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Five Things to Know About Gerald of Wales

By Danièle Cybulskie

Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis, was a twelfth-century cleric who wrote a whole raft of influential works on clerical reform, kingship, and history. In their book, Gerald of Wales: New Perspectives on a Medieval Writer and Critic, the contributing scholars are aiming to bring more of Gerald’s work out into the light, and to look at his writing beyond just his thoughts on Wales and Ireland. Here are five things to know about Gerald of Wales:

Image of a priest and wolf from a manuscript of one of Gerald of Wales works, perhaps made under his supervision. British Library Royal 13.B.viii, f. 17v.

1. He was the grandson of Welsh royalty.

Youngest son of a Marcher lord, Gerald descended from Normans on his father’s side, and Welsh on his mother’s. As Georgia Henley and A. Joseph McMullen remark, “his grandmother was the Welsh princess Nest, the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, who was widely regarded at the time of his death in 1093 as the last king of Deheubarth (a kingdom in southern Wales).” Although you might think being descended from royalty would have been an advantage, being descended from Welsh royalty prevented Gerald from achieving his life’s goal: the bishopric of St. Davids. English royalty seemed to believe this would be too much power to give to someone of his bloodline.

2. He was a clerk under three Plantagenet kings.

Because of his good upbringing and even better schooling – Gerald had studied and taught with the best theologians in Paris – he was hired as a clerk by Henry II, then Prince John. Gerald was still a member of the royal court until the middle of King Richard’s reign, although it appears he didn’t serve with the ever-absent Richard abroad. When Gerald died in 1223, he had lived under the rule of five Plantagenet kings. No wonder he had a lot to say about good and bad kingship (he collected his advice in a book called De principis instructione, or “Instruction for a Ruler”).

3. He had a sense of humour.

Although Gerald seems to have become increasingly sour as his ambitions to St. Davids were repeatedly thwarted, he did find time to laugh – at misguided clerics. According to Peter J.A. Jones, “polite and edifying humour could be good, Gerald believed, so long as it attacked only immorality.” That said, Jones continues, “[Gerald’s] primary comic mode was invective, laughing at rather than with a subject.” He gives an example:

Gerald was particularly tickled by a joke attributed to King Richard, capturing together a range of monastic vices. Asked what he would do with his three daughters, ‘Pride’, ‘Lechery’ and ‘Covetousness’, the king answered: ‘I have already given these daughters of mine away in marriage. Pride I gave to the Templars, Lechery I gave to the Black Monks, and Covetousness to the White Monks’.

As I always say, if you can’t laugh at clerical reform, what can you laugh at?

4. His writings on Ireland were influential into Tudor times.

Gerald spent a year in Ireland in the service of the Plantagenets, and his writings on the Irish were not flattering. Given that he was writing in support of English rule in Ireland (John was its ruler at the time), it’s unsurprising that he should write of the Irish as being unfit to govern themselves. During the Tudor era, the English were likewise keen to hold onto power in Ireland, so unflattering tales of the Irish were popular, as Brendan Kane shows. Interestingly, Kane points out that Gerald’s works on Ireland “became widely available across England and Ireland through Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, wherein they formed the basis of the ‘Ireland’ section”. Holinshed’s Chronicles were well-known and referenced by all sorts of notable Tudor-era readers and writers, including William Shakespeare.

5. He may have had a large hand in writing his own manuscripts.

In some careful paleographical detective work, Catherine Rooney has minutely examined twenty-two of Gerald’s works produced during his lifetime and found some interesting commonalities. Similar maps, decorations, and colours appear time and again in these manuscripts. In fourteen of them, chapter headings and page numbers refer back to a “chapter list” – a sort of table of contents – which indicates the production of the manuscript was influenced by Parisian-style organization, consistent with Gerald’s scholarly background. Rooney has also found that “The appearance of several hands [distinctive styles of handwriting] in so many of the early manuscripts of Gerald’s works means that no less than nine of them may be connected to each other.” By Rooney’s estimation, this may mean that Gerald was directly involved in the production of over half of his extant manuscripts, a rare and fascinating occurrence.

To find out more about Gerald of Wales, his influence, and his work, check out Gerald of Wales: New Perspectives on a Medieval Writer and Critic.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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