GIRALDUS CAMBRENSIS OR GERALD OF WALES (continued)
Contents of this section
Part I - The
Their hospitality and eating
How the Welsh cut their
hair, take care of their teeth and shave off their beards
The Welsh love music
Part I - The Welsh
Their hospitality and eating habits
In Wales no one begs. Everyone's home is open to all, for the Welsh generosity
and hospitality are the greatest of all virtues. They very much enjoy welcoming others
to their homes. When you travel there is no question of asking for accommodation
or of their offering it: you just march into a house and hand over your weapons to
the person in charge. They give you water so that you may wash your feet and that
means you are a guest. With these people the offering of water in which to wash your
feet is an invitation to stay. If you refuse the offer, it means that you have only
dropped in for refreshment in the early part of the day and do not propose to stay
In Wales young people go about in groups and families, under their chosen leader.
They spend their time in exercise and in practising with their weapons, with the
result they are ready at a moment's notice to protect their homeland. They enter
anyone's house without asking permission, as if it were there own.
Guests who arrive early in the day are entertained until nightfall by girls who play
to them on the harp. In every house there are young women just waiting to play for
you, and there is certainly no lack of harps. Here are two things worth remembering:
the Irish are the most jealous people on earth, but the Welsh do not seem to know
what jealousy is; and in every Welsh court or family the menfolk consider playing
on the harp to be the greatest of all accomplishments. When night falls and no more
guests are expected, the evening meal is prepared, varying according to what the
house has to offer, and to the number and the importance of the men who have come.
You must not expect a variety of dishes from a Welsh kitchen, and there are no highly
seasoned tit-bits to whet your appetite. In a Welsh house there are no tables, no
tablecloths and no napkins. Everyone behaves quite naturally, with no attempt whatsoever
at etiquette. You sit down in threes, not in pairs as elsewhere, and they put the
food in front of you, on a single large trencher containing enough for three, resting
on rushes or green grass. Sometimes they serve the main dish on bread, rolled out
large and thin, and baked fresh each day. In ancient books you will find these called
'lagana'. That noble youth from whom the Welsh claim their descent (Ascanius, son
of Aeneas) and whose mode of living they still in part maintain, ate his food off
thin bread in the same way: the whole family waits on the guests, and the host and
hostess stand there making sure that everything is being attended to. They themselves
do not eat until everyone else has finished. If there is shortage of anything, it
will be they who go without. Finally the time comes to retire to rest. Alongside
one of the walls is placed a communal bed, stuffed with rushes, and not all that
many of them. For sole covering there is a stiff hard sheet, made locally and called
in Welsh 'brychan'. They all go to bed together. They keep on the same clothes they
have worn all day, a thin cloak and a tunic, which is all they have to keep the cold
out. A fire is kept burning all night at their feet, just as it has done all day,
and they get some warmth from the people sleeping next to them. When their underneath
side begins to ache with the hardness of the bed and their uppermost side is frozen
stiff with cold, they get up and sit by the fire, which soon warms them up and soothes
away their aches and pains. Then they go back to bed again, turning over on their
other side if they feel like it, so that a different part is frozen and another side
is bruised by the hard bed.
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How the Welsh cut their hair,
take care of their teeth and
shave off their beards
Both the man and women cut their hair short and shape it round their ears. Like
the Parthians the women cover their heads with a flowing white veil, which sticks
up in folds like a crown. Both sexes take great care of their teeth, more than I
have seen in any other country. They are constantly cleaning them with green hazel
twigs, and then rubbing them with woollen cloths until they shine like ivory. To
protect their teeth they never eat hot food, but only what is cold, tepid, or slightly
The men shave their beards, leaving only their moustaches.
This is not a new habit, but one which goes back to time immemorial. In the book
which Julius Caesar wrote about his exploits, we read: the Britons 'shave their whole
body except their upper lip', Sometimes they shave their heads, too, so that they
can move more freely when running through forest groves. Of all the people I have
seen the Welsh are the most particular about shaving the lower parts of the body.
Julius Caesar, too, tells about the way, when about to fight a battle, the Britons
daub their faces with shiny paint. Making themselves so ghastly that the enemy can
hardly bear to look at them.
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The Welsh love music and singing
The Welsh are very sharp and intelligent. When they apply their minds to anything,
they are quick to make progress, for they have great natural ability.
When they play their instruments they charm and delight the ear with the sweetness
of their music. They play quickly and with subtle harmony. Their fingering is so
rapid that they produce this harmony out of discord.
Giraldus goes on to quote from a passage in his 'Topography of Ireland'; 'It is remarkable
how they (the Irish) maintain a musical balance while moving their fingers so rapidly.
They play their various instruments with consummate artistry, keeping them in close
harmony. The resulting melody is complete and satisfying, played softly but at great
speed, with what one may call smooth unevenness or a discordant discord. Whether
they are playing in fourths or fifths, they always begin with B flat and then come
back to it at the end, so that the whole melody is rounded off sweetly and merrily.
They play the grace notes with great abandon, above the heavy bourdon of the bass
strings. It follows that music which gives profound and indescribable pleasure to
those who listen carefully and can enjoy its subtleties, can only offend the ears
of the inattentive instead of gratifying them.
The Welsh, says Giraldus, play three instruments, the harp, the pipe and the crwth
When they come together to make music, the Welsh sing their traditional songs, not
in unison as is done elsewhere, but in parts, in many modes and modulations. When
a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear many
different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end
to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of B flat.
In the northern parts of Great Britain, across the Humber and in Yorkshire, the English
who live there produce the same symphonic harmony when they sing. They do this in
two parts only, with two modulations of the voice, one group humming the bass and
the others singing the treble most sweetly.
The two peoples must have developed this habit not by any special training but by
age old custom, by long usage which has made it second nature. As the English in
general do not adopt this way of singing, but only those who live in the north, I
think the latter must have taken their part singing from the Danes and Norwegians,
who so often invaded these parts of the island and held them longer under dominion.
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