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])

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