Gerald De Barri (of Wales), Description of Wales

Gerald de Barri (c.1146–c.1223, aka Gerald Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales) was of mixed Welsh- Norman parentage but his work reflects the attitudes of the Anglo-Normans during a period of early imperial expansion. He was trained in Paris and wrote a number of books which reflect the negative attitudes of the Anglo-Normans about their Celtic neighbours, including Topographia Hibernica “Topography of Ireland” in 1188, Expugnatio Hibernica “Conquest of Ireland” and Itinerarium Cambriae “Journey through Wales” in 1191.

The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from the edition of Dent (1908).

§ 1.1. […] Wales is a country very strongly defended by high mountains, deep valleys, extensive woods, rivers, and marshes; insomuch that from the time the Saxons took possession of the island the remnants of the Britons, retiring into these regions, could never be entirely subdued either by the English or by the Normans. Those who inhabited the southern angle of the island, which took its name from the chieftain Corinaeus, made less resistance, as their country was more defenceless. The third division of the Britons, who obtained a part of Brittany in Gaul, were transported over there, not after the defeat of their nation, but long before, by king Maximus, and, in consequence of the hard and continued warfare which they underwent with him, were rewarded by the royal munificence with those districts in Gaul.

§ 1.3. […] It is worthy of note, that the Welsh bards and singers, or reciters, have the genealogies of the aforesaid princes, written in the Welsh language, in their ancient and authentic books; and also retain them in their memory from the time of Rhodri the Great back to the Virgin Mary; and from thence to Sylvius, Ascanius, and Æneas; and from the latter produce the genealogical series in a lineal descent, even to Adam. […]

§ 1. 6. […] The people of Cornwall and Brittany speak a language similar to that of the Welsh; and from its origin and near resemblance, the Welsh can understand them most if not all of the time; and although less delicate and methodical, yet it approaches, as I judge, more to the ancient British idiom. As in the southern parts of England, and particularly in Devonshire, the English language seems less agreeable, yet it bears more marks of antiquity (the northern parts being much corrupted by the invasions of the Danes and Norwegians), and adheres more strictly to the original language and ancient mode of speaking; a positive proof of which may be deduced from all the English works of Bede, Rhabanus, and King Alfred, being written according to this idiom.

§ 1.8. […] They attend carefully to the defence of their country and their liberty; for these they fight, for these they undergo hardships, and for these willingly sacrifice their lives; they esteem it a disgrace to die in bed, an honour to die in the field of battle; […] They make use of light arms, which do not impede their agility, small coats of mail, bundles of arrows, and long lances, helmets and shields, and more rarely shinguards plated with iron.

The higher class go to battle mounted on swift and generous steeds, which their country produces; but the greater part of the people fight on foot, on account of the marshy nature and unevenness of the soil. The horsemen as their situation or occasion requires, willingly serve as infantry, in attacking or retreating; and they either walk bare-footed, or make use of high shoes, roughly constructed with untanned leather. […]

§ 1.12. Their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches […] They make use of three instruments, the harp, the pipe, and the crwth [bowed- string instrument]. […]

In their rhymed songs and set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious, that they produce, in their native tongue, verbal techniques of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and sentences. Hence arise those poets whom they call Bards, of whom you will find many in this nation, endowed with the above faculty […]

§ 1.17. The Welsh esteem noble birth and generous descent above all things, and are, therefore, more desirous of marrying into noble than rich families. Even the common people retain their genealogy, and can not only readily recount the names of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but even refer back to the sixth or seventh generation, or beyond them, in this manner: Rhys, son of Gruffydd, son of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, son of Eineon, son of Owen, son of Howel, son of Cadell, son of Rhodri Mawr, and so on. […]

§ 2.8. The prince who would wish to conquer Wales, and govern it peaceably, must use this method. He must be determined to apply a diligent and constant attention to this purpose for one year at least; for a people who with a collected force will not openly attack the enemy in the field, nor wait to be besieged in castles, is not to be overcome at the first onset, but to be worn out by prudent delay and patience. Let him divide their strength, and by bribes and promises endeavour to stir up one against the other, knowing the spirit of hatred and envy which generally prevails amongst them. […]

§ 2.9. […] There are three things which ruin this nation, and prevent its enjoying the satisfaction of a fruitful progeny. First, because both the natural and legitimate sons endeavour to divide the paternal inheritance amongst themselves; from which cause, as we have before observed, continual fratricides take place. Secondly, because the education of their sons is committed to the care of the high-born people of the country, who, on the death of their fathers, endeavour by all possible means to exalt their pupil; from whence arise murders, conflagrations, and almost a total destruction of the country. And, thirdly, because from the pride and obstinacy of their disposition, they will not (like other nations) subject themselves to the dominion of one lord and king.

§ 2.10. […] The English, I say, fight in order to expel the natural inhabitants from the island, and secure to themselves the possession of the whole; but the Welsh maintain the conflict, that they, who have so long enjoyed the sovereignty of the whole kingdom, may at least find a hiding place in the worst corner of it, amongst woods and marshes; and, banished, as it were, for their offences, may there in a state of poverty, for a limited time, perform penance for the excesses they committed in the days of their prosperity. For the perpetual remembrance of their former greatness, the recollection of their Trojan descent, and the high and continued majesty of the kingdom of Britain, may draw forth many a latent spark of animosity, and encourage the daring spirit of rebellion.

During the military expedition which King Henry II [r.1154-89] made in my younger days against South Wales [1163], an old Welshman at Pencadair, who had faithfully adhered to him, being desired to give his opinion about the royal army, and whether he thought that of the rebels would make resistance, and what would be the final event of this war, replied, “This nation, O king, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will often prevail by its laudable exertions; but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think, that any other nation than this of Wales, or any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall, in the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth.”