Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part. I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna. Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles. Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland. Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.
O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130). As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:
I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous. But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)
After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’. Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.
In section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’. While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood. As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’ Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified. When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.
The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves. If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status. The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death. He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.
The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’. He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion. The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’. Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’ He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman. The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.
The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward. As they parted he thanked the priest.
Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events. As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’. Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.
I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.
Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS. There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’. She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’ Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women). Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.
Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird. When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed. A blackbird settled there, nested, and laid its eggs. St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.
St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.
Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends. It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there. He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms. They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All
Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.
As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive. He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested. Notions of credibility were different from ours. As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.
As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.