Gerald of Wales
Gerald of Wales c. 1146-c. 1223
(Also known as Giraldus Cambrensis and Gerald de Barry) Welsh essayist, historian, biographer, and autobiographer.
One of the most important chroniclers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Gerald is best known for his travelogues and histories of Ireland and Wales, his polemics against monasticism, and his autobiography. His works are remarkable not only for the rarity of such documents in British literature during the Middle Ages but also for their lively, personal stories and keen observation of people, customs, and events on the Celtic fringe after the Norman conquest.
Most of what is known of Gerald's life is found in his writings. He was born in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, in southwest Wales, to a Norman family with Welsh roots on his mother's side. His father, William de Barry, was a powerful Norman nobleman whose seat was the castle of Pembroke. His mother, Augharat, was descended from Rhys ap Tewdwr, a prince of South Wales. Gerald was sent to Paris to be educated for an ecclesiastical career; in his studies he particularly excelled at Latin. In 1172 he was hired by the Archbishop of Canterbury to collect taxes for the church in Wales. After exposing the fact that the Archdeacon of Brecon, contrary to the laws of the church, had a wife, Gerald was appointed to replace the Archdeacon by the Bishop of St. David's, who was his uncle on his mother's side. Upon his uncle's death in 1176, Gerald was nominated to take over the archbishopric, but the nomination was vetoed by King Henry II. In 1184 the King ordered him to accompany Prince John to Ireland. From this lengthy journey came the material for his Topographia Hibernica (c. 1188; The Irish Topography). In 1188 he accompanied Archbishop Baldwin through Wales, a journey which supplied information for his Itinerarium Kambriae (c. 1191; The Itinerary through Wales.) He was nominated a second time for the bishopric of St. David's in 1198, but once more the appointment was vetoed by the king. For four years Gerald campaigned to free St. David's from the Archbishop of Canterbury's control; although he journeyed three times to Rome to argue his cause before Pope Innocent III, Gerald never achieved this goal.
Gerald's first work, Topographia Hibernica, describes Ireland's terrain and wildlife, recounts stories of miracles and saints, and provides a history of its settlers. His second book on Ireland, Expugnatio Hibernica (1188), describes the Norman conquest and asserts the right of the King of England to rule the land; it is the chief source of the history of the Cambro-Norman invasion of 1169. Gerald revised these works numerous times. His other two most acclaimed works focus on Wales. Itinerarium Kambriae,—part diary, part travelogue—records Gerald's observations during his journey through Wales. Descriptio Kambriae (c. 1194; The Description of Wales) presents much of the same material in a formal, structured manner. Gemma Ecclesiastica (c. 1197; The Jewel of the Church) instructs Welsh clergy on religious matters, particularly the eucharist, and criticizes immoderate clerics and those ignorant of Latin grammar. De Rebus a se Gestis (c. 1208; The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis) stresses his relationship with Wales and downplays his past association with England. Gerald's last works were bitter polemics against specific people and the institutions of his day. De Principis Instructione (c. 1218; On the Instruction of a Prince) is a vehement indictment of King Henry's reign. Speculum Ecclesiae (c. 1220; Mirror of the Church), composed shortly before Gerald's death, denounces monks for their wealth and luxurious living.
Gerald's commentators focus primarily on his historical and polemical works. F. M. Powicke stresses their historical significance, asserting that “it is impossible to separate his writings from the incidents of his life.” Although Gerald's narratives about Ireland and Wales are generally regarded as valuable sources of historical information, W. R. Jones points out that they also served as seeds of prejudice and misinformation, particularly about the Irish, which historians would disseminate for centuries. J. J. N. McGurk admits that Gerald's works display “an odd mixture of prejudice and perspicacity, of high ideals and unworthy pronouncements,” but concludes that he “remained the only writer of any competence on the Welsh and the Irish throughout the Middle Ages.” David Knowles and Edward Coleman analyze Gerald's often vehement attacks against monks and monasticism, noting that his criticism falls into the tradition of the satires of Juvenal and Horace, and that its veracity should be examined. Gerald's autobiography, considered a rarity in medieval British literature, is esteemed as much for its individual, personal tone as for its trove of information about his life and times.
