Monday, 18 September 2017

Werewolves, Church Reform and Colonial Attitudes in The Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales

The Topographia Hibernica or Topography of Ireland (1188) by Gerald of Wales provides an insight into the colonial language used during the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland. Much of of the Topographia employs some of the standard tropes of legitimising a colonial enterprise. Scholars such as Karkov have previously described the text in terms of it portraying the Irish and Ireland as wild and exotic as a deliberate means of providing a moral and religious justification for the conquest. While this is true, it also obscures a more particular issue that Gerald is concerned with while writing the text. The Irish Church and his desire to see reform within it, making sense in the context of the wider reform movement going on in Europe at the time. The Topograhia is therefore not only a colonial text, but a colonial text written with the purpose of criticising and encouraging reform in the Irish Church.

Gerald of Wales was born at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire and therefore was from Marcher land. He was of Cambro-Norman descent, being related to Gerald of Windsor who had married Nesta, a daughter of Rhys ap Tudor, a prince of South Wales. This is important for understanding Gerald's account of Ireland, as it means he himself was of mixed descent and had actively participated in a society which had experienced close- sometimes forceful- contact between the Welsh and English. He therefore had first hand experience of how expansion, colonial in nature, affected society in the Marches. After finishing studying in Paris, Gerald began to use his talents for the benefit of the Church. He was appointed by Richard, Archbishop of Canterbury, to collect special dues in the  diocese of St David's. In November 1183 he resigned as diocesan vicar, following which he payed his first visit to Ireland. Here for a year he spent a portion of his time collecting material for the writing of his books. Gerald was sent as part of Prince John's court who had been sent by Henry II of England to invade Ireland. Being appointed Bishop of Ferns or Leighlin, he stayed four months after the invasion. Gerald was therefore heavily involved in the pastoral and ecclesiastical parts of his role in the Church. We can perhaps see that there was curiosity about Ireland in England, by how much his book was received back in England. Gerald spent three days reading the Topographia to select audiences at Oxford, it was claimed that Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury read a section of the book each day during his tour of Wales in 1183.

The History of the Topographia 

However, in any attempt of Gerald to portray Ireland as alien and uncivilised he encountered a significant problem. Ireland and Britain had a significant history of contact between each other. Most importantly they fitted into the wider Christian community, making it more difficult for Gerald to demonise the Irish. A number of scholars have tried to place the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland as part of wider phenomena of European expansion in the period. For example, Angrett Simms has noticed similarities to Gerald in other commentators of the period. Most notably in Adam of Bremen, who wrote an account of the Scandinavians in the 1070s and Helmold of Bosau whose chronicle of the Slavs was written in the 1170s. However, many of these areas were still heavily pagan, and had not experienced the same level of contact, especially in the form of missionaries, that Ireland had previously had with the continent. As late as the 10th and 11th centuries new Irish communities were being founded in Europe, including at Waulsort in the Ardennes by St Cadroe of Armagh and in 946 and the establishment of another at Metz in the 970s.

Gerald therefore has a task in the Topographia to uncouple Ireland from its long Christian tradition. At times he is critical, but not always completely ruthless, in his criticism of the Irish Church. In the Table of Matters of the Topographia Gerald states that the Irish clergy are 'in many points praiseworthy' but 'the prelates should be reproved from their neglect of their pastoral office'. A similar message comes across in the third part of the text, during which Gerald quite heavily focuses on the faults he believes the Irish Church has:

'If the prelates from the time of Patrick through all those years had done a man's job, as they should have done, in preaching and instructing, chastising and correcting, they would have extirpated at any rate to a certain extent those abominations of the people already mentioned, and would have impressed upon them some semblance of honour and religious feeling. But there was no one among them to raise his voice as a trumpet. There was none to fight on the other side, and be a wall for the house of Israel. There was none to fight for the church of Christ even to exile, to say nothing of blood- that church which Christ had purchased for himself with his precious blood. Consequently all the saints of this country are confessors, and there is no martyr. It would be difficult to find such a state of things in any other Christian kingdom. There was found no one in those parts to cement the foundations of the growing church with the shedding of blood. There was no one to do this service; not  single one. For they are pastors that wish to be fed, and do not wish to feed. They are prelates that do not wish to be of use, but rather to use. And they are bishops who welcome the honour and and name of their calling, but do not welcome its duties and responsibilities'.

