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Rhetoric and Ethnicity in Gerald of Wales

Rhetoric and Ethnicity in Gerald of WalesGerald of Wales

Georgia Henley (Harvard)

Celtic Studies Association of North America Conference 2013

What was Gerald’s identity?

This paper was given at the 2013 Celtic Studies Association of North America Annual Meeting at the University of Toronto April 18 – 20. The Celtic Studies conference was fantastic and this paper, exploring Gerald of Wales and his conflicting views on Wales, was one of my favourites.

Gerald was a fusion of identities; his Marcher status impacted his life but was not as much of an influence as scholars may think. His works contain conflicting passages, i.e., comments like this:

Qualiter gens ista sit expugnanda – ‘how can the Welsh be conquered?’

Qualiter eadem resistere valeat, et rebellare – ‘how the Welsh can fight back and keep up their resistance’ (Thorpe, Gerald, 267, 273)

Such comments, Henley argued, weren’t necessarily a sign that he was conflicted in his ethnicity but an exercise of rhetoric. She examined the Topographia and his other works.

Gerald compared an collated various materials in these works rather than focusing on one author. Competing views on the Welsh are often used as sample of inner turmoil but instead this is more about showing off his rhetorical skill. His behaviour and attitude attest to a well crafted public persona – he cared about what was thought of his writing. Gerald is also subtlety promoting the Marcher perspective in this writing. He presented both sides of an argument and the ability to argue opposing sides was a common skill during his time. Many scholars were trained to prevail in public debate by studying both sides of a controversial topic. His contradictory views could be seen as the job of an even handed historian and Gerald was not the only scholar to do this. Chapters on Welsh resistance can be read as loyalty to the marcher lords and as a subtle promotion of this relatives.

‘In my opinion the Welsh marches would have been better controlled under the English occupation if their kings, in governing these regions and in repelling the attacks of a hostile people, had from the beginning taken the advice of the marcher lords  and used their tactics instead of those of the Angevins and the Normans.’ (Thorpe, Gerald, 268-9)

Henley is not entirely convinced  that Gerald thought that all the Welsh are entirely civilized and Irish were not. A distinct ethnographic presentation of Ireland was exotic and foreign to him. Gerald presented Wales differently but tried to be an impartial historian.

~Sandra Alvarez



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