Absent Friends: It wasn't what he wanted

It’s a truth of literature that many books are unjustly forgotten. Contracts expire, reading fads shift, publishers merge or go out of business—and as a result, books disappear. Formerly, these forgotten friends would languish in library stacks and crop up haphazardly in second-hand bookstores. But the age of the Internet has dramatically changed this landscape. Thanks to a multitude of online used book sites, it’s now possible to obtain a copy of virtually any book ever printed. And thus it’s no longer quixotic (or sadistic) to recommend out of print authors.   
Hence this feature, which will examine and recommend authors whose work has all but disappeared from common view. There’s vast treasure to be found beyond Books in Print; consider these essays pieces of a map.

Gerald of Wales.jpg

As Charles Homer Haskins pointed out in his humbly durable masterpiece The Renaissance of the 12th Century, the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all. Fiercely cold most of the time (due to a bout of climate change), but not dark in the sense of shuttered. Beknighted, but not benighted.

The great scholar John Addington Symonds (whose absence from bookstore shelves bloody well qualifies him for honoring here in Absent Friends, somewhere down the line) put it very prettily when he observed that any age without Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael must necessarily seem dark. The ostentatious showboating of the Italian Renaissance is the problem in a nutshell when it comes to thinking about the innocent ages that come before.

The mighty twelfth century is a perfect case in point. Its universities were thriving; its rulers were uniformly energetic and idiosyncratic and quite a few of them were admirably forward-thinking; its invigorating Islam-Christianity clash was at full-boil (with the proportion of fanatical rock-throwing to sober theological debate being about the same as the present age); its merchants and explorers were everywhere pushing back the boundaries of the known world; and most importantly for our purposes, it abounded with books and learned men to read them and write them. These men would have been astonished to learn that they lived in an age which could possibly have excited the pity of future ages; they were too busy brawling and feuding and traveling and petitioning and through it all writing.

And none more so than Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis” (although he never refers to himself that way). He was born around 1147 and for eighty years lived in the bright, immediate sunlight of his times, writing to everyone, talking with everyone, knowing everyone, at one time or another seeming to disagree with everyone. He was the gadfly of Kings Henry II, Young Henry, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and John; he was on intimate personal terms with the most venal and most holy prelates of the day, up to and certainly including Pope Innocent III; he knew personally most of the near-innumerable princes of Wales, to most of whom he was related.

In other words, he was extremely well-connected, but never enough so to satisfy either himself or his omnivorous vision of what was owed him, ancestrally.

In objective terms, that would have been quite a bit. Gerald de Barri was born at Manorbier Castle, son of the powerful Norman lieutenant William de Barri and his wife Angharad, who was the daughter of the legendary Princess Nessa, the so-called “Helen of Wales” who was the mistress of King Henry I, the mother of Welsh heroes, and the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr Mawr, the last independent prince of South Wales.

His family, not surprisingly, chose the Church for his career and sent him to the Benedictine abbey of St. Peter in Gloucester. From there his studies took him to Paris, possibly for nearly a decade with little interruption. This extensive churchman’s education gave excellent grounding to an already impulsive, acquisitive, and retentive mind, and Gerald emerged from it with a command of several languages – although not, possibly, Welsh itself: when Archbishop Baldwin traveled through Wales with Gerald in his retinue, he employed another man to do his official translating with Welsh princes and the Welsh people. (It would be interesting if Gerald, who prefigured the humanists of the 15th century in so many ways, shared the same ambivalence toward his native Welsh that the greatest of those humanists, Erasmus, felt toward his native Dutch.)

He also emerged with a highly expressive, highly fluid command of medieval Latin, a fact which would be on conspicuous display in the works he would produce almost continuously for the rest of his life, works that take for their subject matter virtually the whole field of human inquiry. These works include poetry, biblical commentary, natural history, philosophy, theology, and, on a more formal basis, a fully documented life of St. David, a meticulously documented itinerary of his passage through Wales, an accompanying dossier of the life, people, and customs of Wales (including a point-by-point plan, not only on how the Welsh could defeat the English, but ecumenically enough, on how the English could defeat them), a geographical description of Ireland, a forensic analysis of the conquest of Southern Ireland, and a prejudiced (because all of his first cousins did the pillaging) account of the so-called “conquest” of Ireland.

Reading Gerald, one is struck by how easily the man’s natural curiosity is engaged. An account of Welsh’s propensity for alliteration prompts a general discussion of literary flourishes in all languages. In the course of describing wily demonic visitations in France and Denmark (and withal very civilized visitations, as in the case of a couple in Pembrokeshire who hired a red-haired young man named Simon to manage their household; this he did with remarkable skill, seeing to their every need and treating their manual laborers extremely generously. Everybody’s happy until one night some witnesses see him conferring with demons by the water-mill – whereupon he’s called before his master and mistress and promptly … fired. Doubtless without a character reference), he breaks off to talk about the falcons they have in Wales. His mention of a heroic greyhound sent to Henry II as a present sparks a discussion of dogs in general, their habits, their physical senses, stories of their bravery or sagacity.

The most remarkable aspect of this mental agility is its eager, unforced tone. Nowhere in Gerald’s extensive writings is there any hint of the wonderment-on-spec so common to later writers (and so gruesomely endemic to “travel-writing” as a sub-genre); despite being a man very much in the world and of it, despite being embroiled in decades-long disputes both temporal and physical, Gerald is one of those rare humans who never lose their essentially childlike wonder at the infinite strangeness of the world. In his Journey Through Wales (and to a slightly lesser extent in his Description of Ireland), this spirit of inquiry sometimes can be taken to Herodotean levels of credulity, as when our author is digressing about the wildlife found in a particular lake in Snowdonia (the translations are mine):

“…all of them [marine wildlife] have only one eye – the right but not the left. And if the inquisitive reader should ask me the cause of such a thing, I’d have to answer that I just don’t know. It’s worth noting here that in Scotland too, in two different places, one in the east and one in the west, the sea-fish called mullet are found to have only one eye; they lack the left but have the right.”

