Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223), also known as Gerallt Gymro in Welsh or Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin, archdeacon of Brecon, was a medieval clergyman and chronicler of his times. Born around 1146 at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh blood, his name being Gerald de Barri.
Gerald of Wales had a church education at Gloucester, followed by a period of study in Paris. He returned to Britain about 1172, and was employed by Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, where he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove the abuses then flourishing in the Welsh Church. He was appointed archdeacon of Brecon to which was attached a residence at Llanddew. On the death of his uncle in 1176, the chapter fixed upon Giraldus as the man most likely to withstand the aggressions of the Archbishop of Canterbury and submitted his name to Henry II of England. The king promptly rejected Gerald possibly because of his Welsh blood, in favour of one of his Norman retainers Peter de Leia; the chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Giraldus, disappointed with the result, withdrew to the University of Paris, earning the title of magister and here continued his studies and gave lectures. According to Gerald the King said at the time: "It is neither necessary or expedient for king or archbishop that a man of great honesty or vigour should become Bishop of St. David's, for fear that the Crown and Canterbury should suffer thereby. Such and appointment would only give strength to the Welsh and increase their pride". In 1180 he returned to Wales and received an appointment from the Bishop of St. David's, which he soon resigned because of corruption he saw in the administration.
Having thus demonstrated his usefulness, Gerald was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Exeter, on a tour of Wales in 1188, the object being a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade. His account of that journey, the Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) was followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194. His two works on Wales remain incredibly valuable historical documents, significant for their descriptions — however untrustworthy and inflected by ideology, whimsy, and his unique style — of Welsh and Norman culture. As a royal clerk Gerald observed significant political events at first hand and he was was offered appointments as an bishoprics of Wexford and Leighlin, and apparently at a little later time the bishopric of Ossory and the archbishopric of Cashel, and later the Welsh Bishopric of Bangor and, in 1191, that of Llandaff, but turned them all down. He also made friends like Walter Map whose career shares some similarities with Gerald. Retiring from royal service, he lived in Lincoln from around 1196 to 1198 where his friend William de Montibus was now chancellor of the Cathedral. It was in this period De instructione principis was probabaly first written which is a useful historical source on contemporary events and was very influential, spreading for example the legend of MacAlpin's treason for example. Here Gerald is frequently critical of the rule of the Angevin kings.
It is generally agreed today that his most distinguished works are those dealing with Wales and Ireland, with his two books on his beloved Wales the most important: Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae which tell us much about Welsh history and geography and reflect on the Cultural relationship between the Welsh and the English. Gerald, despite his desire for an independent Welsh Church and admiration for parts of Welsh life, was very loyal to Norman Marcher rule regarding the Normans as more civilised than the Welsh, a feeling reflected in his writings. Professor Davies tells us that Giraldus, whom he calls "an admirable story-teller," is the only source for some of the most famous of the Welsh folk tales including the declaration of the old man of Pencader to Henry II which concludes Descriptio Cambriae: "This nation, O King, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will also prevail by its laudable exertions, but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth."
It was Giraldus who also wrote (of the Welsh) that "If they would be inseparable, they would be insuperable," and that, unlike the English hirelings, who fight for power or to procure gain or wealth, the Welsh patriots fight for their country. He had pleasant things to say about the poetic talents of his people, too:
In their rhymed songs and set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious that they produce, in their native tongue, ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and the sentences… They make use of alliteration in preference to all other ornaments of rhetoric, and that particular kind which joins by consonancy the first letters or syllables of words.
Giraldus could not have predicted the later perfection of cynghanedd, the complex system of sound correspondence that has characterized the strict-meter poetry of the Welsh for so many centuries and that is still practised today, especially in competitions for the eisteddfod chair. Cynghanedd did not become a formal system with strict rules until the fourteenth century, but its uniquely Welsh forms had been honed for centuries before that.
Finally, in Descriptio Cambriae, Giraldus penned the following words that give so much pride to Welsh singers of today, especially those who participate in the immensely popular Cymanfaoedd Canu (hymn-singing festivals) held throughout Wales and North America:
In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts… You will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers who all at length unite with organic melody.
Another part of the above work , however is less positive. As Cambrensis puts it, "an attention to order now requires that, in this second part, we should employ our pen in pointing out those particulars in which it seems to transgress the line of virtue and commendation". David Powel published an abridged version of Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae in 1585 omitting Gerald's negative comments about the Welsh. Due to translations into English, the first being done by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart., and other translations such as in Everyman's Library and Penguin Classics Gerald's works on Wales are well known today.
His works on Ireland although invaluable for their detail are obviously biased, and have been attacked by Irish writers such as Stephen White.
Myself as Witness by James Goldman
A novel set in England during the time of King John ca. 1199-1216. It is the fictional chronicle of John's reign rendered in first-person by "Giraldus Cambrensis".
NY: Random House, 1979. ISBN: 0394419235