Topographia Hibernica [The Irish Topography] (travel essay) c. 1188
Expugnatio Hibernica [The Conquest of Ireland] (history) c. 1188
Itinerarium Kambriae [Itinerary through Wales] (travel essay) c. 1191
Descriptio Kambriae [Description of Wales] (travel essay) c. 1194
Vita Sancti Davidis [Life of St. David] (biography) c. 1194
Vita Galfridi Archepiscopi Eboracensis [The Life of Archbishop Geoffrey of York] (biography) c. 1195
Gemma Ecclesiastica [The Jewel of the Church] (essay) c. 1197
Vita Sancti Remigii [Life of St. Rémi] (biography) c. 1198
De Rebus a se Gestis [The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis] (autobiography) c. 1208
Vita Sancti Hugonis [Life of St. Hugh] (biography) c. 1213
De Invectionibus [Invectives] (essay) c. 1216
Speculum Duorum [A Mirror of Two Men] (essay) c. 1216
De Jure et Statu Menevensis Ecclesiae [The Rights and Status of St. David's] (essay) c. 1218
De Principis Instructione [On the Instruction of a Prince] (essay) c. 1218
Speculum Ecclesiae [Mirror of the Church]...
(The entire section is 220 words.)
SOURCE: Owen, Henry. “The Irish Topography,” “The Conquest of Ireland,” “The Itinerary through Wales,” “The Jewel of the Church.” In Gerald the Welshman, pp. 32-67, 81-92. London: Whiting & Co., 1889.
[In the following excerpt, Owen summarizes four of Gerald's most important works: the Topographia Hibernica, the Expugnatio Hibernica, the Itinerarium Kambriae, and the Gemma Ecclesiastica.]
The Topographia Hibernica was the earliest of Gerald's works. It was the one which he read to the University of Oxford, and the praise of which by Archbishop Baldwin was so pleasing to the author. He seems to have frequently revised it; manuscripts of various editions are in existence in the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and at the British Museum and Westminster Abbey. Gerald explains to us why he made this new departure, held to be unworthy of a man of letters, and descended to treat of the scenery and social condition of a wild and barbarous country. He remains the sole authority for the state of Ireland during the whole of the middle ages. The work is dedicated to the king (Henry II), and is divided into three books, or distinctions, as it was then the fashion to call them. The first deals with the physical features of the island and with its natural history, the second with its miracles, and the third with its inhabitants.
In the first book,...
(The entire section is 12236 words.)
SOURCE: Powicke, F. M. “Gerald of Wales.” In The Christian Life in the Middle Ages and Other Essays, pp. 107-29. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.
[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture at the John Rylands Library in 1928, Powicke traces Gerald's life and career.]
The career of Gerald of Wales suggests some striking reflections to the student of our early history.1 He lives, and lives vigorously, only in his own writings, some of which survive only in one manuscript. If these works had been lost, as so much medieval literature has been lost, we should know almost nothing about him. A troublesome archdeacon, chosen by his fellow canons as bishop of St. David's, a man whose ‘rebel cleverness’ caused much trouble at the papal court to a hard-worked Archbishop of Canterbury—that is about all; he would have been one among many troublesome archdeacons, and claimants to bishoprics and persistent suitors at Rome. Scholars, I imagine, would have speculated mildly about the identity of the ‘Gerald the archdeacon’ who attested here and there an Anglo-Irish charter; they could never have felt the pleasant thrill of recognition, as they note the presence of the vivacious ecclesiastic who wrote the most famous of all the famous books about Ireland.
Of course, there is nothing new, though there is always something strange, in this. If Pepys...
