GIRALDUS CAMBRENSIS OR GERALD OF WALES (continued)

Contents
of this section

Part II

Faults in the Welsh Character
The Welsh in battle
The Welsh as landowners
The fostering of sons
Geoffrey of Monmouth


Part II
The previous notes are taken from Part 1 of Giraldus's 'Description of Wales', which dates from the 12th cent. In them he describes some of the more acceptable traits of the Welsh, but he continues in Part II to detail some of the bad points of the Welsh national character.

In the preface to Part II Giraldus says: the natural propensities of the Welsh may well have been corrupted and changed for the worse by their long exile and their lack of prosperity. Poverty puts an end to many of our vices, but it has been known to encourage us in our wrongdoing.

Faults in the Welsh Character

The inconstancy and instability of the Welsh; and their failure to keep their word or carry out their promises.

The Welsh people do not keep their promises, for their minds are as fickle as their bodies are agile. It is very easy to persuade them to do something wrong, and just as easy to stop them once they have started. They are always quick to take action, and they are particularly stubborn when what they are doing is reprehensible. The only thing they really persist in is changing their minds.

A formal oath never binds them. They have no respect for their plighted word, and truth means nothing to them. They are so accustomed to breaking a promise, held sacrosanct by other nations, that they will stretched out their hand, as the custom is, and with this gesture swear an oath about nearly everything they say, not only in serious and important matters but on every trifling occasion.

They live on plunder and have no regard for the ties of peace and friendship.

It is the habit of the Welsh to steal anything they can lay their hands on and to live on plunder, theft and robbery, not only from foreigners and people hostile to them, but also from each other. When they see a chance of doing harm, they immediately forget all treaties of peace and friendship. They think more of material gain, however shameful.

In his book called the Downfall of the Britons, Gildas, who revered the truth, as every historian must, was not prepared to gloss over the weakness of his own people. 'In war they are cowards,' he said, 'and you cannot trust them in times of peace.' What do you think then of Julius Caesar, who when in the reign of Aurelius Ambrosius, he fought against them under their leader Cassivelaunas.

'In terror showed his back to the Britons he'd attacked?'

Were they not brave on that occasion? What about Belinus and Brennius who captured Imperial Rome and added it to all their conquests. Were they not brave in the days of our own famous king Arthur, call him fabulous if you will.

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The Welsh in battle

In war the Welsh are very ferocious when battle is first joined. They shout, glower fiercely at the enemy, and fill the air with fearsome clamour. In the first onslaught they are more than men, and the shower of javelins which they hurl, they seem most formidable opponents. If the enemy resists manfully and they are repulsed, they are immediately thrown into confusion, with further resistance they turn their backs, making no attempt at counter-attack, but seeking safety in flight.

Although beaten today and shamefully put to flight with much slaughter, tomorrow they march out again, no whit dejected by their defeat or their losses. They may not shine in open combat and in fixed formation, but they harass their enemy by ambushes and night-attacks. In a single battle they are easily beaten, but they are difficult to conquer in a long war, for they are not troubled by hunger or cold, fighting does not seem to tire them.

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The Welsh as landowners

The Welsh people are more keen to own land and to extend their holdings than any others I know. To achieve this they are prepared to dig up boundary ditches, to move stones showing the edges of fields and to overrun clearly marked limits. So prone are they for this lust of possession, from which they all seem to suffer, that they are prepared to swear that the land which they happen to occupy on some temporary or longer established tenancy agreement of lease, hire, renting or any other similar arrangement is their won freehold and has always belonged to the family, even when they and the rightful owner or proprietor have publicly sworn an affidavit about his security of tenure. Quarrels and lawsuits result, murders and arson, not to mention frequent fratricides. Things are made worse by the ancient Welsh custom of dividing between the property which they have. (This is the law of 'gavelkind' where brothers in a family are entitled to an equal share of land or property at the death of the family head, as different to the law of 'primogeniture' when the eldest son inherits the land).

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The fostering of sons

Another cause of dissension is the habit of Welsh princes and other nobles of sending away from home each of their sons to be fostered and educated separately in other families. (Again this is a typical custom among Celtic nations). If the prince happens to die, each nobleman plots and plans to enforce the succession of his own foster-child and to make sure he is preferred to other brothers. Frightful disturbances have occurred in their territories as a result, people being murdered, brothers killing each other. Everybody knows that it is very difficult to resolve disputes of this sort.

You will find that friendships are much warmer between foster-brothers than they are between true brothers. They will persecute their living brothers until they even bring about their deaths; but when their brothers die, especially if someone else happens to have killed them, they will then move heaven and earth to avenge them.

Giraldus Cambrensis, though himself a Welshman has a vitriolic tongue when he derides his fellow countrymen, was an educated churchmen, who had studied at Paris and Oxford. But he was ambitious and saw himself as the archbishop of Wales in deference to the English Archbishop of Canterbury.

But nevertheless the descriptions of his journeying through Ireland and Wales are very useful indications of everyday life following the Norman invasion of Britain.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

Some time before Giraldus Cambrensis was born, and believed to be between 1135 and 1139 Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his Historia Regum Britanniae, an attempt to establish for the Celts a historical identity greater than in any other work.

The writing, which translated as History of the Kings of Britain, followed a trend of the time - the theme found in Virgil's Aeneid, in which a noble group of people were guided by the gods towards a splendid destiny. Like others it began tracing the nation back to the Trojans, and then through a series of heroic conquests to what was then the present day.

Although it was denounced by many, including the prominent historian of the day, William of Newburgh, as a tissue of absurdities, many considered it true.

Believed to be from Monmouth and of Breton descent, Geoffrey, who spent much of his life as an Oxford cleric, alleged that the Historia was translated from a 'very old book in the British tongue'.

Historia begins with the settlement of Britain by Brutus the Trojan, great grandson of Aeneas, and moves through the reigns of early kings to the time of the Roman conquest, and on through the Saxons to Uther Pendragon and his brother Aurelius.

But it is Geoffrey's account of the Arthur legend which to this day provided the basis of the legends that surrounded that mysterious king. Although Arthur only occupies a fifth of Geoffrey's work, he took what was believed to have been a defiant Celtic leader who stood firm in the face of barbarian invasions and transformed him into Britain's most enduring myth.

Along with aligning the history of Britain so that it could be compared with those of Greece and Rome, Geoffrey also attempted to create in Arthur a figure whose deeds were only matched by those of the French king Charlemagne. William of Newburgh was equally scathing in his denunciation of the work.

'Whatever Geoffrey has written is a fiction invented either by himself or others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or the desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and cannot bear to hear of his death.'

Other academics such as the present day Arthur historian, Michael D. Fraley, believes that such a dismissal of Geoffrey's work would be a mistake.

'Although the History can no longer be treated as pure history, it is still one of the most important books of the Middle Ages. It's a book that has been much loved.' It has also sparked the debate, still raging today, as to whether Arthur was a Welsh or English-based Celtic king.

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