“History and Topography of Ireland” written by Gerald of Wales around 1188 was a highly popular document of its time. The document speaks about the people of Ireland, their history, culture, traditions, clothes and typical behaviors and habits. Overall, the work and its key can be called biased because the author’s negative attitude towards the object of his research is quite obvious. Besides, the document was created after the Norman invasion of Ireland.
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Gerald of Wales admires king Henry the Second who conquered Ireland. At the end of the document, the author adds a lengthy complimentary passage designed to enumerate all the achievements of Henry the Second. Modern historians and researchers stick to the opinion that Gerald did not visit many places in Ireland and his work mainly was confirming a set of famous British stereotypes about the people of Ireland.
Finally, one more important bias the author of this document reveals is his religious belief. Gerald of Wales states that the beginning of the Irish history happened with the arrival of Cesara, the daughter of Noah, to the shores of that land. Besides, the author keeps mentioning mythical giants that were viewed as the natural enemies of people inhabiting Ireland.
According to Gerald of Wales, the history and topography of Ireland base on several periods of the occupation of this land. Groups of arrivers coming to Ireland kept starting new settlements and having offspring and multiplying, but at a certain point, all of the settlers together with their households were wiped out by various disasters such as diseases or wars. This way many different nations managed to visit Ireland and establish their cultures and settlements there.
The constant threat for the newcomers were the mythical giants that, obviously, were aggressive towards the settlers and often started battles and wars with them. The cultures that were successful in the battles against giants still died because of smell and contagion that occurred after the bodies of dead giants started to decay.
Gerald of Wales also mentions that nature changed along with the appearance of the new settlements, for example, lakes suddenly emerged from the underground. Besides, the civilizations of settlers kept eliminating forests and turning the areas covered with trees into plains and fields. This was done with the purpose of cultivation of various plants and breeding cattle such as sheep, horses, and cows.
“History and Topography of Ireland” is a very famous document mostly because it is the only primary source that tells about the lifestyle and habits of medieval Ireland. This document is also very disputable because of its author’s clearly biased perceptions. Many historians have been trying to make a research and prove Gerald of Wales wrong, yet it is hard to dig so far into the past with so few primary sources available.
At the same time, the historical significance of “History and Topography of Ireland” is hard to overestimate. The document is very old and exceptionally valuable. It provides the modern viewer with the perceptions of the medieval times, beliefs, stereotypes, cultural divisions and developments. “History and Topography of Ireland” today is appreciated not only for the information delivered by the author but also for the facts the historians and researchers can read between the lines.
The vivid details presented by the author widen the contemporary idea about medieval societies, their beliefs, ethics, and manners. For example, the fact that Gerald of Wales criticizes incest means that mainly, due to religious beliefs, this practice was considered unacceptable, yet in some areas of Europe, it was still happening.
In fact, the author of “History and Topography of Ireland” speaks about the subjects of his study in a rather judgmental manner calling the people of Ireland barbarians and condemning their lifestyle, household, morals, behaviors, habits, rituals, and traditions. Gerald of Wales openly despises most of the aspects of the Irish lifestyle. He calls these people primitive, rude, cruel and not very bright.
He also describes some of their rituals such as assigning a new ruler and makes them sound especially barbaric. Gerald constantly mentions that these people are wild, lazy and not organized. He points out that they do not know how to grow crops or tend to their fields and trees properly, that they neglect the lands they inhabit, that even their clothes are messy and impractical.
He also speaks about the love for violence and treachery among the Irish people, their complete disrespect towards Christian religion and namely the ritual of baptism.
Politically, Gerald of Wales clearly sticks to the opinion that Henry the Second who conquered Ireland and managed to control it was the person bringing positive influence to the land and the leader able to change the barbaric nature of the wild people he colonized, make them more civilized and sophisticated.
The way Gerald speaks about the Irish and their conqueror resembles the description of taming of the beast; he actually calls the people of Ireland beasts.