(The entire section is 9202 words.)
SOURCE: Williams, C. H. “Introduction: Giraldus and Wales.” In The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis, edited and translated by H. E. Butler, pp. 9-21. London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.
[In the following essay, Williams describes Gerald's significance, accomplishments, and approach to history.]
The reader anxious to set Giraldus against the background of twelfth-century Wales is at a disadvantage, for in the main Giraldus himself must be his guide. Valuable and important as his writings thus become, they have to be approached with a caution that will be all the more marked the more attracted we are to the man. The amusing foibles, prejudices and weaknesses that make Giraldus a human, lovable figure are just the features most likely to rouse suspicions as to his impartiality. Before we can use him as an historical source, we have to come to an opinion about his qualifications as a writer, and to do him full justice it is to the historical works that we must go. The list of those works reveals deliberate planning, and an appreciation of his ideas and ambitions as an historical writer may well begin from that list. Apart from what he has to say of himself, his ecclesiastical writings, his lives of other men, and his survey of recent history given in the last two books of the De Principis Instructione, the historical writings of Giraldus are concerned with Ireland and Wales. In the Topographia...
(The entire section is 4315 words.)
SOURCE: Knowles, David. “The Critics of the Monks: Gerald of Wales, Walter Map and the Satirists.” In The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216, pp. 662-78. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.
[In the following excerpt, first published in 1940, Knowles examines Gerald's criticism of monks, discusses some limitations of his arguments, and compares and contrasts his interests to those of his contemporary and fellow critic of monasticism, Walter Map.]
In an earlier chapter some account was given of the active hostility shown towards the monastic body by a group of influential bishops in the last decades of the twelfth century. At the very moment when the opposition of the secular clergy in high places was thus making itself felt, another and hitherto unprecedented form of attack began which was to continue intermittently in one form or another until the Reformation. This was the criticism of the monastic life of the country by members of the new class of highly educated clerks who filled various administrative or magisterial posts in the royal and episcopal households or in the various schools, some of which were to develop into universities. The literary education of the day, based as it was on Latin models, and including among its most familiar text-books the satires of Horace,...
(The entire section is 9262 words.)
SOURCE: Richter, Michael. “Gerald of Wales: A Reassessment on the 750th Anniversary of His Death.” Traditio 29 (1973): 379-90.
[In the following essay, Richter examines Gerald's life and the political and religious influence of his writings.]
The life-span of Gerald of Wales embraces the reign of Stephen in England and the predominance of Owain Gwynedd in Wales at one end, and the early years of Henry III and Llywelyn ap Iorwerth at the other. He lived longer in England than ever he did in Wales. Yet it is his connection with Wales which accounts for much of his undiminished popularity throughout the past centuries. He is remembered as the man who wrote about Wales and who fought for a Welsh bishopric. The name by which he is known implies more than merely his origin; it stands for the deepest commitment of his later years, though not apparently his earlier life.
Gerald shared with other contemporary humanists like John of Salisbury, Peter of Blois, or Richard fitzNigel the interest in their present life, an interest which becomes evident in their literary works. When he wrote it was mainly about his personal experiences. His works may not share the depth of John of Salisbury's ethics, or either the wide range of the subject matter of Peter of Blois' correspondence or the technical, financial, and judicial expertise of Richard fitzNigel's. But his contribution has its own special...
(The entire section is 6729 words.)
SOURCE: Jones, W. R. “Giraldus Redivivus: English Historians, Irish Apologists, and the Works of Gerald of Wales.” Eire-Ireland 9, no. 3 (autumn 1974): 3-20.
[In the following essay, Jones examines responses to Gerald's controversial accounts of the Irish.]
