Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Gerald of Wales on the Cardinal Virtues: A Reappraisal of De Principis Instructione

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Gerald of Wales on the Cardinal Virtues: A Reappraisal of De Principis Instructione

Article excerpt


Deprincipis instructione, a work begun in the 11905 and completed only by 1216/17, ranks among the less esteemed writings of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223). Only a single minor study has been devoted to it in the last few decades, the author of which qualifies the first distinctio of the tripartite work as the least readable product to have flowed from Gerald's pen. Its bookish character, it is suggested, makes it a much less valuable text than the second and third sections, dominated by historia.1 According to another commentator, book I even gives proof of Gerald's lack of political realism.2 The most authoritative comprehensive study on Gerald advances a hardly more favourable opinion: the author thinks book I 'really quite separate' and calls it a 'conventional' and 'largely derivative" piece of work centred around 'moral platitudes', even though these are illustrated by historical exempla (mostly borrowed from elsewhere) and alternated with 'some important passages of Gerald's own' concerning contemporary affairs.3 Indeed, scholars chiefly appraise De principis instructione as a historical source relating to Gerald's own time, thus playing down the character of the work as a mirror of princes.

It is my opinion that Gerald's work, especially its first book, deserves a better reputation. This essay attempts to do justice to De principis instructione by taking the moral teachings of book I seriously. I shall argue that Gerald used his learned sources (most but not all of which are known) with remarkable freedom in pursuit of his educational purpose. Also, I shall discuss the relation between Gerald's work and the little-known definitions of twenty-four virtues by a contemporary English glossator of Roman law known as 'Magister G'. An edition of these definitions is included in this essay.


As Gerald explains in the preface of De principis instruction, the function of book I is to offer moral teachings and precepts for princely education derived from Christian and pagan authors, whereas books II and III instruct the prince through examples.4 In spite of this distinction, book I consists for the most part of historical exempla, many of which are not included in George F. Warner's partial edition of the work. Even in the most theoretical parts of his work, Gerald recounts story on story, much in line with his reputation as an indefatigable narrator comparable to his contemporaries Walter Map and Peter of Blois.5

The basis of book I (or at least of its first thirteen chapters) is a traditional scheme of virtues - more precisely, of the cardinal virtues, as I shall try to demonstrate. Instead of repeating from his sources the definitions and divisions of these virtues, Gerald takes pains to apply them to princely government and to exemplify them with a variety of moral tales. He puts practice above theory, and the particular and concrete above the general and abstract. This is not an inevitable result of Gerald's loquacity, but a matter of deliberate choice on his part, as a remark in book I makes clear: 'singulas autem species [sc. fortitudinis] tarn diffinire quam per membra dividere, sicut philosophi tractate soient, potius artificium esset ostentare quam simpliciter incedere, quod hic elegimus' (I.9, p. 30). The book is not simply an assembly of 'moral platitudes', but rather offers an elaboration of current moral thought. It is time to see how Gerald brings this elaboration about.

The central theme of book I is the difference between a good prince and a tyrant. As this difference is moral in character, Gerald aptly expounds it by the aid of moral categories, namely a series of virtues. The first thirteen chapters of book I are devoted to largely traditional moral virtues: moderamen, mansuetudo, verecundia, pudicitia, patientia, temperantia, dementia, munificentia, magnificentia, iustitia, prudentia, providentia, modestia. Next follow two chapters on pairs of qualities ('audacia et animositas', 'gloria et nobilitas") which may or may not count as virtuous. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.