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Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book I, Ch. 3: Ewyas and Llanthoni

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Ewyas and Llanthoni

In the deep vale of Ewyas,52 which is about an arrow-shot broad, encircled on all sides by lofty mountains, stands the church of Saint John the Baptist, covered with lead, and built of wrought stone; and, considering the nature of the place, not unhandsomely constructed, on the very spot where the humble chapel of David, the archbishop, had formerly stood decorated only with moss and ivy. A situation truly calculated for religion, and more adapted to canonical discipline, than all the monasteries of the British isle. It was founded by two hermits, in honour of the retired life, far removed from the bustle of mankind, in a solitary vale watered by the river Hodeni. From Hodeni it was called Lanhodeni, for Lan signifies an ecclesiastical place. This derivation may appear far-fetched, for the name of the place, in Welsh, is Nanthodeni. Nant signifies a running stream, from whence this place is still called by the inhabitants Landewi Nanthodeni,53 or the church of Saint David upon the river Hodeni. The English therefore corruptly call it Lanthoni, whereas it should either be called Nanthodeni, that is, the brook of the Hodeni, or Lanhodeni, the church upon the Hodeni. Owing to its mountainous situation, the rains are frequent, the winds boisterous, and the clouds in winter almost continual. The air, though heavy, is healthy; and diseases are so rare, that the brotherhood, when worn out by long toil and affliction during their residence with the daughter, retiring to this asylum, and to their mother's54 lap, soon regain their long-wished-for health. For as my Topographical History of Ireland testifies, in proportion as we proceed to the eastward, the face of the sky is more pure and subtile, and the air more piercing and inclement; but as we draw nearer to the westward, the air becomes more cloudy, but at the same time is more temperate and healthy. Here the monks, sitting in their cloisters, enjoying the fresh air, when they happen to look up towards the horizon, behold the tops of the mountains, as it were, touching the heavens, and herds of wild deer feeding on their summits: the body of the sun does not become visible above the heights of the mountains, even in a clear atmosphere, till about the hour of prime, or a little before. A place truly fitted for contemplation, a happy and delightful spot, fully competent, from its first establishment, to supply all its own wants, had not the extravagance of English luxury, the pride of a sumptuous table, the increasing growth of intemperance and ingratitude, added to the negligence of its patrons and prelates, reduced it from freedom to servility; and if the step-daughter, no less enviously than odiously, had not supplanted her mother.

It seems worthy of remark, that all the priors who were hostile to this establishment, died by divine visitation. William,55 who first despoiled the place of its herds and storehouses, being deposed by the fraternity, forfeited his right of sepulture amongst the priors. Clement seemed to like this place of study and prayer, yet, after the example of Heli the priest, as he neither reproved nor restrained his brethren from plunder and other offences, he died by a paralytic stroke. And Roger, who was more an enemy to this place than either of his predecessors, and openly carried away every thing which they had left behind, wholly robbing the church of its books, ornaments, and privileges, was also struck with a paralytic affection long before his death, resigned his honours, and lingered out the remainder of his days in sickness.

In the reign of king Henry I., when the mother church was as celebrated for her affluence as for her sanctity (two qualities which are seldom found thus united), the daughter not yet being in existence (and I sincerely wish she never had been produced), the fame of so much religion attracted hither Roger, bishop of Salisbury, who was at that time prime minister; for it is virtue to love virtue, even in another man, and a great proof of innate goodness to show a detestation of those vices which hitherto have not been avoided. When he had reflected with admiration on the nature of the place, the solitary life of the fraternity, living in canonical obedience, and serving God without a murmur or complaint, he returned to the king, and related to him what he thought most worthy of remark; and after spending the greater part of the day in the praises of this place, he finished his panegyric with these words: "Why should I say more? the whole treasure of the king and his kingdom would not be sufficient to build such a cloister." Having held the minds of the king and the court for a long time in suspense by this assertion, he at length explained the enigma, by saying that he alluded to the cloister of mountains, by which this church is on every side surrounded. But William, a knight, who first discovered this place, and his companion Ervistus, a priest, having heard, perhaps, as it is written in the Fathers, according to the opinion of Jerome, "that the church of Christ decreased in virtues as it increased in riches," were accustomed often devoutly to solicit the Lord that this place might never attain great possessions. They were exceedingly concerned when this religious foundation began to be enriched by its first lord and patron, Hugh de Lacy,56 and by the lands and ecclesiastical benefices conferred upon it by the bounty of others of the faithful: from their predilection to poverty, they rejected many offers of manors and churches; and being situated in a wild spot, they would not suffer the thick and wooded parts of the valley to be cultivated and levelled, lest they should be tempted to recede from their heremitical mode of life.

