242. The Journey through Wales, and The Description of Wales, by Gerald of Wales, 1191 and 1194

Handsome young Gerald, Archdeacon of Brecon, accompanies the Archbishop of Canterbury Baldwin on a tour of Wales in 1188, to preach the taking up of the Cross, encouraging local men to enlist in armies destined for the Third Crusade. In the first book, he describes their travel itinerary and doings, the history and politics of the surrounding countryside, but most intriguingly various anecdotes of varying degrees of credibility. In the second work, Gerald (half Norman, half Welsh) discusses the best and worst national characteristics of the Welsh, including how to successfully invade and subdue them.

My copy was the Penguin Black Classic translated from the Latin by Lewis Thorpe.

Thoughts : It is really the anecdotes that enliven the Journey through Wales:

  • The various wrongdoers who find themselves stuck to stone walls or seats by their hands, lips or buttocks after some theft or offense to God or Church (pages 84-85)
  • A woman who murdered her brother has her eyeballs fall out (page 86)
  • A man gives birth to a calf (page 88)
  • A boy discovers fairy folk and lives with them on and off until he steals their gold for his mother (pages 134-135)
  • The mother weasel who cannot find her babies, and believing the farmer to be responsible, poisons the milk he is to feed his son. Upon the return of her offspring unharmed, she runs back to spill the milk jug in time to save the boy (page 149),
  • Beavers who chew off their own testicles and then stand and lift their hind leg to show the hunters that they are not now worth killing (pages 175-176), and
  • The dying man who is tormented and covered by a multitude of toads, despite his friends killing as many as they could, and finally raising their colleague up a pole to escape them to no avail (pages 169-170)

Gerald himself was an interesting and focused individual. Offered 4 separate bishoprics (two in Wales, and two in Ireland), he refused them all in the persistent hope that he would be given the bishopric of St Davids, which he sought all his life but failed to receive each time it became vacant, despite unanimous local support.

His comments on the Welsh in his Description of Wales are divided into two halves, listing their best and worst characteristics. Most striking is the advice on how to invade and subdue the Welsh, which is both militarily sensible and morally questionable, as Gerald was part Welsh and related to some of the most powerful families in South Wales.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

“If it never comes to Wales, the nightingale is a very sensible bird” Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, probably in an exhausted, unguarded moment (page 185)

“You may never find anyone worse than a bad Welshman, but you will certainly never find anyone better than a good one” (page 254)

Digressions/diversions:   Beavers have been reintroduced into Britain in recent years. This photo and article from 2014 shows them enjoying a midnight tussle in Devon. Huzzah!!


Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating: Enjoyed the stories about good loyal dogs (pages 128-130)

In the years 1170-1200:

from The Book of Key Facts (Paddington Press, 1978)

  • 1170 : Thomas Becket murdered at Canterbury Cathedral by four knights trying to win the favour of King Henry II. The Cathedral burns down in 1174, while Henry undergoes public penance, accepting a symbolic beating by the bishops and monks of the Cathedral.
  • 1189 : King Henry II dies, his son Richard I (the Lionheart) becomes King and alongside German Emperor Friedrich I and French King Philippe II, starts the Third Crusade against the forces of Saladin (despite wars between England and France before and after this Crusade). Richard dies from a crossbow bolt while besieging a French castle in 1199, and is succeeded by his brother King John.

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