Thursday, 27 September 2018

Gerald of Wales and the Natural World

This is a series about the journey that Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales took in 1188 to preach the crusade throughout Wales. Gerald kept a detailed account of the journey and their surroundings, which he later published. The series began with some background posts about Gerald, and is continuing with more interesting facets of his life and work. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

Gerald of Wales may have been the first person to make a serious study of the natural world. He called himself ‘a careful investigator of natural history.’ There were herbalists and alchemists before but their studies were very narrow. Gerald was fascinated by nature, but also included spiritual occurrences and phenomena that couldn't be explained in that study. He described miracles in the same matter-of-fact way as he described nature. He also believed that incidents described by reliable sources were truth, and never considered the person may be teasing him. So while some of his stories can be rejected, others are very astute observation.

People of his own time criticised him, but he had an answer for them. He pointed out that the Bible described many things ‘which seem incredible or unlikely, but which are nonetheless true.’ So did the works of great Christian theologians like St Augustine, and the lives of the saints. Just because they contained miracles it didn’t mean they should be scorned. God could do what he liked with his creation, and if man couldn’t explain it, it was because men were not able to comprehend God’s infinite wisdom. Gerald was effectively saying that casting doubt on the miracles he described was blasphemy.

Bestiary

Those who had written about the natural world before Gerald had done so often as a form of religious instruction, like the ‘Bestiaries’, which used animals to symbolise vices and virtues, without any relation to their natural habits. Gerald studied nature for its own sake, which was completely new, and when he recorded things he had seen with his own eyes he was often very accurate.

Llangorse lake from llangorse mountain

But he did like stories of unnatural phenomena, and people he met were only too willing to oblige. Llangorse Lake, which was near Gerald’s home at Llanddew, was particularly known for its signs and wonders. The best story was about the wildfowl who thronged the lake in winter: they would only sing at the command of the rightful ruler of the land. Gerald’s great uncle Prince Gruffudd rode by one day with two Marcher barons. The birds remained silent at the command of the barons, but when Gruffudd spoke they all began to call at once and beat the water with their wings. The amazed barons galloped off to warn Henry I, who was not at all surprised.

He swore ‘By the death of Christ, this is nothing to wonder at. For although our power allows us to inflict great injuries on the Welsh, we know very well that the land is theirs by right.’

[adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz

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