I've been meaning to read Gerald of Wales for ages and I've now finally read The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales. These are the kinds of books I love: travelogues and ethnography written by a Medieval monk, Gerald of Wales born in Pembrokeshire in 1146. He was a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England and accompanied Henry's son John (John, King of England, 1166 - 1216) to Ireland in 1185, then in 1188 toured Wales with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde. He wrote two accounts of this journey: Itinerarium Cambriae (The Journey Through Wales, 1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (The Description of Wales, 1193-94).
The Journey Through Wales is an interesting one documenting Gerald's travels around the coast in a recruitment drive for the Third Crusade. He begins at the start of March 1188 in Hereford, goes into Wales in New Radnor, Hay, Brecon, Abergavenny, and Caerleon, then along the coast to Llandaf and Margam Abbey, ultimately returning to Hereford on 14th April 1188 having travelled some 750 miles. It was a journey fraught with danger and Gerald records his adventures, the events, what he saw, and what he thought about what he saw. It's not the most unbiased account, but a travelogue from this period is rare and it is a fascinating document not only on Wales but the perils of travelling through wild terrain. It's the Description of Wales, however, that I found most enjoyable. In this he begins by describing the geography of Wales and how it is divided into three principalities: Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth, and how that came to be: in the 9th Century the king Rhodri Mawr split Wales between his three sons. Having described the land and its rivers, he goes on to write about the people. He writes practically first, on, for example, the military and military strategy, and then the people themselves. The details range from teeth cleaning, hair, and clothing, to the arts and music, and religion. He praises the Welsh, but he criticises them too in the second book, writing on their less desirable personal traits, suggesting for example they will swear on oath whatever is beneficial to them at the time, and are too easily turned against each other. Even so, Gerald of Wales' affection for his country is undeniable.
Both of these works are great reads, it's a valuable and rare glimpse into the every day life of the Medieval Briton. It's been a while since I've read Medieval literature and I always forget how much I enjoy it. I'm now looking forward to Gerald's Topography of Ireland now, which I'll have to try and get a hold of soon.