Tuesday, 7 March 2017
Your Welsh ancestors: how they lived in the 12th century
Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, toured Wales in 1188 as companion to Baldwin of Forde, Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote of his journey in what must have been one of the earliest travel books and also gave an account of the character and habits of the people he met in Descriptio Cambriae (Description of Wales) in 1194. The trip was a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade.
He attempted to give the good and bad points as he saw them and - it must be said - the less flattering picture is somewhat longer than the admiration. I will reverse these proportions as I want to keep my readers! Perhaps his observations cannot be regarded as the entire truth as he made several errors in his account of the natural world, such as his assertion that beavers on the River Teifi castrated themselves to avoid danger.
Born in Manorbier Castle around 1146, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the youngest son of William FitzOdo de Barri and Angharad Fitzgerald. He was well educated and wrote in excellent Latin, becoming royal clerk and chaplain to Henry II, although he never attained the post of bishop of St. David's which he coveted.
Praise for the Welsh
"The Welsh people are light and agile. They are fierce rather than strong, and totally dedicated to the practice of arms. Not only the leaders but the entire nation are trained for war." Substitute rugby for war and one tends to believe him here. Normally, he found they ate plenty of meat but little bread and were neither gluttonous nor drunk. They were preoccupied with the defence of their country and the care of their horses, consuming no food all day and managing patiently without nourishment in the evening if there were none.
He found them generous and hospitable: "When you travel there is no question of your asking for accommodation or 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 that you are a guest." Entertainment would be a harp and the dinner was simple with no tables, tablecloths or napkins. The hosts waited to eat until everyone else had finished and then a communal bed was rolled out.
Hair was cut short and both sexes took great care of their teeth, rubbing them until they shone and avoiding hot food which might damage them. He found the Welsh sharp and intelligent and highly musical, playing 3 instruments: the harp, pipe and a stringed crwth. As singers they were adept at parts, as poets they loved alliteration and they were clever at puns and word play, even if those were cruel in intent. Bold and confident in speech in general, there were also "awenydion", soothsayers who behaved as if possessed and answered questions by going into a trance and talking gibberish.
A great respect for family and ancestry led them into ferocity over insults to their relations when they became "vindictive, bloodthirsty and violent" ready to avenge even old injuries. Yet they lived isolated lives on the edge of woods and were deeply religious: "The Welsh go to extremes in all matters."
The flip side
Giraldus stated that the Welsh rarely kept their promises since their minds were agile and frequently changed opinion - the only constant was sticking fast when something was reprehensible. They lived on plunder and, when battle was joined, they appeared ferocious, shouting and glowering but were thrown into confusion if the enemy resisted strongly (rugby again?)
Greedy for property, they had the custom of dividing land between brothers which led to violent disputes, arson and fratricide. Cheating over territory was common with boundary ditches being dug up and marking stones moved. Arriving at an affluent house, they "lose all control of themselves, and insist on being served with vast quantities of food and more especially with intoxicating drink." This seems inconsistent with much that he has described earlier but circumstances may have been different.
Incest was common and not seen as dishonourable, keeping matters within the family! They had given up homosexuality but still indulged in perjury, theft, robbery, rapine, murder and adultery, "a deep abyss of every vice." One wonders how they had time for warfare - and I have no images for this section.
He goes on to give advice on how the nation may be conquered but I will leave that to another post. Meanwhile you can read about the Norman Marcher Lords who attempted to control these people and their territory.