The English have never been especially complimentary of Celtic civilization; and, from the time of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century forward, words such as “barbarous,” “warlike,” “treacherous,” “slothful,” and “cruel” have come naturally to the minds of Englishmen contemplating their country's Irish neighbors. The ancient geographers, Pomponius Mela, Strabo, and Solinus, tended to place the misty Celtic realms beyond the pale of Mediterranean civilization; and early medieval authors such as Bede portrayed the Scots and Irish as typical “barbarians.”1 During the Middle Ages the apparent contrast between the pastoral, itinerant, and kinship oriented society of the Irish and the feudal, manorial, urban, and more centralized Anglo-French civilization of southeast Britain seemed to justify English feelings of superiority. The most famous advocate of this unfriendly view of the medieval Irish was the twelfth-century Anglo-Welsh cleric and author, Gerald of Wales. His two books on Ireland—a rather extraordinary geographical and ethno-geographical treatise called Topographia...
(The entire section is 6820 words.)
SOURCE: McGurk, J. J. N.. “Gerald of Wales, Part I: Early Life and Works.” History Today 25, no. 4 (April 1975): 255-61.
[In the following essay, McGurk traces Gerald's early career of documenting British life.]
No twelfth-century writer is more familiar to English readers than Gerald of Wales—more commonly known by the scholastic form Giraldus Cambrensis. In the great mass of Anglo-Norman literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, much of it serious and dull, none blends information and entertainment more successfully in a wide range of works than Giraldus. Readers need little skill in criticism to see his vanity, credulity and lack of consistency; yet all who read him are attracted by his wit, charm and learning, no less than by his deep love of the natural beauties of Wales and Ireland, described with topographical detail. It would be a mistake to write of Giraldus as a self-opinionated buffoon, with a gift for garrulity; for he is reckoned among the most learned of a learned age, versed in languages, a master of rhetoric, and keen observer of the many tempestuous events, intrigues and controversies of the second half of the twelfth century. A brilliant stylist, yet of prodigious output, Giraldus self-consciously wrote for posterity, ensuring in his books (as did the fortunate survival of his manuscripts) that no serious student of the twelfth century would fail to notice him....
(The entire section is 3182 words.)
SOURCE: McGurk, J. J. N.. “Gerald of Wales, Part II: 1188-1223.” History Today 25, no. 5 (May 1975): 340-47.
[In the following essay, McGurk examines Gerald's writings on Wales and his attempt to become a bishop.]
The reign of Henry II was as important a landmark in Welsh history as it had been in that of Irish history, but, as in Ireland, the Norman conquest of Wales had not been complete; the marcher lords' settlements and the various incursions had not materially altered the institutional Celtic framework of either church or state. New elements of speech and customs had been introduced especially in the more penetrable south and east where contact with England had been closest. While the introduction of territorial bishoprics roughly corresponded to the tribal principalities of Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed and Morgannwg, with sees at Bangor, St Asaph, St David's, and Llandaff, the delimiting of the boundaries of these sees gave rise to keen controversy, particularly between the claims of St David's and Llandaff. It was Norman policy to put in Norman Bishops amenable to royal authority and this undermined the claims to ancient independence, since the ‘new Bishops’ had to recognize the authority of the metropolitan, Canterbury. Ironically it was the royal appointee to St David's in 1115, Bernard, one of Henry I's chaplains, that made the first overt claim of St David's to metropolitan status, equal...
(The entire section is 4164 words.)
SOURCE: Bartlett, Robert. “Natural Science.” In Gerald of Wales: 1146-1223, pp. 123-53. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, Bartlett contends that Gerald's Cosmographia and other scientific writings, although not of the Platonic tradition, nevertheless show dedication to detail, observation, and a systematic approach.]
Discussion of the place of marvels and miracles in Gerald's work has shown how, in his view, the texture of the natural world might be disrupted by bubbles of strangely wonderful material or punched through by the sudden fist of divine punishment. It is now time to turn to the natural world itself; to investigate the sources of Gerald's knowledge of it, and the kinds of explanation he brought to bear on it. In so doing his place in the history of natural science should emerge.
