Encyclopedia

Gerald of Wales

Biography

Gerald of Wales (in Latin: Giraldus Cambrensis; in Welsh: Gerallt Gymro; in French: Gerald de Barri; c. 1146 – c. 1223) was a Cambro-Norman archdeacon of Brecon and a historian. Gerald became a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England in 1184. He was chosen to accompany one of the king's sons, John, in 1185 on John's first expedition to Ireland. Gerald says he spent three years travelling through Ireland.

Gerald presenting his book to King Henry II

Topographia Hibernica

Gerald's text describing his travels in Ireland, Topographia Hibernica, first appeared in manuscript in 1188. Gerald always referred to it as his Topography, though "History" is the more accurate term. It is a travel narrative, a description of things he saw or was told by the people he met. He followed it up with an account of Henry's conquest of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hibernica. He revised and added to the Topographia Hibernica four times before his death. Gerald's wiriting displays a notable degree of Latin learning. As was common in his time, Gerald did not think highly of the Irish people; his description of them and their culture is often racist as well as inaccurate.

The Topographia Hibernica is in three sections, which Gerald called "distinctions":

  • Distinction 1: The topography and natural history of Ireland
  • Distinction 2: Of the wonders and miracles of Ireland
  • Distinction 3: Of the inhabitants of Ireland

Animals

Though not always accurate - Gerald tended to believe whatever stories he heard - the Topographia Hibernica is a valuable source of information on the animals and birds of medieval Ireland. In Distinction 1, Gerald wrote on the following animal topics (chapter number in [brackets]; the chapter numbers are those given by Forester, 1863; the chapter order does not always match the order in transcriptions of the Latin text).

  • Of the fishes in the sea, rivers, and lakes, and the species which are not found in Ireland [VII]
  • Of the birds, and those that are wanting; of the hawk, falcon, and sparrow-hawk, and their natures [VIII]
  • Of the eagle, and its nature [IX]
  • Of the crane, and its nature [X]
  • Of barnacles (barnacle geese) which grow from fir timber, and their natures [XI]
  • Of birds of twofold species, and mixed breed [XII]
  • Of martinets, and their natures [XIII]
  • Of swans and storks, and their natures [XIV]
  • Of birds which disappear in the winter [XV]
  • Of grasshoppers which sing the better when their heads are cut off [XVI]
  • Of the various kinds of crows found here, and their natures [XVII]
  • Of the croeriœ which are here white, and their natures [XVIII]
  • Of wild animals, and their kinds, with those that are wanting; of stags, boars, and the small hares [XIX]
  • Of the badger, and its nature [XX]
  • Of the beaver, and its nature [XXI]
  • Of weasels, and their natures [XXII]
  • Of reptiles, and those that are not found in Ireland and that there are no venomous creatures [XXIII]
  • Of a frog, lately discovered in Ireland [XXIV]

Manuscripts

Gerald revised the Topographia Hibernica five times over several years, adding new material. There are at least 37 manuscript copies of the text. (Some are listed under the Manuscripts tab above; for a more complete list see Giraldus Cambrensis Topographia Hibernica Manuscripts).

Some of the manuscripts are illustrated with simple marginal drawings of a few animals. The drawings are almost identically repeated in several of the manuscripts, suggesting that the artists had access to previous copies or perhaps a common example.

Gerald's writings were used in several bestiaries and other manuscripts, though he was usually not credited. Two manuscripts that quote him almost exactly are Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764 and British Library, Harley MS 4751.