History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 October 2007

Beware the Looney Bird, My Friends




Beware the Looney Bird, My Friends. Even if he claims to be an eye-witness chronicler!

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus de Cambrensis) lived in the 12th century and traveled to Ireland in 1184 with Henry II and in 1185 with Henry's son Lord John (later King John of Magna Carta fame). Gerald visited Ireland again in 1199 and in 1204, at which time he stayed for two years. He died in 1223.

Before his death, Gerald wrote a book about Ireland for King Henry (The History and Topography of Ireland), translated copies of which are available in paperback from Penguin. Oh, boy! Eye-witness information about Ireland during the Norman encroachment.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Among the gems Gerald passed off as eye-witness truth:

1. The cure for snakebite. “The [boot] thongs of that country, those really made from the hides of animals bred in the country, are wont to be an effective remedy, when cut up in little pieces and drunk with water, against the bites of serpents and toads.”

2. The misogynist island. “There is a lake in the north of Munster which contains two islands, one rather large and the other rather small. The larger has a church venerated from the earliest times. The smaller has a chapel cared for most devotedly by a few celibates called ‘heaven-worshippers’ or ‘god-worshippers'.

No woman or animal of the female sex could ever enter the larger island without dying immediately. This has been proved many times by instances of dogs and cats and other animals of the female sex. When brought there often to make a trial, they immediately died.”

3. An island that defies death. “There is an island in the sea west of Connacht which is said to have been consecrated by Saint Brendan. In this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrefy, but are placed in the open and remain without corruption. Here men see with some wonder and recognize their grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers and a long line of ancestors.”

4. Washing in the grey. “There is a well in Munster and if anyone washes in its waters, he immediately turns grey. I saw a man who had washed there one part of his beard. It had turned grey, while the other part retained its natural dark color.”

5. Fish with 18 carat teeth. “Two years before the coming of the English to the island, there was found at Carlingford in Ulster a fish of unusual size and quality. Among other wonderful things about it was that it had three teeth of gold of about fifty ounces’ weight in all. It seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.”
6. Only truth-speakers. “Iceland, the largest of the islands of the north, lies at a distance of three days’ sailing to the north of Ireland. Its people say little but they always tell the truth. They speak but seldom and briefly and never use an oath. They do not know how to lie.”

7. A wonderful wolf. “About three years before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’

They were completely astounded and in great consternation. The wolf then said some things about God that seemed reasonable.”

8. A wild woman. “Duvenaldus, the king of Limerick, had a woman that had a beard down to her waist. She had also a crest from her neck down along her spine, like a one-year-old foal. It was covered with hair. This woman in spite of these two enormities was, nevertheless, not hermaphrodite, and was in other respects sufficiently feminine. She followed the court wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.”

9. Lion in love. “I saw in Paris a lion which a cardinal had given when it was a whelp to Philip the son of Louis, then a boy. This lion used to make beastly love to a foolish woman called Johanna. Sometimes when he escaped from his cage and was in such fierce anger that no one would dare to go near him, they would send for Johanna who would calm his anger and great rage immediately. Soothing him with a woman’s tricks, she led him wherever she wanted and changed all his fury immediately into love.”

10. No fleas m’lady. “There is in Connacht a village celebrated for a church of Saint Nannan. In olden times there was such a multitude of fleas there that the place was almost abandoned because of the pestilence, and was left without inhabitants, until, through the intercession of Saint Nannan, the fleas were brought to a certain neighbouring meadow. The divine intervention because of the merits of the saint so cleansed the place that not a single flea could ever afterwards be found here. But the number of them in the meadow is so great that it ever remains inaccessible not only to men, but also to beasts.”

Gosh, ain’t history great?

8 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And thus historical fiction was born ...

(or at least the origin of blarney!)

What wild and wacky stuff! And I imagine that during such a superstitious era, much of it was swallowed wholesale.

I've run into some dubious "eyewitness" chroniclers during my research for ROYAL AFFAIRS on the love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Anya Seton's wildly fictional romance aside, until two recent biographies of Katherine straightened out the record, much of what we knew of her came from medieval misogynistic monks with axes to grind, whether political or ecclesiastical, or from prudish Victorian historians who chose to portray her as The Other Woman, and therefore evil and vile (don't you just love it that those 2 words are anagrams?!)

But your "looney bird's" history of Ireland is even more astonishing, for its being so fanciful! Thank you for this post

10:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What an amazing account, Lynna--thanks! Though usually not quite this extreme, eyewitness chorniclers can be a challenge to historical research. I was trying to sort out the relationship between Josephine de Beauharnais (later Bonaparte) and Paul Barras. Barras had a definite agenda writing his memoirs, but then so did a lot of the other people who wrote about the affair (or they got their information from someone with an agenda). Just the passage of time can make details in memoirs questionable. I tend to trust letters more, because they aren't filtered through years and experiences and aren't written for public consumption. But even then the letter writers may well have had their own reasons for not being forthcoming or have been misinformed, and often the letters were edited (frequently by the letter writers' descendants who had their own reasons for omitting information).

11:26 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

This is fabulous, Lynna! I love it.

"...and the wolf said some things about God that seemed reasonable.."

TOOOO FUNNY!

wonder what the wolf said????

11:36 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Well, he should have taken a hint from his colleague St. Patrick who chased all the snakes and other venomous critters out of Ireland. No cure for snake bite necessary. :)

But Gerald stands in good tradition. Already Caesar created some myths, like the one that moose don't have joints in their legs and must sleep leaning against tree trunks because if they lay down, they could not rise. He also created the image of the impenetrable German forests to excuse the fact he didn't pursue Ariovist's army - a myth that lived in Roman minds for centuries. Sure, there have been large woods, and some still remain, but they got elevated to the status of First Boogeyman by literature. :)

2:46 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Lynna, this was a hoot!! Actually there is a lot of material for some really good novels in here. Makes you wonder how much of our myth and mysticism, not to mention just plain old ordinary knowledge is based on these "eyewitness" accounts.

6:29 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

How much do I love the bit about the wolf? Priceless.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

what a fun and thought-provoking post, Lynna -- and it brings up something we almost never deal with in historical-romance land. That it's not just what happened, or who said it happened -- but how they saw it, through eyes that were different from ours, strange, foreign lenses that seem as astigmatic to us as ours would to them. The very line between fact and fiction differently drawn. Love and sex meant different things too.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks Lynna, you gave us a treasure trove of story ideas -- how about a character who goes around trying to disprove these tales -- sometimes does, sometimes doesn't.

Pam -- All history is revisionist -- a varying version of your comment and something that I have been mulling over for some weeks now. It is a strong element in my WIP and I am curious to see how it plays out.

9:22 AM  

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