But whilst the establishment of the mother church increased daily in riches and endowments, availing herself of the hostile state of the country, a rival daughter sprang up at Gloucester, under the protection of Milo, earl of Hereford; as if by divine providence, and through the merits of the saints and prayers of those holy men (of whom two lie buried before the high altar), it were destined that the daughter church should be founded in superfluities, whilst the mother continued in that laudable state of mediocrity which she had always affected and coveted. Let the active therefore reside there, the contemplative here; there the pursuit of terrestrial riches, here the love of celestial delights; there let them enjoy the concourse of men, here the presence of angels; there let the powerful of this world be entertained, here let the poor of Christ be relieved; there, I say, let human actions and declamations be heard, but here let reading and prayers be heard only in whispers; there let opulence, the parent and nurse of vice, increase with cares, here let the virtuous and golden mean be all-sufficient. In both places the canonical discipline instituted by Augustine, which is now distinguished above all other orders, is observed; for the Benedictines, when their wealth was increased by the fervour of charity, and multiplied by the bounty of the faithful, under the pretext of a bad dispensation, corrupted by gluttony and indulgence an order which in its original state of poverty was held in high estimation. The Cistercian order, derived from the former, at first deserved praise and commendation from its adhering voluntarily to the original vows of poverty and sanctity: until ambition, the blind mother of mischief, unable to fix bounds to prosperity, was introduced; for as Seneca says, "Too great happiness makes men greedy, nor are their desires ever so temperate, as to terminate in what is acquired:" a step is made from great things to greater, and men having attained what they did not expect, form the most unbounded hopes; to which the poet Ovid thus alludes.

"Luxuriant animi rebus plerumque secundis,
Nec facile est aequa commoda mente pati;

And again:

"Creverunt opes et opum furiosa cupido,
Et eum possideant plurima, plura petunt."

And also the poet Horace:

" - scilicet improbae
Crescunt divitiae, tamen
Curtae nescio quid semper abest rei.
Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam
Majorumque fames."

To which purpose the poet Lucan says:

" - O vitae tuta facultas
Pauperis, angustique lares, o munera nondum
Intellecta Deum!"

And Petronius:

Non bibit inter aquas nec poma fugacia carpit
Tantalus infelix, quem sua vota premunt.
Divitis hic magni facies erit, omnia late
Qui tenet, et sicco concoquit ore famem."

The mountains are full of herds and horses, the woods well stored with swine and goats, the pastures with sheep, the plains with cattle, the arable fields with ploughs; and although these things in very deed are in great abundance, yet each of them, from the insatiable nature of the mind, seems too narrow and scanty. Therefore lands are seized, landmarks removed, boundaries invaded, and the markets in consequence abound with merchandise, the courts of justice with law-suits, and the senate with complaints. Concerning such things, we read in Isaiah, "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they be placed alone in the midst of the earth."

If therefore, the prophet inveighs so much against those who proceed to the boundaries, what would he say to those who go far beyond them? From these and other causes, the true colour of religion was so converted into the dye of falsehood, that manners internally black assumed a fair exterior:

"Qui color albus erat, nunc est contrarius albo."

