About Geraldus Cambrensis


A Bowen family web historical reference series e-document.
The Description of Wales
by Geraldus Cambrensis

Geraldus Cambrensis c. 1146-c. 1223

Gerald of Wales (also called Gerald de Barri and Giraldus Cambrensis) was educated in Paris and served as Archdeacon of Brecknock. In service of Henry II of England he visited Ireland, a journey which resulted in the writing of Topographia Hibernica ("Topography of Ireland") and Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland"). He later toured his homeland and wrote Itinerarium Cambriae ("Itinerary of Wales") and Cambriae descriptio ("Description of Wales").


"Giraldus Cambrensis... is a figure for whom many historians, myself included, have a love-hate relationship. He was a mover-and-shaker of his time in terms of politics, having personally met or had a relationship with English kings, popes, Welsh leaders and Marcher lords. He was remakably well educated, and provides a wealth of important insights into the people and land of his times. He was also biased, superstitious, not above writing harsh invectives, and rather egotistic. Be that as it may, Giraldus has left us some very valuable writings, and one cannot but admire his efforts.....What Giraldus is most noted for are his writings, most notably the "Topography of Ireland", the "Conquest of Ireland", the "Description of Wales" and the "Itinerary Through Wales"...... From David Fortin A Synopsis of Welsh history in 20 parts


This text is from the 1912 J. M. Dent edition.
The original work was by Geraldus Cabrensis was written in 1194.

The Description of Wales

by Geraldus Cambrensis


First Preface

to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury


I, who, at the expense of three years' labour, arranged, a short time ago, in three parts, the Topography of Ireland, with a description of its natural curiosities, and who afterwards, by two years' study, completed in two parts the Vaticinal History of its Conquest; and who, by publishing the Itinerary of the Holy Man (Baldwin) through Cambria, prevented his laborious mission from perishing in obscurity, do now propose, in the present little work, to give some account of this my native country, and to describe the genius of its inhabitants, so entirely distinct from that of other nations. And this production of my industry I have determined to dedicate to you, illustrious Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, as I before ascribed to you my Itinerary; considering you as a man no less distinguished by your piety, than conspicuous for your learning; though so humble an offering may possibly be unworthy the acceptance of a personage who, from his eminence, deserves to be presented with works of the greatest merit.

Some, indeed, object to this my undertaking, and, apparently from motives of affection, compare me to a painter, who, rich in colours, and like another Zeuxis, eminent in his art, is endeavouring with all his skill and industry to give celebrity to a cottage, or to some other contemptible object, whilst the world is anxiously expecting from his hand a temple or a palace. Thus they wonder that I, amidst the many great and striking subjects which the world presents, should choose to describe and to adorn, with all the graces of composition, such remote corners of the earth as Ireland and Wales.

Others again, reproaching me with greater severity, say, that the gifts which have been bestowed upon me from above, ought not to be wasted upon these insignificant objects, nor lavished in a vain display of learning on the commendation of princes, who, from their ignorance and want of liberality, have neither taste to appreciate, nor hearts to remunerate literary excellence. And they further add, that every faculty which emanates from the Deity, ought rather to be applied to the illustration of celestial objects, and to the exultation of his glory, from whose abundance all our talents have been received; every faculty (say they) ought to be employed in praising him from whom, as from a perennial source, every perfect gift is derived, and from whose bounty everything which is offered with sincerity obtains an ample reward. But since excellent histories of other countries have been composed and published by writers of eminence, I have been induced, by the love I bear to my country and to posterity, to believe that I should perform neither an useless nor an unacceptable service, were I to unfold the hidden merits of my native land; to rescue from obscurity those glorious actions which have been hitherto imperfectly described, and to bring into repute, by my method of treating it, a subject till now regarded as contemptible.

What indeed could my feeble and unexercised efforts add to the histories of the destruction of Troy, Thebes, or Athens, or to the conquest of the shores of Latium? Besides, to do what has been already done, is, in fact, to be doing nothing; I have, therefore, thought it more eligible to apply my industry to the arrangement of the history of my native country, hitherto almost wholly overlooked by strangers; but interesting to my relations and countrymen; and from these small beginnings to aspire by degrees to works of a nobler cast. From these inconsiderable attempts, some idea may be formed with what success, should Fortune afford an opportunity, I am likely to treat matters of greater importance. For although some things should be made our principal objects, whilst others ought not to be wholly neglected, I may surely be allowed to exercise the powers of my youth, as yet untaught and unexperienced, in pursuits of this latter nature, lest by habit I should feel a pleasure in indolence and in sloth, the parent of vice.

I have therefore employed these studies as a kind of introduction to the glorious treasures of that most excellent of the sciences, which alone deserves the name of science; which alone can render us wise to rule and to instruct mankind; which alone the other sciences follow, as attendants do their queen. Laying therefore in my youth the foundations of so noble a structure, it is my intention, if God will assist me and prolong my life, to reserve my maturer years for composing a treatise upon so perfect, so sacred a subject: for according to the poet,


"Ardua quippe fides robustos exigit annos;"

"The important concerns of faith require a mind in its full vigour;"


I may be permitted to indulge myself for a short time in other pursuits; but in this I should wish not only to continue, but to die.

But before I enter on this important subject, I demand a short interval, to enable me to lay before the public my Treatise on the Instruction of a Prince, which has been so frequently promised, as well as the Description of Wales, which is now before me, and the Topography of Britain.

Of all the British writers, Gildas alone appears to me (as often as the course of my subject leads me to consult him) worthy of imitation; for by committing to paper the things which he himself saw and knew, and by declaring rather than describing the desolation of his country, he has compiled a history more remarkable for its truth than for its elegance.

