Friday, December 03, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Gerald of Wales!

Some Penguin Classics ought to engender only hatred, and surely the 1185 Topographia Hibernia of our old friend Gerald of Wales should be at the top of that infamous list. "Giraldus Cambrensis" was born around 1146, the scion of one of the most influential Norman families of the century. His mother was the celebrated 'Helen of Wales,' a beautiful woman named Angharad who eventually married Gerald de Windsor, the castellan of Pembroke, and started churning out little fitzGeralds, including Maurice, the murderous thug who helped Henry II invade and conquer Ireland.

Gerald was given a more gentle education and fitted out for a career in the Church, although his lifelong quest of appointment to the see of St. David's went unfulfilled. He first went to Ireland in 1183 accompanying Henry II's son Prince John and a large body of armed men, and while his uncle and his brother were busy spiking the locals, he took an interest in indigenous folklore. During that first visit and a subsequent on in 1185, he collected a large amount of, eh, information that the locals were only too happy to foist on an Englishman of apparently bottomless gullibility, and Gerald studiously set all this information down in a book which he called The History and Topography of Ireland, even though it contains virtually no accurate Irish topography and no accurate Irish history at all.

By the modest and admittedly cumbersome standards of the day, the book became a hit. This is understandable: not only was Ireland in 1185 a wild chunk of terra incognita most Normans had never seen, but as such, it presented unbeatable opportunities for the kind of moralizing that was then at the peak of its popularity with the book-buying clergy.

We should hate this book, since it's a picture-perfect illustration of history being written by the victors. Most of it is race propaganda of the vilest kind, like the innumerable tracts about native 'savages' that flooded the East Coast stationery stores in the early 19th century - and with the same purpose: to dehumanize the people you were in the process of dispossessing. It should be cast out, and Penguin Classics should no more print an edition of it than they would of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Except ... time, especially vast expanses of it like the vast expanse that now separates the sun in the sky every day from the 12th century, takes the sting out of things. I'm sure the editors of Penguin Classics didn't think about Irish crofters burned alive in front of their children when they bought John O'Meara's clean, fluid 1951 translation of the Topographia Hibernia and added it to the Classics backlist in 1982.

And perhaps that's OK. Those bishops weren't only enjoying the moralizing, after all; Gerald of Wales was an undeniably catchy storyteller, as his Journey Through Wales amply demonstrates. And O'Meara isn't for a moment blind to the defects of the work he's so skillfully translating:
The reader will be able to judge for himself the amount of credit to be placed in Giraldus' statements, and the motives by which he was actuated. He will see the single-minded vanity of the ambitious flatterer, the haughty contempt for one who came with his family to reform and invade, and the apparent credulity which must have delighted the hearts of the Irish.

And the truth is, aside from this one slim volume, we have very little surviving written records of any aspect of Irish life at the time. Economists, sociologists, climatologists, biologists ... many categories of people aside from military historians have ransacked this book, hungrily looking for the odd fact or tidbit that might be added to the historical picture. Gerald's sermons are mined for factual details:
There are many birds here of twofold nature. They are called ospreys. They are smaller than the eagle, but larger than the hawk. One of their feet is armed with talons, open and ready to snatch; but the other is closed and peaceful and suitable only for swimming. It is a wonderful instance of nature's pranks.

There is a remarkable thing about these birds, and I have often witnessed it for myself. They hover quietly on their wings high up in the air over the waves of the sea. In this way they can more easily see down into the depths below.

(O'Meara and the good folks at the Penguin art department fill this volume with illustrations from a 15th century manuscript of the work)

Likewise his frequent recourse to saints' lives can still yield items of temporal interest, like the pair of interesting assumptions buried in this little tale:
There is a district called Ferneginan in Leinster. It is separated from Wexford by the river Slaney only. From there the larger mice that are commonly called rats were entirely expelled by the curse of the bishop, Saint Yvor, whose books they had happened to eat. They cannot be bred nor can they live there, if brought in.

Of course, studying and sifting through the text like this requires often turn a blind eye to the aforementioned race hatred, which crops up on almost every page in some shape or other - sometimes buried in innuendo, many other times sadly explicit:
They [the Irish, naturally] are a wild and inhospitable people. They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living.

Yes indeed. Whereas the Normans in London at this time were using air-cars.

Gerald visited Ireland a few more times before his death in 1223, and he kept revising and enlarging his book for the rest of his life. O'Meara's slim little Penguin Classic is a rendition of the 'first edition' of the book, before its author started making egregious additions and displaying what O'Meara calls "indiscriminate erudition of all kinds." And the book fascinates in spite of itself, a quick, warped look at a people right on the edge of being inhospitabled out of every hill and valley they'd ever called their own.

1 comment:

JC said...

Wonderful! Exactly the kind of thing one comes to Stevereads for! You've made me want to read a book that yesterday I wouldn't have blinked at.