So that the scripture seems to be fulfilled concerning these men, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves." But I am inclined to think this avidity does not proceed from any bad intention. For the monks of this Order (although themselves most abstemious) incessantly exercise, more than any others, the acts of charity and beneficence towards the poor and strangers; and because they do not live as others upon fixed incomes, but depend only on their labour and forethought for subsistence, they are anxious to obtain lands, farms, and pastures, which may enable them to perform these acts of hospitality. However, to repress and remove from this sacred Order the detestable stigma of ambition, I wish they would sometimes call to mind what is written in Ecclesiasticus, "Whoso bringeth an offering of the goods of the poor, doth as one that killeth the son before his father's eyes;" and also the sentiment of Gregory, "A good use does not justify things badly acquired;" and also that of Ambrose, "He who wrongfully receives, that he may well dispense, is rather burthened than assisted." Such men seem to say with the Apostle, "Let us do evil that good may come." For it is written, "Mercy ought to be of such a nature as may be received, not rejected, which may purge away sins, not make a man guilty before the Lord, arising from your own just labours, not those of other men." Hear what Solomon says; "Honour the Lord from your just labours." What shall they say who have seized upon other men's possessions, and exercised charity? "O Lord! in thy name we have done charitable deeds, we have fed the poor, clothed the naked, and hospitably received the stranger:" to whom the Lord will answer; "Ye speak of what ye have given away, but speak not of the rapine ye have committed; ye relate concerning those ye have fed, and remember not those ye have killed." I have judged it proper to insert in this place an instance of an answer which Richard, king of the English, made to Fulke,57 a good and holy man, by whom God in these our days has wrought many signs in the kingdom of France. This man had among other things said to the king; "You have three daughters, namely, Pride, Luxury, and Avarice; and as long as they shall remain with you, you can never expect to be in favour with God." To which the king, after a short pause, replied: "I have already given away those daughters in marriage: Pride to the Templars, Luxury to the Black Monks, and Avarice to the White." It is a remarkable circumstance, or rather a miracle, concerning Lanthoni, that, although it is on every side surrounded by lofty mountains, not stony or rocky, but of a soft nature, and covered with grass, Parian stones are frequently found there, and are called free-stones, from the facility with which they admit of being cut and polished; and with these the church is beautifully built. It is also wonderful, that when, after a diligent search, all the stones have been removed from the mountains, and no more can be found, upon another search, a few days afterwards, they reappear in greater quantities to those who seek them. With respect to the two Orders, the Cluniac and the Cistercian, this may be relied upon; although the latter are possessed of fine buildings, with ample revenues and estates, they will soon be reduced to poverty and destruction. To the former, on the contrary, you would allot a barren desert and a solitary wood; yet in a few years you will find them in possession of sumptuous churches and houses, and encircled with an extensive property. The difference of manners (as it appears to me) causes this contrast. For as without meaning offence to either party, I shall speak the truth, the one feels the benefits of sobriety, parsimony, and prudence, whilst the other suffers from the bad effects of gluttony and intemperance: the one, like bees, collect their stores into a heap, and unanimously agree in the disposal of one well-regulated purse; the others pillage and divert to improper uses the largesses which have been collected by divine assistance, and by the bounties of the faithful; and whilst each individual consults solely his own interest, the welfare of the community suffers; since, as Sallust observes, "Small things increase by concord, and the greatest are wasted by discord." Besides, sooner than lessen the number of one of the thirteen or fourteen dishes which they claim by right of custom, or even in a time of scarcity or famine recede in the smallest degree from their accustomed good fare, they would suffer the richest lands and the best buildings of the monastery to become a prey to usury, and the numerous poor to perish before their gates.

The first of these Orders, at a time when there was a deficiency in grain, with a laudable charity, not only gave away their flocks and herds, but resigned to the poor one of the two dishes with which they were always contented. But in these our days, in order to remove this stain, it is ordained by the Cistercians, "That in future neither farms nor pastures shall be purchased; and that they shall be satisfied with those alone which have been freely and unconditionally bestowed upon them." This Order, therefore, being satisfied more than any other with humble mediocrity, and, if not wholly, yet in a great degree checking their ambition; and though placed in a worldly situation, yet avoiding, as much as possible, its contagion; neither notorious for gluttony or drunkenness, for luxury or lust; is fearful and ashamed of incurring public scandal, as will be more fully explained in the book we mean (by the grace of God) to write concerning the ecclesiastical Orders.

