Picture of Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book 1, Ch. 8: Nature, manners, and dress

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Concerning the nature, manners, and dress, the boldness, agility, and courage, of this nation

This people is light and active, hardy rather than strong, and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles, but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm, the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court; for here it is not found that, as in other places,

"Agricolis labor actus in orbem,"

returns; for in the months of March and April only the soil is once ploughed for oats, and again in the summer a third time, and in winter for wheat. Almost all the people live upon the produce of their herds, with oats, milk, cheese, and butter; eating flesh in larger proportions than bread. They pay no attention to commerce, shipping, or manufactures, and suffer no interruption but by martial exercises. They anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty; for these they fight, for these they undergo hardships, and for these willingly sacrifice their lives; they esteem it a disgrace to die in bed, an honour to die in the field of battle; using the poet's expressions, -

"Procul hinc avertite pacem,
Nobilitas cum pace perit."

Nor is it wonderful if it degenerates, for the ancestors of these men, the AEneadae, rushed to arms in the cause of liberty. It is remarkable that this people, though unarmed, dares attack an armed foe; the infantry defy the cavalry, and by their activity and courage generally prove victors. They resemble in disposition and situation those conquerors whom the poet Lucan mentions:

- "Populi quos despicit Arctos,
Felices errore suo, quos ille timorum
Maximus haud urget leti metus, inde ruendi
In ferrum, mens prona viris, amimaeque capaces,
Mortis et ignavum rediturae parsere vitae."

They make use of light arms, which do not impede their agility, small coats of mail, bundles of arrows, and long lances, helmets and shields, and more rarely greaves plated with iron. The higher class go to battle mounted on swift and generous steeds, which their country produces; but the greater part of the people fight on foot, on account of the marshy nature and unevenness of the soil. The horsemen as their situation or occasion requires, willingly serve as infantry, in attacking or retreating; and they either walk bare-footed, or make use of high shoes, roughly constructed with untanned leather. In time of peace, the young men, by penetrating the deep recesses of the woods, and climbing the tops of mountains, learn by practice to endure fatigue through day and night; and as they meditate on war during peace, they acquire the art of fighting by accustoming themselves to the use of the lance, and by inuring themselves to hard exercise.

In our time, king Henry II., in reply to the inquiries of Emanuel, emperor of Constantinople, concerning the situation, nature, and striking peculiarities of the British island, among other remarkable circumstances mentioned the following: "That in a certain part of the island there was a people, called Welsh, so bold and ferocious that, when unarmed, they did not fear to encounter an armed force; being ready to shed their blood in defence of their country, and to sacrifice their lives for renown; which is the more surprising, as the beasts of the field over the whole face of the island became gentle, but these desperate men could not be tamed. The wild animals, and particularly the stags and hinds, are so abundant, owing to the little molestation they receive, that in our time, in the northern parts of the island towards the Peak, (17) when pursued by the hounds and hunters, they contributed, by their numbers, to their own destruction."

Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

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