Monday, 27 November 2017

Gerald the Archdeacon

This is the second part of a series on Gerald of Wales, probably the most famous and influential Welshman in the twelfth century. Last week was about his early life.

When Gerald returned to Wales in his late 20s with a distinguished degree from the best university in Europe he set himself a mission to reform the Church in Wales. He had the latest ideas from Paris and was determined to improve the lax and old-fashioned institution. Supposedly celibate priests openly kept wives, and knights and princes took the priests’ income and sold off church lands to make money.

The first to experience Gerald's reforms were those inhabitants of Pembrokeshire who refused to hand over the tithes of wool and cheese due to the church. Gerald obtained a special mandate from the Archbishop of Canterbury and rode about the area collecting the tithes. When the powerful sheriff of Pembroke defied him, Gerald immediately excommunicated him, forcing him to submit to a painful beating before the dreaded sentence was lifted.
In 1175 he discovered the old archdeacon of Brecon living with a mistress, turned him out of office, and became the archdeacon of Brecon himself. This post brought him an official residence at Llanddew, which he loved, and the welcome duty of reforming the local clergy’s morals, which was not well received by those used to the more casual rule of his predecessor.

Llanbadarn_Fawr_Church (near_Llandrindod_Wells)
When Gerald went to make an official visit to remote Rhwng Gwy a Hafren they did all they could to prevent him, first by threats and rumours then by arrows. Finally they besieged him in the church of Llanbadarn Fawr, near Llandrindod Wells. Gerald, however, was the cousin of the local ruler Cadwallon ap Madog, and sent a message for help. On hearing of his approach the besiegers surrendered.
When Gerald returned home he heard that Bishop Adam of St Asaph was on his way to consecrate the new church at Kerry near Newtown, in a district which rightfully belonged to Gerald’s own diocese of St Davids. This would take away territory from the diocese, so Gerald rushed to the church and gathered armed support on the way. Gerald managed to arrive before the bishop and there followed a great argument, ending in them threatening to excommunicate each other. When Gerald had the excommunication toll rung on the church bells, the bishop panicked and galloped off.

In 1197 Gerald wrote an instruction manual for the clergy entitled Gemma Ecclesiastica – The Jewel of the Church in which he gave instructions about correct behaviour. For example, substituting cider for communion wine, allowing all night popular song sessions in the churchyard and making simple mistakes in their Latin: one parson promised his Bishop two hundred sheep (oves) when he meant to say eggs (ova) and was then forced to produce the sheep.

Gerald’s sternest prohibitions, however, were against living with women, a practice not only sinful but also inconvenient (they filled the parsonage with midwives, cradles and howling infants) and expensive (they demanded new dresses for going to market and even commandeered the vicarage horse, making the parson walk behind). Much better, counsels Gerald, never to look at women at all, let alone sit drinking with them at parish festivals. All this good advice is backed up with learned quotations, the latest theological notions and with tales of flying crucifixes, lustful demons, greedy bishops, and hard-swearing monarchs. Of the last he spoke from personal experience, for in his middle years Gerald the Archdeacon became Gerald the Plantagenet courtier.

[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

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