with respect” to argue that even if the attack on accuser Christine Blasey Ford happened, it would be “feminist narcissism to put an uncharacteristic instance of adolescent, never-repeated sexual aggression ahead of a lifetime of achievement in the law.”

These medieval defenses of Kavanaugh’s nobility and chivalry seem out of place. After all, Americans pride themselves on their modern, meritocratic culture. Moreover, the notion of a chivalrous Kavanaugh seems tenuous: As accounts of hazing, sexual assault and drunken violence in his social circle keep emerging, we’re getting the picture of a man who exhibits anything but modesty, restraint and respect for women. And yet in that sense, very little has changed between the Middle Ages and today: Medieval chivalry also was a fiction that masked aristocratic violence.

Chivalry, which has always been more literary than real, has been called a “protection racket,” because it forces women to rely on men to protect them from other men. Even then, chivalry protects only certain women. The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, famous for his chivalric romances, explained that if a noblewoman or her lady in waiting traveled alone, a knight could “no more treat her with dishonor than cut his own throat.” But if he fought another knight for her and won, he could “do with her as he pleased.” Lower-class women didn’t warrant a mention in Troyes’s chivalric code.

Read the whole thing. (If you’ve run out of Washington Post articles for the month, just hit the “stop loading” button after the text has appeared but before the entire page is loaded – that should allow you to read it.)

Ms. Kaufman raises several points in this piece, many of which, I confess, I disagree with. It only makes sense that Kavanaugh would invoke his “chivalry” towards women, given that he was accused of attempted rape – he was trying to establish that his general attitude toward women was positive, not abusive – and I put chivalry in quotation marks because mentoring women law students and coaching girls’ sports is fundamentally different from the “protection racket” that medieval chivalry apparently was. Teaching women some (masculine) skill acknowledges their potential for independent action, something generally lacking from medieval romance. I suppose that Kaufman is suggesting that Christine Blasey Ford is playing the role of the lower-class woman who gets no mention in Chrétien’s code, although Ford went to a tonier prep school than Kavanaugh did, and for Kavanaugh to mess around with someone like that would have been playing with fire (one reason to be skeptical of the accusation leveled against him).

I wish that Kavanaugh had not invoked his Yale education to deflect stories about his high school social life, as in:

-Were you a party animal in high school?
-I was first in my class and got into Yale!

This does not answer the question, of course. It is perfectly possible to compartmentalize one’s hard work from one’s hard partying; I knew plenty of people like this. But I reject Kaufman’s designation of Kavanaugh’s educational career as a “pedigree” – or rather, I think that Kavanaugh’s hard work in high school to get into Yale is a perfect example of America’s “modern, meritocratic culture.” I reckon that there were plenty of people from Georgetown Prep who tried to get into Yale and didn’t, and plenty of Yalies who tried to get into YLS and didn’t, because their grades weren’t good enough.

But in defense of chivalry: that women must place themselves under the protection of men, whether their fathers, brothers, or husbands, who are then obliged to defend them, is not anything “medieval”; it is the human condition. Medieval chivalry, even if it was just a literary conceit, was an attempt at universalizing this protection. That women as such were entitled to knightly consideration, I would argue, was a step toward gender equality. (And Chretien de Troyes was not the only arbiter of chivalry – I am unaware of any other authors claiming that men could do whatever they wanted to the women they had “won”). Sure, maybe you had to be a classy lady before you could attract the service of a knight – but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good – one must start somewhere

On the contrary, if there’s anything medieval about the Kavanaugh hearings it’s the notion that we must believe all women unconditionally, that we are not allowed to subject their claims to critical scrutiny, that an accusation and a conviction are essentially the same thing. There’s some “chivalry” for you! Leap to it, white knights, and defend the honor of your lady! And insofar as the Middle Ages are cast as an irrational, pre-Enlightenment time, the #MeToo movement can certainly be seen as a return to this.

This is why l liked Lindsay Graham’s riposte to some protestors. When pressed why they weren’t demanding that Kavanaugh take a polygraph, the senator responded “You’ve humiliated this guy enough and there seems to be no bottom for some of you.” When the protesters continued to talk, Graham asked rhetorically: “Why don’t we dunk him in the water and see if he floats?”

Trial by ordeal! Something also putatively medieval.