The expansion of the Latin west which began in the eleventh century not only widened economic and political horizons, but led also to a fundamental reorientation of Western thought, particularly in the field of science. The Greeks and their Arab commentators had created a large body of scientific works, distinguished by close observation, a systematic approach, and some experimentation. In 1100 virtually none of this work was accessible to Latin scholars,1 but by 1280 only a few treatises remained to be translated. The entire scientific knowledge of two...
(The entire section is 17869 words.)
SOURCE: Roberts, Brynley F. Gerald of Wales, pp. 45-89. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, Roberts offers a survey of Gerald's major and minor works.]
These years had been the most active of Gerald's career. On the one hand he had spent his time gathering up evidence and preparing legal argument, he had persuaded and cajoled, and on the other hand there had been a great deal of travelling. His journey to Rome in the winter of 1202 had been fraught with real physical danger and his escape from England had been that of a fugitive. The return was just as eventful; penniless and in debt, he was imprisoned at Châtillon-sur-Seine for a while and for the first time he sank to the depths of despair, able neither to take food nor to sleep. He was consoled by philosophical sentences, and upon his release he returned, a gaunt pale figure. After the consecration of Geoffrey he spent two years in Ireland, and a pilgrimage to Rome followed in 1207. He returned relaxed and invigorated, to a life of study and writing. He had lived at Lincoln during the last years of the episcopate of Bishop Hugh whom he had probably met also at Henry's court during his period as a royal clerk. Hugh was to become one of the most popular of English saints, even in his own day an attractive figure who combined saintly virtues with episcopal firmness and daring. Gerald had already written of him in his...
(The entire section is 13018 words.)
SOURCE: Coleman, Edward. “Nasty Habits—Satire and the Medieval Monk.” History Today 43, no. 6 (June 1993): 36-42.
[In the following essay, Coleman analyzes the subtexts of the works of Gerald and other church writers and reveals instances of wry humor.]
The great Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, whose impressive ruins survive today, was founded in 1131-32, and was largely complete by the death of Abbot Ailred (who had made a major contribution to its construction) in 1167. The monks of Rievaulx are fulsomely praised in Ailred's biography:
They venerate poverty … counting riches and honours as dung … spurning fleshly desires and vain glory in food, drink, act and affectation … they observe at all times a discreet uniformity, using only so much and such means of sustaining life as will just maintain the needs of the body and their fervour in the worship of God.
There is little doubt that the monastic ideal—particularly in its Cistercian form with emphasis on retreat to ‘deserts’ such as the Yorkshire Moors—exercised a powerful pull on the twelfth-century imagination. It has been estimated that there were around 340 religious houses and about 15,000 men and women in religious orders in the last quarter of the twelfth century in England and Wales. Rievaulx and the other surviving Yorkshire abbeys are...
(The entire section is 3323 words.)
Williams, E. A. “A Bibliography of Giraldus Cambrensis, c. 1147-c. 1223.” National Library of Wales Journal 12 (1961-1962): 97-140.
Bate, A. K. “Walter Map and Giraldus Cambrensis.” Latomus 31, no. 3 (October-December, 1972): 860-75.
Examines evidence of the friendship of Gerald and Walter Map.
Hunt, R. W. “The Preface to the Speculum Ecclesiae of Giraldus Cambrensis.” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1977): 189-213.
Describes the Cotton manuscript of Speculum Ecclesiae and analyzes the text of the preface.
Rees, J. F. “Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis).” In Studies in Welsh History: Collected Papers, Lectures, and Reviews, pp. 5-25. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1965.
Explains the importance of individuality in Gerald's writings and comments on his life, career, and association with the diocese of St. David's.
Richter, Michael. “The Life of St. David by Giraldu Cambrensis.” Welsh History Review 4, no. 4 (winter 1968-69): 381-86.
Overview of a lesser-studied work.
———. “The Notion of the Welsh Nation.” In Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of...
(The entire section is 181 words.)