Gerald of Wales Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.