Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Gerald of Wales' 'Topographia Hibernica': Sex and the Irish Nation

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Gerald of Wales' 'Topographia Hibernica': Sex and the Irish Nation

Article excerpt

Assessed from a modern perspective, the Topographia Hibernica is of little value as a work of ethnography. Although promoted by its author as a lucid circumscription of Ireland and its inhabitants, it clearly and disconcertingly swerves between fact and fiction; and, although rhetorically endorsed by the testimony of impartial experience, it betrays a variety of authorial prejudices. The result is a written landscape that is inhabited by a bizarre menagerie of outlandish monstrosities and vitiated by inflections of scorn, disdain and slander. If Gerald's zoological observations are to be believed, the Ireland of the 1180's accommodated not only such familiar creatures as eagles, hares, weasels and geese, but also such oddities as a portentous frog, a prophetic werewolf, a population of banished fleas, a flock of unboilable ducks, and a species of fish remarkable for its golden dentures.(1) Similarly, if his ethnological remarks are given any credit, then it must be assumed that the twelfth-century Irish were indeed scrofulous barbarians notable for their addiction to unbounded turpitudes of lust, for these ostensible monsters of perversion allegedly practiced incest, granted bestiality a ritualistic function in ceremonies of kingship, and idiosyncratically displayed the stigmata of hermaphroditism as the physical consequences of their ethnic deviance.(2) In short, if we believe all Gerald tells us, then we must also accept that the nature of twelfth-century Ireland and its inhabitants paradoxically ran "contra naturae cursum" (II, Incipit).

The veracity of the Topographia has of course long been discredited, and the earliest systematic demolitions to be undertaken from an Irish perspective were made in the seventeenth century. The first was Stephen White's Apologia pro Hibernia, written in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I, and therefore during specifically the period in which the Catholics of Ulster were being forcibly displaced by protestant immigrants;(3) the second, the Cambrensis eversus of John Lynch, was published in the early years of the Restoration and in the aftermath of Cromwell's punitive campaign of 1649.(4) That the work of a medieval author should have gained such celebrity over four hundred years after its composition is in itself remarkable, if not unique. But this attention hardly redounds to Gerald's credit. For both White and Lynch, the Topographia represented a timeless declaration of imperialism and belligerence, its pejorative rhetoric perversely transformed into an immutable truth that could be used to justify any Insular intervention in Irish affairs.(5) In the view of both, therefore, it had become a paradigm, a veritable institution of conflict which had at all costs to be dismantled.

There is a great deal that justifies this view. Gerald holds the disreputable distinction of being the first inhabitant of Britain to depict the Irish as idle, disorganized and little better than animals;(6) and he is as an early apologist for foreign invasion, his derogatory treatise often reading as an imperialistically inflected act of containment. It is dedicated to Henry II, who himself led an expeditionary force to Ireland in 1171 and subsequently nominated Prince John as its new Overlord;(6) it documents apparent historical facts interpreted to ratify the Kings of Britain as the rightful monarchs of Ireland;(8) and it performs in its very title a gesture of total appropriation, territory (topos) constituted and regulated by writing (graphia) in facilitating and glorifying rehearsal of the full imposition of Angevin power.(9) Gerald accordingly anticipates later developments both by presenting the Irish in prejudicial terms and by aligning such a stratagem with contemporary Insular movements of territorial and cultural expansionism. And the inferences to be drawn from his text can be summarized through a perverse reasoning, which, with variations of ambiguous subtlety, can still be heard today: if the Irish are in such egregious need of the civilizing and natural culture of Britain, it is specifically because they are so barbarically marginal to the green and pleasant land in which civilization, culture, and presumably also nature itself, so egregiously flourish. …

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