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Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald de Barry)

English writer, historian; b. 1147; d. 1216-1220

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Giraldus Cambrensis (GERALD DE BARRY) was a distinguished writer, historian, and ecclesiastic of the early Middle Ages; b. in Manorbeer, Pembrokeshire, about the year 1147; d. probably between the years 1216 and 1220. His father, William de Barry, was one of the most powerful of the Welsh nobility at the time. Though Gerald’s brothers adopted the profession of arms he himself followed a more peaceful course, devoted himself to study, and, influenced by his uncle, the Bishop of St. David’s, resolved to become an ecclesiastic. He went to Paris to continue his studies; and, if we are to believe his own account, he was looked upon here as a model of piety and learning. He returned to England about 1172, and was employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, where he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove the abuses then flourishing in the Welsh Church. He was appointed Archdeacon of Brecknock. On the death of his uncle, the Bishop of St. Davids (1176), the chapter fixed upon Giraldus as the man most likely to withstand the aggressions of the Archbishop of Canterbury and submitted his name to Henry II. The king promptly rejected him in favor of one of his Norman retainers; the chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Giraldus, disappointed with the result, withdrew to Paris and here continued his studies. In 1180 he returned to Wales and received an appointment from the Bishop of St. David’s, which he soon resigned, and was sent by Henry II to accompany Prince John on his Irish expedition (1184). While in Ireland he composed his work “Topographia Hibernica”, which purports to give a description of the country, but is full of legends and tales, as well as the “Expugnatio Hibernica”. The latter work is not entirely unreliable, but requires to be read with care. He left Ireland in 1186, and two years later accompanied Archbishop Baldwin in his journeys through Wales, preaching the crusade. Here, according to his own account (Itinerarium Cambriae), his eloquence met with such a response that Wales was denuded of its fighting men. He went to France, but was recalled to England in 1190, where he informs us he was offered the Bishopric of Bangor and, in 1191, that of Llandaff.

On the death of Peter de Lela, 1198, the chapter of St. David’s again nominated Giraldus for the bishopric; but Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused confirmation. Representatives of the canons followed Richard to France, but before they could interview him he died; his successor, King John, received them kindly, and granted them permission to hold an election. They were unanimous in their selection of Giraldus; and, as Hubert still refused to confirm the election, Giraldus started for Rome, where he had an interview with Innocent III. The archbishop, however, had anticipated him, and, as the pope was not convinced that St. David’s was independent of Canterbury, the mission of Giraldus proved a failure. It was in connection with this that he wrote his book “De jure Menevensis Ecclesiae”. Giraldus returned, and was supported by the chieftains of Wales, while King John warmly espoused the cause of the Archbishop of Canterbury. After a long struggle the chapter of St. David’s deserted Giraldus, and having been obliged to escape secretly from Wales he fled to Rome. Pope Innocent III annulled both elections, and Geoffrey Henlaw was appointed to the See of St. David’s, despite the strenuous exertions of Giraldus, who afterwards was reconciled with the king, and received from him a small pension. At the next election in St. David’s, 1214, his name was passed over in silence. He was alive after 1216, as it is evident from the way in which he speaks of John that that king was already dead.

De Barry was a writer of remarkable brilliancy and force, a narrator rather than a historian, full of self-confidence, and at times courage, and on the whole neither the model of perfection which he proclaims himself to be, nor the despicable character which he is oftentimes painted. His works are published in the Rolls Series; and in the prefaces to the volumes may be sought indications as to probable dates of composition and publication. Appended is a list of de Barry’s writings: “Topographia Hibernica”; “Expugnatio Hibernica”; “Itinerarium Cambria”; “Gemma Ecclesiastica”; “De Instructione Principum”; “De Rebus a se gestis”; “Vita S. Davidis II episcopi Menevensis” (which Brewer considers as, more probably, the work of Giraldus); “Descriptio Cambriae” (published as the last); “Vita Galfridi Arch. Eboracensis”; “Symbolum Electorum”; “Invectionum Libellus”; “Speculum Ecclesii”; “Vita S. Remigii”; “Vita S. Hugonis”; “Vita S. Davidis archiepiscopi Menevensis”; “Vita S. Ethelberti”; “Epistola ad Stephanum Langton”; “De Giraldo Archidiacono Menevensi”- “De Libris a se scriptis”; “Catalogus brevior librorum”; “Retractiones”; “De jure Menevensis Ecclesiae. See introductions to his works by the editors, Brewer and Dimock.

The works of Giraldus dealing especially with Ireland: the “Topography”, and “History of the Conquest”, though long regarded as possessing considerable authority, did not escape hostile criticism. In “Cambrensis Eversus” (1662), under the pseudonym of Gratianus Lucius, Dr. Lynch, of whose personal history little is known, produced a work which, though controversial in character, entitles the author to repute rather as a painstaking chronicler than as a controversialist of a high order. After criticizing the “Topography” adversely, and showing that the title of the second book, the “Conquest of Ireland“, is a misnomer, the writer of “Cambrensis Eversus” disproves de Barry’s title of historian, and meets his charges against the Irish people. Giraldus is impeached with ignorance of the language, and unfamiliarity with the country; he is said to have embodied in his works unauthenticated narratives, with little regard for chronology; his own admission that he had “followed the popular rumors of the land” is extended in meaning, and perhaps unduly insisted upon.

Nor is the “Cambrensis Eversus” merely a collection of arbitrary accusations and unsubstantial rejoinders, made with a view to effect the discredit of de Barry as a writer of history. What might be urged as the greatest imperfection of Lynch’s polemic, its too great wealth of detail, had not escaped the attention of the able author, who excuses the diffuseness to which he is compelled by asseverating his determination to follow Giraldus closely to the end. Whatever may be said as to the ability with which Lynch discharged his task of controversialist, there can be no denial of the thoroughness and, above all, the sincerity of his methods. He does not pick out the weak points in his opponent’s armor, and never shirks the issue; but grapples with every difficulty, as the order of his opponent suggests.

Perhaps the most serious accusation leveled against Giraldus, next to the indictment of bias and dishonesty, is that wherein he is impeached of being addicted to the cult of the superstitious and the practice of witchcraft. If this be true, and Merlin would seem to have exercised a considerable sway over the mind of de Barry, then it would be vain to seek in the writings of the latter the reflex of that calm discrimination and sober balance of judgment which should characterize the historian. Finally, it may be said that the student of Irish history, by reading the works of Giraldus in the light of “Cambrensis Eversus”, cannot fail to derive a helpful knowledge of the period which they embrace.



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