Gerald of Wales’ writings in his tome, “Topography of Ireland” (Topographia Hibernica in Latin) are a crucial medieval era source detailing the early relationship between England and Ireland. In them, Gerald makes a case for English colonization of the island, pointing out the pleasant and mystical nature of Ireland, as well as the need for its ‘savage’ inhabitants to be civilized by a ‘Christian’ people. In light of Ireland’s later history and subsequent attempts to escape English domination, Gerald’s account from over 800 years in the past makes for a compelling read in the current day.
Gerald speaks of many natural wonders and tales of these wonders as he writes of Ireland after escorting an English prince named John on an excursion, and his religious perceptions help him to provide his readers an explanation for phenomena that he otherwise cannot account for. He merges together his godly explanation for the behavior of aspects of creation with a compelling moral relevancy as a way of demonstrating the religious potential of Ireland. He tells of animals whose characteristics, he feels, ought to remind good Christians of good behavior they should exhibit. He speaks of cranes who hold a stone in an uplifted leg while guarding others of their kind “so that if they go to sleep, they will be wakened immediately.” And then he turns and relates this to human life in a remarkable way, claiming that “some sacred duty should occupy our minds which, like the stone, will shake off torpor.” Many of his tales of the characteristics of animals are attached to similar moral exhortations, and serve as plausible (for medieval readers) explanations for what he cannot otherwise explain.
This colorful language should not shroud the fact that while he does report extensively on the various wonders of Ireland, he is simultaneously deeply engaged in promoting the land as a place English people should seek to colonize. Gerald refers to “dust of this land which kills poisonous reptiles”, claims that Ireland “is the most temperate of all countries”, and asserts that “The well of poisons brims over in the East.” All of these statements have a common theme. They are but a few examples of an attempt on the part of Gerald to promote Ireland as a place especially attractive to inhabit. In a way these statements also function as a contemporary commentary on the Crusades, some of which took place around the time of Gerald’s writings on Ireland. After all, if the East, though it may contain the Holy Land, is full of poison and danger, why not focus on establishing Christendom in a place far more worthy of human habitation and that is, incidentally, quite a bit closer to home?
After he has passed beyond relating the various advantages of the land itself and the mysteries of the creatures living upon it, Gerald then goes on to describe a bit of the religious history of the island and the apparent commonality of holy places and miraculous events. His natural religious interest lends itself to a promotion of the island as a place that seems to have been especially favored by God, which like his descriptions of Ireland as a rather more hospitable realm than the Holy Land, serves to advertise its potential for colonization. The majority of the tales related by Gerald speak of the holy nature of places, creatures, and artifacts that are said to be scattered across Ireland. Indeed the very fact that there are so many supernatural places indicates a sort of wholesomeness about the country. Gerald speaks with wonder at the legend of Saint Brigid as well as the behavior of birds like teal and falcons, which appear to have a mystical relationship with churches and other holy places. His work to establish Ireland as both a pleasant place as well as one permeated by the supernatural lends both, in his eyes, to its mysticism and perhaps even an intrinsic Christianity.
In the third part of “Topography of Ireland”, Gerald promotes colonization of Ireland as beneficial to the local inhabitants by evoking a distinct image of what in later centuries would come to be seen as “noble savage” imagery. He describes the Irish as a beautiful people, with “upright bodies and handsome and well-complexioned faces.” And he also admires their music – the presence of beauty and music together are meant denote an innate Irish nobility. He then extensively contrasts these traits with their alleged savagery – they carry axes with them at all times, they ride horses bareback, they dress in black wool – in short “they are a wild and inhospitable people…They live like beasts. Gerald portrays an uncouth yet redeemable people possessing a rich land upon which, as he makes sure to mention, the English King conveniently has a claim. In a subtle way, Gerald lays upon his readers the burden of bringing Christianity to what he sees as a barbarian people.
Gerald of Wales’ descriptions of Ireland are both entertaining and valuable to historians. Though they are quite colored by the religious language common to educated individuals of the medieval era, this makes his book little different than other sources from the period, which were also written by clergymen. As such he provides an excellent insight into the historical relationship between Ireland and England, and offer modern readers a better understanding of the medieval world in general.
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