Gerald of Wales

Enjoyed a good discussion on Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland in HIS 323 this past week. Geraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146-c. 1223) was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, studied at Gloucester and Paris, was ordained a priest, acted as an agent of the archbishop of Canterbury in Wales, and then became a royal chaplain to King Henry II. In 1185, Gerald was chosen to accompany Henry’s son John, who had been named Lord of Ireland, on his first expedition there. The Topographia Hibernica was the result. His descriptions of natural phenomena, and especially his credulity about marvels and freaks of nature, remind me of Herodotus, but this book has a specific agenda – essentially, to justify Henry’s claim to Ireland. He specifically mentions the claim in 92, referencing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain:

As the British history relates, the king of the Britons, Gurguintius, son of the noble Belinus and grandson of the famous Brennius, when returning from Denmark, which his father had formerly conquered, and which, when it had rebelled, he himself had again brought into subjection, found at the Orkney Islands a fleet which had brought Basclenses there from Spain, Their leaders approached the king, and told him whence they had come and the reason for their coming, namely to settle in a country of the West. They were urgent in their request that he should give them some land to inhabit. Eventually the king, on the advice of his counsellors, gave them that island that is now called Ireland, and which was then either entirely uninhabited or had been settled by him. He also gave them pilots for their expedition from among his own fleet.

From this is is clear that Ireland can with some right be claimed by the kings of Britain, even though the claim be from olden times.

Secondly, the city of Bayonne is on the boundary of Gascony, and belongs to it. It is also the capital of Basclonia, whence the Hibernienses came. And now Gascony and all Aquitaine rejoices in the same rule as Britain.

The kings of Britain have also a newly established double claim. On the one hand the spontaneous surrender and protestation of fealty of the Irish chiefs – for everyone is allowed to renounce his right; and on the other, the favour and confirmation of the claim by the Pope.

For when Jupiter started thundering in the confines of the western ocean, the petty Western kings were frightened by the thunder and averted the stroke of the thunderbolt by sheltering from it in a peace.

Do you find this convincing? The double claim from olden times seems a bit of a stretch. It is true that many Irish kings submitted to Henry, and Pope Alexander III confirmed Henry’s position as Lord of Ireland. (As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it would have been great if Henry II had properly followed up on this grant and exercised good lordship over Ireland – for starters, not outsourced it to the feckless John.)

The rest of the work follows the usual imperialist script of praise for the land coupled with the disparagement of the people who live there. For instance, “The land is fruitful and rich in its fertile soil and plentiful harvests. Crops abound in the field, flocks in the mountains, and wild animals in the woods” (2). The country “is well supplied with beautiful lakes, full of fish and very large” (4). And not only are there no venomous snakes in Ireland, there are no poisons at all! The land is so pure that poisonous reptiles brought to Ireland die instantly, and Irish boot thongs can be employed elsewhere as antidotes to poison (21-22, 24). The climate is the most temperate of all countries, and there is little need for doctors, given how healthy the air is (26). 

But the people! Some of them are good. There are a few saints, who perform miracles (61-62, 64-65, 68). The clergy are in many points praiseworthy (and should have more power than monks) (104, 106). They are excellent musicians (94), and can throw projectiles accurately (93). But one woman of Limerick had a beard and a mane down her back (53), and a man of Wicklow looked like a man, but had the extremities of an ox, i.e. hooves for hands and feet, and two holes directly on his face where his nose should be. He was likely the product of bestiality between a man and a cow, because in Glendalough another man-cow was born of a similar union (54). In Connacht, a woman entrusted with keeping one of the king’s prize goats ended up fornicating with it (56). Indeed, bestiality and incest are particular vices of the Irish. Furthermore:

• they are not carefully nursed after birth
• their clothes are made in a barbarous fashion
• they do not use saddles or spurs when riding horses
• they go naked and unarmed into battle
• they are a wild, inhospitable people, still mostly pastoralists
• they have no idea about city living
• they don’t realize the potential of their fields for crops
• they don’t mine any of the metals or minerals that abound in Ireland
• they don’t weave flax or wool, and in general do no work at all (93)
• they are ignorant of the rudiments of the faith (98)
• they don’t keep their word, and will physically attack you when they can (99, 101)
• great numbers of them are blind by birth, lame, maimed in body, or suffering some natural defect. This is what you can expect from a people “adulterous, incestuous, unlawfully conceived and born, outside the law, and shamefully abusing nature herself in spiteful and horrible practices” (109).

The only solution, therefore, is to colonize the place, to take advantage of its natural riches and to improve the habits of its benighted inhabitants.

Some of the students in HIS 323 noted the similarity in between this book and the rhetoric surrounding Manifest Destiny in nineteenth-century America, especially the notion that the natives don’t keep their word. I would say that the book not entirely useless as a source – the Irish pastoral lifestyle probably did strike the English as rough and backward, and I would not be surprised if the taboo against bestiality was weaker in Ireland than in England, i.e. it might not have been just something that Gerald made up. The Irish style of horseback riding is confirmed by the Statutes of Kilkenny, and the fact that Gerald is willing to give credit to the Irish for whatever good qualities they have makes his criticism of them somewhat believable.

However, you can tell he’s definitely accentuating the negative. Moreover, the legitimacy of English rule is an entirely separate question. Even if the Irish were as bad as Gerald says, the English could have done much better as rulers of the place than they actually did.

(Quotations from Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meara [Penguin, 1982])