This passage from the is pivotal in understanding Gerald of Wales's othering and demonisation of the Irish throughout the Topographia. The Irish Church is criticised on grounds of being too ascetic and its lack of concern regarding pastoral duties and active involvement in ecclesiastical matters.The amount of space dedicated to Church reform towards the end of the book shows that Gerald had this in mind while writing the rest of the Topographia and this markedly influences the colonial nature of the rest of the text. One such instance can be identified when he Gerald criticses a rite in Munster. According to his account there is a well once touched that causes a deluge of rain across the entire province. The rain will not stop until 'a pries, who is both virgin in mind and body and specially chosen for the purpose celebrates Mass in a chapel not far from the well' and 'appeases the well with a sprinkling of holy water and the milk of a cow of one colour'. This account may seem at first to derive simply from the prejudiced colonial nature of the Topographia, however it must also be understood within Gerald's viewpoint of the Church. The 'barbarous rite, without rime or reason' can be linked to Gerald's wider beliefs about reform. With this account he is hoping to alienate the Irish Church further from the rest of Europe by potraying as uncouth and almost pagan.This can also be identified when Gerald describes the Irish as 'ignorant of the rudiments of of the Faith' and 'shameful in their practices and culture'. Gerald is attempting to advance his agenda of Church reform by paganising the Irish, separating them from their long Christian tradition.

Perhaps, one of the most obvious ways through which Gerald distinguishes the Irish from the mainstream Christian tradition is by recasting its history. While describing the history of the Irish Church in part 3, there is a notable absence of Ireland's Golden Age of monasticism and missionary work on the continent. The absence of the former can be explained by Gerald's particular distaste for neglecting pastoral duties, at the cost of asceticism. Another way through which Gerald undermines the tradition of the Irish Church is by attacking the tradition of St Patrick driving out all the snakes out of Ireland. He writes 'Some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick and all other saints of the land purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times, and long before the laying of the foundations of the Faith, the island was naturally without these as well as other things'. In this instance, Gerald is deliberately separating the myth regarding the absence of poison and snakes in Ireland from the its Christian tradition, by suggesting it has always naturally been like that. The effect of this is that it once again distances the Irish Church from the wider Christian community.

         Kingfishers and storks from a manuscript of the Topographia found in the British Library

The Geography of the Topographia 

The uneasiness of Ireland's position in the Topographia and Gerald's difficulty of placing it because of its historic relationship to the rest of Europe can also be identified in the geography found within the first part. Andrew Murphy has previously argued that the end of part one sets Ireland in direct opposition to the East, but with the purpose of placing Ireland at the zero point of a graduated scale that runs from East to West. By doing this Ireland is neither directly conforms to the 'otherness' or 'sameness' of the East or West. The most obvious example of this can be seen in Gerald's emphasis on the poisonous nature of the East. 'The Well of the Poisons brims over in the East. The farther from the East it operates, the less does it exercise the force of its natural efficacy' this until Ireland which Gerald states is absent of poison. This is a useful way at looking how in the eyes of Gerald, Ireland never fully fits into the conceptions of the East and West, but it is also a viewpoint that can be heavily expanded upon.

Murphy goes on state that the text states any form of mediation is impossible and morally detestable, as seen by a set of tales that stress unbreakable boundaries and dichotomies. However, he misses out the key religious undertones that Gerald is promoting in these tales. In one instance 'there is a Lake in Ulster which contains an island divided into two parts'. The key feature that divides the two parts is that 'one part contains a very beautiful church with a great reputation for holiness, and is well worth seeing;' yet 'the other part of the island is stony and ugly and abandoned to the use of evil spirits only.' The main subject of this division is the Church and it determines the welfare of any visitors to the island.  Likewise, the tale of the Lake in Munster has follows a similar if more complex pattern. 'There is a lake in the north of Munster which contains two islands, one rather large and the other rather small. The larger has a church venerated from the earliest times. The smaller has a chapel cared for most devotedly by a few celibates called 'heaven-worshippers' or 'god-worshippers.' Gerald goes on to state that 'No woman or animal of the female sex could ever enter the larger island without dying immediately' on the smaller island 'no one ever dies or could die a natural death'. Those who live on the smaller island still 'sometimes suffer mortal sickness and endure the agony almost to their last gasp' when 'they are eventually so distressed that they prefer to die in death than drag out a life of death, they get themselves finally transported in a boat to the larger island' where 'as soon as they touch the ground there, they give up the ghost'. Once again the main subject of the division is religion, except this time neither part seems to be fully adequate. Gerald's purpose in including these tales is to show the position that he believes the Irish Church is in. The tales do not just show Ireland's position as neither directly conforming or opposing to the West, but they particularly focus on the Irish Church and how it neither fully adheres to or antagonises Gerald's outlook on the Faith.

                         The Werewolves of Ossory, depicted in a copy of the Topographia.

