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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford

§ 11. Giraldus Cambrensis

Latin verse was one of the early amusements of the keen and active Noman-Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis, who was born at the castle of Manorbier, which he dutifully describes as “the sweetest spot in Wales” The grandson, on his mother’s side, of Nest, “the Helen of Wales,” he celebrated the exploits of her heroic descendants, the Geraldines, in one of his earliest works, the Conquest of Ireland. He had himself inherited some of Nest’s beauty; he tells us that, in his youthful days, an abbot of the Cistercian order once said of him in the presence of Baldwin, then bishop of Worcester, “Is it possible that Youth, which is so fair, can ever die?” He received his early education from two of the chaplains of his uncle, the bishop of St. David’s. After continuing his studies at St. Peter’s abbey, Gloucester, he paid three visits to Paris, spending three periods of several years in its schools, and giving special attention to rhetoric. We have his own authority for the fact that, when his lecturers desired to point out a model scholar, they mentioned Gerald the Welshman.

As archdeacon of Brecon (1175–1203) he was an ardent reformer of ecclesiastical abuses in his native land, and his great disappointment in life was that he never became (like his uncle) bishop of St. David’s. On the first of several occasions when he was thus disappointed, he returned to Paris, and there studied for three years, besides lecturing with great success on canon law (1177–80). Visits to Ireland followed in 1183 and 1185, when he was in attendance on prince John. After the prince’s return Gerald stayed till Easter, 1186, collecting materials for his two works on Ireland. The Topography was completed in 1188. In the following year he resolved on reciting it publicly at Oxford, “where the most learned and famous of the English clergy were then to be found.” He read one of the three divisions of the work on each of three successive days. “On the first [he informs us] he received and entertained at his lodgings all the poor of the town; on the next, all the doctors of the different faculties, and such of their pupils as were of fame and note; and, on the third, the rest of the scholars with the soldiers and the townsmen.” He complacently assures us that “it was a costly and noble act; a revival of the bygone ages of poetry”; and (he proudly adds) “neither present nor past time could furnish any record of such a solemnity having ever taken place in England.”

Meanwhile, in 1188, Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury, had been sent to Wales to preach the coming crusade. Riding in full armour at the head of the procession, with the white cross gleaming on his brestplate, he was accompanied by Ranulf de Glanville, chief justiciar of England, and attended by a young man of slender figure, delicate features and beetling eyebrows, a man of learning and wit, and with no small share of self-conceit, “the leader of the clergy of St. David’s, the scion of the blood-royal of Walves.” The archbishop’s exhortations produced little effect on the common people, until he prompted Gerald to take up the preaching. At Haverford Gerald discoursed in Latin and also in French. Although the crowd understood neither language, they were moved to tears by the magic of his eloquence and no less than two hundred joined the standard of the cross. It was pleasantly remarked soon afterwards that if Gerald had only discoursed in Welsh not a single soldier would have failed to follow that banner. Three thousand recruits were enrolled; the archbishop and the chief justiciar had taken the cross at Radnor; and both of them kept their vow and died in 1190 in the course of the crusade. Gerald, meanwhile, had been appointed to write its history in Latin prose, and the archbishop’s nephew, Joseph of Exeter, to write it in verse. Joseph had already composed an epic on the Trojan war, England’s solitary Latin epic, which was long attributed to Cornelius Nepos, notwithstanding its dedication to the archbishop of Canterbury. He celebrated the crusade in his Antiocheis, now represented by a solitary fragment on the Flos Regum Arthurus. Gerald, however, neither went on the crusade, nor wrote its history; he paid his fine and he stayed at home to help the king to keep the peace in his a native land, and to write the Itinerary and the Description of Wales.

When the bishopric of St. David’s once more fell vacant, Gerald struggled for five years to win the prize of his ambition, paying three visits to Rome, in 1199, 1201 and 1203, without success. But he was considered by himself and his fellow countrymen to have waged a glorious contest. “Many and great wars,” said the prince of Powys, “have we Welshmen waged with England, but none so great and fierce as his, who fought the king and the archbishop, and withstood the might of the whole clergy and people of England, for the honour of Wales.”

He had already declined two other bishoprics in Wales and four in Ireland. When the see of St. David’s was again vacant, in 1214, he was passed over. He probably died in 1223, and was buried in the precincts of the cathedral church, for whose independence he had fought so long. The dismantled tomb which is shown as his probably belongs to a later time. He deserves to be commemorated in that cathedral by the couplet which he placed above his archidiaconal stall, and also enshrined in one of his “epitaphs”.

  • Vive Deo, tibi mors requies, tibi vita labori;
  • Vive Deo; mors est vivere, vita mori.
  • The first volume of the Rolls edition of Giraldus includes two autobiographies and two lists of his writings. Only the most important need here be noticed. The earliest of his works is the Topography of Ireland. The first book gives an account of its physical features, and its birds and beasts; the second is devoted to the marvels of the country, and the third to the early history, followed by a description of the manners, dress and condition of the inhabitants. One of the MSS. in the British Museum has in the margin many curious coloured drawings of the birds and beasts described by the author. It is to this work that we owe almost all our knowledge of medieval Ireland.

