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 was at his best describing creatures he observed himself. He described not only creatures around in every day life, like falcons, hunting dogs and all varieties of fish, but he was concerned about wildlife for its own sake. This was almost unheard of in the twelfth century. He took advantage of his journey through Wales to observe and record all sorts of wildlife.
He noted the song of the oriole, the habits of beavers, and noticed that the jackdaws of St Davids were so used to the priests that they showed no fear of anyone dressed in black.
His notes on beavers were remarkably accurate. He reported that when transporting wood for their dams they got into teams. One team gnawed down trees, another team would lie on their backs clutching a log to their bellies, with another branch in their teeth. A third team would bite onto the branch in the others' teeth and haul them to the river, where they carried the log to the dam like living wagons. Here is Gerald's description of the dams:
… which they construct in some deep and tranquil angle of the river, binding the wood together with such skill that no water can drip in: even violent storms scarcely damage them, and they fear no attack save by humans armed with iron weapons … Their wooden fortresses are built so as to project above the usual high-water level: within are passages leading from one storey to the next, and on top they build a platform so that they can keep watch on the rising of the waters when the river is in flood.
In the river bank by their dams, moreover, they have underground burrows, dry and well-defended hiding places. When a hunter comes looking for them, and strives to thrust his sharpened pole into their dam, the beaver hears the blows and, fearing attack, quickly flees to its stronghold. But first it stirs up the water round the entrance to its hole, scraping away earth with its feet and making the clear transparent stream all cloudy and muddy. Thus it outwits the wily hunter with his iron trident, who is standing on the bank waiting for it to leap out.
Some of the wilder things he recorded, however, sound laughable today but were seriously believed in Gerald’s day:
- Barnacle geese hatched from barnacle shells
- Birds only seen in summer (because they were visiting) hibernated in the winter
- Beavers – being prized for the medicinal properties of their testicles – would bite them off and throw them at the hunters
- The moral voles of Priestholm would only ravage hermits’ food when they quarrelled amongst themselves
- Women could mate with lions and men with cows, in fact he recorded a story in Breconshire that a knight gave birth to a calf
He believed these were examples of ‘nature at play’, and wonders beyond human comprehension.
[adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]
Ann 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, and book two Alien Secrets, are out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz