Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Gerald of Wales: Early Life

Gerald of Wales
Gerald of Wales lived in the twelfth century and it is from him that we get a great deal of our information about that time. Seventeen of his books have survived to this day and are particularly interesting because he wrote about everything in his life, not always impartially, and passed comment on the people, the country, church life, politics and any other subject that interested him. He was one of the most fascinating figures of the medieval period, and I shall be writing about him for the next few weeks.

He was known variously as Gerald of Wales, Giraldus Cambrensis (to the church), Gerallt Cymro (to the Welsh) and Gerald de Barry (to his family and the other Norman barons). He was proud to say that he was descended from ‘the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the March’, but it often went against him, the Normans dismissing him as Welsh and the Welsh decrying him as Norman. 

He was in fact three-quarters Norman and one-quarter Welsh. On his mother’s side he was descended from the Welsh Princess Nest, married to the Norman Gerald of Windsor. On His father’s side he came from a Norman family who took their name from Barry Island south of Cardiff.
Manorbier Castle

Gerald was born about 1146 at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the youngest of four brothers, so he decided early in his life to become a churchman. He had little chance of an inheritance and his uncle was Bishop of St Davids so could assist his career. He received his initial education at the Benedictine house at Gloucester Cathedral. In any case, in the twelfth century the church was the only place to get an education. The first thing he learned was Latin, as everything in the church was written and spoken in Latin. His books prove he was one of the greatest Welsh masters of Latin. He also spoke Norman-French from home, some Welsh from his mother and a little English, though he hated it, saying it sounded like the hissing of geese.

About 1165–74 in Paris he studied the trivium which comprised grammar, logic and rhetoric. This was the skill of arguing clearly and persuasively, which proved to be Gerald’s speciality.

He was employed by Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, and distinguished himself for his efforts to remove supposed abuses of consanguinity (marriage between near relatives) and tax laws flourishing in the Welsh church at the time. He was appointed in 1174 archdeacon of Brecon, to which was attached a residence at Llanddew. He obtained this position by reporting the existence of the previous archdeacon's mistress; the man was promptly sacked. While administrating this post, Gerald collected tithes of wool and cheese from the populace; the income from the archdeaconry supported him for many years.

[sources: A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly, and Wikipedia]

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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