In these temperate regions I have obtained (according to the usual expression) a place of dignity, but no great omen of future pomp or riches; and possessing a small residence58 near the castle of Brecheinoc, well adapted to literary pursuits, and to the contemplation of eternity, I envy not the riches of Croesus; happy and contented with that mediocrity, which I prize far beyond all the perishable and transitory things of this world. But let us return to our subject.


52 If we consider the circumstances of this chapter, it will appear very evidently, that the vale of Ewyas made no part of the actual Itinerary.

53 Landewi Nant Hodeni, or the church of St. David on the Hodni, is now better known by the name of Llanthoni abbey. A small and rustic chapel, dedicated to St. David, at first occupied the site of this abbey; in the year 1103, William de Laci, a Norman knight, having renounced the pleasures of the world, retired to this sequestered spot, where he was joined in his austere profession by Ernicius, chaplain to queen Maude. In the year 1108, these hermits erected a mean church in the place of their hermitage, which was consecrated by Urban, bishop of Llandaff, and Rameline, bishop of Hereford, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist: having afterward received very considerable benefactions from Hugh de Laci, and gained the consent of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, these same hermits founded a magnificent monastery for Black canons, of the order of St. Augustine, which they immediately filled with forty monks collected from the monasteries of the Holy Trinity in London, Merton in Surrey, and Colchester in Essex. They afterwards removed to Gloucester, where they built a church and spacious monastery, which, after the name of their former residence, they called Llanthoni; it was consecrated A.D. 1136, by Simon, bishop of Worcester, and Robert Betun bishop of Hereford, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

54 The titles of mother and daughter are here applied to the mother church in Wales, and the daughter near Gloucester.

55 William of Wycumb, the fourth prior of Llanthoni, succeeded to Robert de Braci, who was obliged to quit the monastery, on account of the hostile molestation it received from the Welsh. To him succeeded Clement, the sub-prior, and to Clement, Roger de Norwich.

56 Walter de Laci came into England with William the Conqueror, and left three sons, Roger, Hugh, and Walter. Hugh de Laci was the lord of Ewyas, and became afterwards the founder of the convent of Llanthoni; his elder brother, Robert, held also four caracutes of land within the limits of the castle of Ewyas, which king William had bestowed on Walter, his father; but joining in rebellion against William Rufus, he was banished the kingdom, and all his lands were given to his brother Hugh, who died without issue.

57 This anecdote is thus related by the historian Hollinshed: "Hereof it came on a time, whiles the king sojourned in France about his warres, which he held against king Philip, there came unto him a French priest, whose name was Fulco, who required the king in anywise to put from him three abominable daughters which he had, and to bestow them in marriage, least God punished him for them. 'Thou liest, hypocrite (said the king), to thy verie face; for all the world knoweth I have not one daughter.' 'I lie not (said the priest), for thou hast three daughters: one of them is called Pride, the second Covetousness, and the third Lecherie.' With that the king called to him his lords and barons, and said to them, 'This hypocrite heere hath required me to marry awaie my three daughters, which (as he saith) I cherish, nourish, foster, and mainteine; that is to say, Pride, Covetousness, and Lecherie: and now that I have found out necessarie and fit husbands for them, I will do it with effect, and seeks no more delaies. I therefore bequeath my pride to the high-minded Templars and Hospitallers, which are as proud as Lucifer himselfe; my covetousness I give unto the White Monks, otherwise called of the Cisteaux order, for they covet the divell and all; my lecherie I commit to the prelats of the church, who have most pleasure and felicitie therein.'"

58 This small residence of the archdeacon was at Landeu, a place which has been described before: the author takes this opportunity of hinting at his love of literature, religion, and mediocrity.

Gerald of Wales, The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

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