The Werewolves and Social Rites

The story of the werewolves near the border of Meath is perhaps one of the most commented about section of the Topographia. With scholars taking a range of meanings from the tale which Gerald of Wales seems to give particular attention to.  However, they have understated its religious connotations and the way Gerald relates these to critique social rites. Karkov has particularly tied the tale to political events. In the tale, a priest is travelling from Ulster to Meath during which he encounters two wolves on the edge of a forest on the border of Meath. During this period, Meath and Ulster were under the control of two Anglo-Norman nobles, Hugh de Llacy and John de Courcy, in between them was the Kingdom of Airgialla ruled by the Irish Murchad Ua Cerbaill. Murchad had submitted to Henry II and Prince John, but was in alliance with RuaidrĂ­ Ua Conchobair, the High King of Ireland. Karkov however not only believes Gerald is portraying Airgialla as an Irish 'wilderness', but also suggests the tale is a criticism of the fian, bands of young and aristocratic fighting men. One of the terms for warrior, Fenian and others, was luch-thonn (wolf-skin), while in pre-conquest tales fennid is interchangeable for diberg (outlaw or brigand). Men who participated in such activities were also known as ac faelad (wolflings). Kim Mcone has argued that membership of the fian whether fictional or real was a socially endorsed rite of passage. These interpretations are correct in that Gerald is critiquing the social rites of the Irish through the werewolf tale, but do not fully consider how they relate to Gerald's religious agenda.

One of the claims of the tale is that one of the wolves 'said some things about God that seemed reasonable' and that the 'wolf gave a Catholic answer in all things'. This is remarkable, as Gerald is suggesting that not only the beasts are reasonable, but inhabit a mediate space where they are still faithful. The importance of this can be seen in the skinning of the wolves to human form. The she-wolf  in the tale 'received from the hands of the priest all the last rites duly performed up until the last communion' and 'gave thanks also to God that in her last hour he had granted her such consolation'. The wolf then 'begged him not to deny to them in any way the gift and help of God'. The priest followed this and 'pulled all the skin off the she-wolf from the head down to the navel, folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand' and 'immediately the shape of an old woman, clear to be seen, appeared.' The fact that this tale revolves around the priest conferring and blessing the wolves, reveals Gerald's opinion of the Irish Church. It is like the wolves in that is similarly close to his personal view of orthodoxy, but is still covered by a 'skin'. Only by the removal of the skin by an outsider, 'the priest, can the Irish Church fully resemble the true faith. The fact that 'the skin which had been removed by the he-wolf resumed its former and position' and that the wolf still 'showed himself to them to be a man rather than a beast' further highlights the uneasy position the Irish Church inhabits in Gerald's mind.

Similar tales to this throughout the Topographia also show this. Gerald reports a rite of conferring kingship in Kenelcunill in northern Ulster. 'When the whole people of that land has been brought together in one place, a white mare is brought forward in the middle of the assembly' a man then 'has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces and boiled in water.' Gerald criticises this social rite, but it is important to note he does this in the context of religion with it being 'unrighteous'. By stating he is 'professing himself to be a beast also' Gerald is referencing Mark 10:8, 'and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.' The man by having bestiality with the white mare to be made King is losing his humanity in the process because of the unrighteousness act he is committing. Gerald is directly relating the social rite to his apprehensive view of the Irish Church. A similar pattern can be detected in Gerald's description of a hybrid that was half-ox and half-man 'in the neighbourhood of Wicklow when Maurice fitzGerald got possession of the country and the castle'. This instance could be compared with the presence of hybrids in Gerald's other work The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. Jeffrey Cohen suggests that the presence of hybrids in this is a result of  cross-cultural interaction between  Anglo-Normans and the Welsh in the Marcher lands. A similar viewpoint on hybrids in the Topographia could be supported by the fact that the ox-man only appears after the Anglo-Norman conquest of Wicklow. The ox-man was eventually 'transferred to the society of men' because 'it had more of the man than beast'. As Gerald places importance on religion and morality as part of social rites, the fact that the ox-man eventually joined the society of men means it is reminiscent of the werewolf tale. It therefore adds to the suggestion that Gerald views the Irish Church as occupying an uneasy ground, that it neither completely adheres toor opposes his beliefs.


The Topographia Hibernica  has all the trappings of a colonial text, however the way in which Gerald of Wales was particular concerned with Church Reform has been overlooked. His focus on rites and worship shows that he is especially concerned with the practices of the Irish Church and they relate or do not relate to his own personal views on reforming the Church. Because of Ireland's long Christian tradition this task requires deconstructing the Irish Church's history and its importance. The unsettled position which the Irish Church occupies in Gerald's mind can also be identified in the tales geography found in the text. The Topographia Hibernica is therefore not only a text with colonial connotations, but a text that combines these with Gerald of Wales's specific concerns regarding Church reform.


Primary Source:

Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland (1188) translated by John J. O'Meara in The History and Topography of Ireland. London: Penguin, 1982.

Secondary Sources:

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales." In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, 85-104. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2000.

Karkov, Catherine. "Tales of the Ancients: Colonial Werewolves and the Mapping of Postcolonial Ireland." In Postcolonial Moves: Medieval through Modern, edited by Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R Warren, 93-110. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2003.

Martin, F. X. "Gerald of Wales, Norman Reporter on Ireland." Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 58, no. 231 (1969): 279-92.

Murphy, Andrew. But the Irish Sea Betwixt Us: Ireland, Colonialism, and Renaissance Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

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