Also like Herodotus, Gerald isn’t above taking thinly (or not so thinly) veiled pot-shots at any of the large number of people, living or dead, who for some reason annoy him. True, his exact contemporary the congenial Walter Map (also a Welsh churchman, also an extremely engaging writer, and also largely forgotten today. Dark Ages indeed) escapes unharmed, but the same can hardly be said for the entire brace of Plantagenets with whom he was coeval, who are as often called wicked and duplicitous as they are praised for wisdom or moderation (they had on the whole been very generous to him – but they hadn’t given him what he wanted most, as we shall see). Certainly the dead were not safe: Gerald, for instance, deeply disliked the literary legacy of Geoffrey of Monmouth (yet another Welshman, in case anybody’s still counting) and hardly ever lets a chance go by score points off his ghost. He relates the story of a Welshman Gerald calls Melerius, who was driven mad by demons and cured by the holy men of St. David’s – a partial cure only, for even afterwards demons would still occasionally torment the man. There was a cure, however:

“When he was hounded beyond enduring by these evil spirits, the Gospel of St. John was placed in his lap and the spirits dispersed like a flock of birds. If the Gospel were removed and, out of curiosity, Geoffrey [of Monmouth]’s History of the Kings of England put in its place, the evil spirits promptly returned, stronger than ever.”

Contemporary literary criticism seems fairly watery stuff by comparison.

Gerald was probably not yet 30 when he accompanied Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, on a progress through Wales to raise soldiers for the Third Crusade. King Henry II and his son Richard, as well as Philippe Auguste of France, had all pledged to go on crusade to the Holy Land (Gerald himself also pledged, but he got no further than France before being conveniently recalled to England; mild-mannered Baldwin, on the other hand, indeed went to the Acre and died there), and such expeditions required enlisted men. Crowds of such candidates (and courts of the Welsh princes to whom they belonged) were exhorted by Baldwin and his colleagues, although on the occasions when this task fell to Gerald, he did so in Latin and French only, not his native tongue.

But crusading was not the pinnacle of Gerald’s worldly aims – nor, it must be said, was writing. From an early age he had had the reform of the Church as his zeal and goal, and for personal and nationalist reasons, he’d fixed his sights on the great see of St. David’s. He not only longed to purge the Church of the corruptions that had crusted around it (the Erasmus parallel comes in here too), he envisioned a grand pulpit from which to do so: the bishopric of all Wales, raised to an archbishopric and freed from the authority of the see at Canterbury – instead reporting, as Canterbury did, directly to the Pope.

His uncle, David Fitz-Gerald, had been Bishop of the great see of St. David (a tenure marked by steep ineptitude, but nevertheless, a family thing) before him, and when Fitz-Gerald died, Gerald naturally assumed it would fall to him.

It didn’t. The last thing a canny monarch like Henry II wanted (especially so soon after the ecclesiastical chaos he’d undergone with Thomas Becket) in such a powerful ecclesiastical position was so rabid and outspoken a Welsh nationalist as Gerald had proven himself to be. He gave it instead to a milquetoast he could control and crossed one headache off a list that was never short of them.

Sound political policy, but it gave Gerald a hot core of indignation that would burn in him the rest of his days. On one and perhaps two other occasions, he would be a candidate for St. David’s, often turning down lucrative and prestigious ecclesiastical appointments elsewhere. But it was never to be; in every case, he was passed over for milder, more tractable men. The Plantagenets might not have been particularly literary monarchs (one doubts they ever drew much enlightenment from any of Gerald’s books, copies of which he was always giving them), but they cut politics with their eye-teeth.

Gerald’s vociferous nationalism was born – as it curiously so often is – from entirely diluted blood. He himself – with a Norman father and an at most half-Welsh mother – sported no more than a quarter Welsh blood, and yet Welsh nationalism and Welshness itself were animating forces in his life and literary energies. Gerald was a “professional” Welshman, and the political fact of it colors all his writing – sometimes pleasantly, as in the abundance of warm anecdotes in his Description of Wales, at other times virulently, as can be found in the more vicious portions of his Conquest of Ireland.

This dichotomy – between the man of letters, sequestered from the braying world, and the man of court, looking after his own interests – is sharper in Gerald than in any other figure of the time, as he himself knew better than anyone, comparing court life (in tones of bitter experience that would be familiar to any gambler on the Vegas strip) to gaming at dice:

“If you long to advance at court, the lure of your ambition will snare you and keep you going until it’s satisfied. And if you fail, it’ll still keep you going, just a bit longer, just a little while longer – until finally you’ve squandered everything, including your time, the most precious and irrevocable loss of all.”

Not all of Gerald’s works are equally marred by this disillusionment, however, and his two masterpieces, The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales are almost entirely free of it. These works have had a paltry handful of decent translations into English. Sir Richard Colt Hoare’s in 1804 has been often reprinted despite its creaky anachronisms and very frequent elisions and omissions. Lewis Thorpe’s 1978 translation is free of anachronisms and omissions but also in large part free of the central reason for the modern-day reader to discover Gerald: fun. Gerald’s plentiful colloquialisms and rhetorical chicanery are poorly served by academic specialists loath to seem either frivolous or ephemeral. Gerald himself knew he wasn’t the former and so guaranteed he would not be the latter.

And so the question arises, what of the present day? What of the resurgence of Welsh nationalism we read so much about? Surely it’s not too much to hope that even now some new translator is slouching towards Swansea to be born?

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.