The Associative Branches of the Irish Barnacle: Gerald of Wales and the Natural World
By Sarah Sprouse
Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol.11:2 (2015)
Abstract: The barnacle and the barnacle goose, both already active objects of the medieval imagination, have been debated by scholars such as Rhona Beare, Karl Steel, and Edward Heron-Allen. However, the driving force of these discussions has been the mythology and history of the barnacle goose.
This paper explores the discursivity of the barnacle in the travelogue text Topographia Hibernica of Gerald of Wales within the framework of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Gerald revisits the topic with numerous human and social associations such as applications of St. Augustine of Hippo’s categories of ‘wonder’, ongoing considerations of ecclesiastical reform, and a glimpse into the practice of medieval scientific deduction.
This paper argues that each of these associative branches collide, allowing a natural feature to instruct a cultural moment within the context of Norman invasion that is ultimately revealing of Gerald’s world, as well as of his perspective within it. The echoes of this passage further branch out over the subsequent decades and centuries in the variations of the manuscript copies and translations. The social construction is itself a relative data point reached through the multitude of associations that start at the barnacle. The expansiveness of reactions and interpretations of the passage reveal as much about these subsequent periods and peoples as it does about its natural subject matter and it is therein, by the twists of these associations, that the natural world exposes the human world. In conclusion, by recontextualizing the ongoing discussion of Gerald’s barnacle passage, this paper evaluates the ways in which human associations tie together to form a relative historical moment grounded in a feature of the natural Irish environment.
Introduction: In his Topographia Hibernica (History and Topography of Ireland), the twelfth-century archdeacon Gerald of Wales writes, “There are many birds here that are called barnacles, which nature, acting against her own laws, produces in a wonderful way.” This bird is the barnacle goose that so attracted the medieval imagination, as is evidenced by its inclusion in bestiaries and histories of Ireland. This particular species of goose actually mates closer to the Arctic Circle, and therefore beyond the known world for the medieval Irish. This fact led to the curious deduction that the goose spawns from barnacles as a form of asexual reproductive process. Consequently, this barnacle goose is not an actual, existing creature.