Giraldus therefore follows Gildas, whom he wishes he could copy in his life and manners; becoming an imitator of his wisdom rather than of his eloquence - of his mind rather than of his writings - of his zeal rather than of his style - of his life rather than of his language.


Second Preface

to the same


When, amidst various literary pursuits, I first applied my mind to the compilation of history, I determined, lest I should appear ungrateful to my native land, to describe, to the best of my abilities, my own country and its adjoining regions; and afterwards, under God's guidance, to proceed to a description of more distant territories. But since some leading men (whom we have both seen and known) show so great a contempt for literature, that they immediately shut up within their book-cases the excellent works with which they are presented, and thus doom them, as it were, to a perpetual imprisonment; I entreat you, illustrious Prelate, to prevent the present little work, which will shortly be delivered to you, from perishing in obscurity. And because this, as well as my former productions, though of no transcendent merit, may hereafter prove to many a source of entertainment and instruction, I entreat you generously to order it to be made public, by which it will acquire reputation. And I shall consider myself sufficiently rewarded for my trouble, if, withdrawing for a while from your religious and secular occupations, you would kindly condescend to peruse this book, or, at least, give it an attentive hearing; for in times like these, when no one remunerates literary productions, I neither desire nor expect any other recompense. Not that it would appear in any way inconsistent, however there exists among men of rank a kind of conspiracy against authors, if a prelate so eminently conspicuous for his virtues, for his abilities, both natural and acquired, for irreproachable morals, and for munificence, should distinguish himself likewise by becoming the generous and sole patron of literature. To comprise your merits in a few words, the lines of Martial addressed to Trajan, whilst serving under Dioclesian, may be deservedly applied to you:


"Laudari debes quoniam sub principe duro, Temporibusque malis, ausus es esse bonus."

And those also of Virgil to Mecaenas, which extol the humanity of that great man:

"Omnia cum possis tanto tam clarus amico, Te sensit nemo posse nocere tamen."

Many indeed remonstrate against my proceedings, and those particularly who call themselves my friends insist that, in consequence of my violent attachment to study, I pay no attention to the concerns of the world, or to the interests of my family; and that, on this account, I shall experience a delay in my promotion to worldly dignities; that the influence of authors, both poets and historians, has long since ceased; that the respect paid to literature vanished with literary princes; and that in these degenerate days very different paths lead to honours and opulence. I allow all this, I readily allow it, and acquiesce in the truth. For the unprincipled and covetous attach themselves to the court, the churchmen to their books, and the ambitious to the public offices, but as every man is under the influence of some darling passion, so the love of letters and the study of eloquence have from my infancy had for me peculiar charms of attraction. Impelled by this thirst for knowledge, I have carried my researches into the mysterious works of nature farther than the generality of my contemporaries, and for the benefit of posterity have rescued from oblivion the remarkable events of my own times. But this object was not to be secured without an indefatigable, though at the same time an agreeable, exertion; for an accurate investigation of every particular is attended with much difficulty. It is difficult to produce an orderly account of the investigation and discovery of truth; it is difficult to preserve from the beginning to the end a connected relation unbroken by irrelevant matter; and it is difficult to render the narration no less elegant in the diction, than instructive in its matter, for in prosecuting the series of events, the choice of happy expressions is equally perplexing, as the search after them painful. Whatever is written requires the most intense thought, and every expression should be carefully polished before it be submitted to the public eye; for, by exposing itself to the examination of the present and of future ages, it must necessarily undergo the criticism not only of the acute, but also of the dissatisfied, reader. Words merely uttered are soon forgotten, and the admiration or disgust which they occasioned is no more; but writings once published are never lost, and remain as lasting memorials either of the glory or of the disgrace of the author. Hence the observation of Seneca, that the malicious attention of the envious reader dwells with no less satisfaction on a faulty than on an elegant expression, and is as anxious to discover what it may ridicule, as what it may commend; as the poet also observes:


"Discit enim citius meminitque libentius illud Quod quis deridet, quam quod probat et veneratur."


Among the pursuits, therefore, most worthy of commendation, this holds by no means the lowest rank; for history, as the moral philosopher declares, "is the record of antiquity, the testimony of ages, the light of truth, the soul of memory, the mistress of conduct, and the herald of ancient times."

This study is the more delightful, as it is more honourable to produce works worthy of being quoted than to quote the works of others; as it is more desirable to be the author of compositions which deserve to be admired than to be esteemed a good judge of the writings of other men; as it is more meritorious to be the just object of other men's commendations than to be considered an adept in pointing out the merits of others. On these pleasing reflections I feed and regale myself; for I would rather resemble Jerome than Croesus, and I prefer to riches themselves the man who is capable of despising them. With these gratifying ideas I rest contented and delighted, valuing moderation more than intemperance, and an honourable sufficiency more than superfluity; for intemperance and superfluity produce their own destruction, but their opposite virtues never perish; the former vanish, but the latter, like eternity, remain for ever; in short, I prefer praise to lucre, and reputation to riches.


[ Book 1 ][ Book 2 ]



[ The Bowen family web presents: David Fortin: A Synopsis of Welsh History in 20 parts. ]

[ A Short history of Wales by Owen M. Edwards ] [ The Prince of Wales Owain Glyn Dwr ]


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[ The Bowen family web site ]


The Description of Wales by Geraldus Cambrensis was placed on the
Bowen family web by Benjamin L. Bowen in May of 2002.