    It was followed by the Conquest of Ireland, a narrative of the events of 1169–85. This is marked by a simpler style and a more sober judgement than the Topography, and is, in fact, a historical monograph of considerable value. But there is much bias, and some unfairness; and an air of unreality is produced by the Irish chiefs, who have Greek patronymics, and harangue their troops with quotations from Ovid and Caesar. Towards the close the author cites the ominous Irish prophecy that “scarcely before the Day of Judgment will Ireland be wholly subdued by the English.”

    The Itinerary of Wales takes us on a tour of one month in the south, and only eight days in the north. Apart from its topographical and ecclesiastical interest, it introduces us to Gerald as a student of languages. He tells us of a priest who, in his boyhood, paid a visit to fairy-land, and learnt the language, which proved to be akin to Greek; and he gives us one or two specimens in the words for “salt” and “water,” adding the equivalents in Welsh, English, Irish, German and French. It was this passage that once prompted Freeman to call Gerald the “father of comparative philology.” In his own Latin Gerald has no hesitation in using werra for “war,” and knipulus for “pen-knife.” At Cardiff we incidentally learn that Henry II understood English, but could not speak it. In the south our attention is drawn to the vestiges of Roman splendour at Caerleon on Usk, and to the old Roman walls at Carmarthen.

    The companion volume, called the Description of Wales, appeared in two editions (1194, 1215). The author patriotically ascribes to his fellow-countrymen a keenness of intellect that enables them to excel in whatever study they pursue. He extols their set speeches and their songs. He also quotes examples of alliteration in Latin and Welsh. The following are the specimens he selects from the English of his day: “god is to-gedere gamen and wisdom” (it is good to be merry and wise); “ne halt nocht al sor isaid, ne al sorghe atwite” (it boots not to tell every woe nor upbraid every sorrow); “betere is red thene rap, and liste thene lither streingthe” (better is counsel than haste, and tact than vicious strength). Elsewhere he tells the story of the Englishwoman who, with her mistress, had for a complete year attended daily mass, at which the priest had (besides the oft-repeated Oremus) always used the introit Rorate coeli, desuper; on finding that her mistress had, nevertheless, been disappointed in her desires, she indignantly said to the priest, “Rorisse [char]e rorie ne wrthe nan” (your rories and ories are all to no purpose). He also quotes the phrase, “God holde [char]e, cuning” (God save thee, king), and the refrain of a love-song, “swete lemman, dhin are” (sweet mistress, thy favour). He notes that the language of North Wales is purer than that of the South, that the language of Cornwall and Britanny closely resembles Welsh, that the language of North Wales is purer than that of the South, that the language of the south of England (especially Devonshire) is purer than that of the north and that the English works of Bede and King Alfred were all written in the southern idiom. He also tells his readers how Wales may be conquered, how it should be governed and how it is to hold its own.

    The Gemma Ecclesiastica was its author’s favourite work. It may, perhaps, be described as a lengthy archidiaconal charge of an exceptionally learned and lively type. It certainly presents us with a vivid picture of the state of morality and learning in Wales, illustrated by not a few stories of ignorance of Latin among the inferior clergy. Thus a priest once interpreted. “St. John ante portam Latinam” to mean that St. John, ante, first, portam, brought, Latinam, the Latin language (into England). This ignorance, which even extended to some of the higher clergy, is, here and elsewhere, attributed to the excessive study of law and logic.

    The Book of his Acts and Deeds, in the midst of much that is purely personal, tells the story of the holy hermit who prayed that he might attain to the mystery of the Latin language. He was granted the gift of the Latin tongue, without that of the Latin syntax; but he successfully overcame all difficulties of moods and tenses by always using the present infinitive. Gerald once asked this hermit to pray for him that he might understand the Scriptures. The hermit warmly grasped his hand, and gravely added: “Say not understand, but keep; it is a vain thing to understand the word of God, and not to keep it.”

    The work On the Instruction of a Prince, completed after the death of King John in 1216, is divided into three books. The first, on the duties of the ideal prince, is enriched with many quotations, the virtue of patience being illustrated by nine, and the modesty of princes by thirteen. The second and third include a history of the life and times of Henry II. The main interest lies in the sketches of the characters of the royal family. Gerald here tells the story of the finding of King Arthur’s body at Glastonbury in a coffin bearing the inscription, “Here lies buried the famous King, Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon.”

    His other works include a Life of Geoffrey Plantagenet, archbishopof York, and several lives of saints, partly suggested by his stay at Lincoln in 1196–8. His Collection of Extracts from his own works was, naturally, complied later in life. Among his Epistles is one urging Richard I to befriend men of letters, “without whom all his glory would soon pass away.” His latest work, the Mirror of the Church, depicts the principal monastic orders of the time in violent language that, not unnaturally, led the monastic copyists to neglect transcribing, and thus preserving, the author’s writings. The only MS. of this particular work that has survived suffered severely in a fire in the Cottonian library; but the sketch of the state of learning with which it opens, had, happily, already been partly transcribed by Anthony Wood. In the last book Gerald adds a description of the churches in Rome, and closes his writings with an impressive picture of the day of doom.

    To the end of his life Gerald remained true to his early devotion to literature; and he hopefully looked forward to the appreciation of posterity. Freeman, in estimating the historical value of his writings, justly characterises him as “vain, garrulous” and “careless as to minute accuracy,” but as also “one of the most learned men of a learned age,” “one who, whatever we may say as to the soundness of his judgment, came behind few in the sharpness of his wits,” “one who looked with a keen if not an impartial eye on all the events and controversies of his own time.”