Gerald of Wales, Part 1: Place in the Topographia Hibernica

Douai Bibliotheque municipale 887, 52v


I had the fortune recently to be a keynote speaker at St John’s University Graduate English Conference, whose theme was “Working Through Environmental Unlikeness: Ecology and Nature in the Humanities.” Thanks to Steve Mentz for the invitation, thanks to the students and other organizers (including, I presume, Steve), for running such a fast (in all senses of the word) ship, and thanks and admiration especially to Jamie Skye Bianco, who shared a stage with me.

More later, I expect, but brunch calls. But so does Gerald of Wales. What had started as a paper about oysters turned into a paper about fish in the Topographia Hibernica, which then turned into something entirely different. Read on and see. Here’s the first half of my presentation, with the second half to follow in a couple days.

This is about place.

Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland is, essentially, a three-part twelfth-century advertisement to tempt potential English conquerors towards easier pickings than those offered by far-off Jerusalem. Medievalists have tended to focus their attention on its second and third parts, which concern Ireland’s wonders and its people. No wonder: this is where we find Gerald’s stories about the talking werewolves of Meath, the unfortunate cowboy of Wicklow — literally half man, half cow — and his mangled memory of an old Celtic coronation ritual that, in his version, sees the king first having sex with a horse, then bathing in a broth made of the horse’s meat, and then, finally, enjoying a well-earned kingship. Modern commentators tell us that it’s here where Gerald negotiates his own loyalties, divided between his Welsh and Anglo-Norman ancestry, at the expense of the bestialized Irish, who need a firm colonial hand to be brought in line with modernity.

Though these readings work, they leave the first part of the Topography mostly untouched. Again, no wonder: this is where we hear about Ireland itself and its mundane flora and fauna. If your interest’s in humans, or quasi humans, then there’s not much to do here, which is exactly why I’m not going to leave it alone. I’m starting, naturally enough, with the title.

Gerald’s own title for it, used in some manuscripts and, more importantly, in his own several references to it, is just the Topographia Hibernica, the Topography of Ireland, or just the Topographia, without the “History” that its English translators routinely append. That is, without that little human addition. Place is what Gerald thinks the work’s mainly about, not people; or, to put this differently, it’s about what’s there already, and only secondarily about what we do with it. And that’s the structure of the book, which, again, starts with Ireland’s position, its size, and the unevenness and moistness of its terrain.

The word “topographia” is a bit recherché, especially for a book not written in Greek, appearing, it seems, only 3 times in Latin prior to Gerald. Like other rare words, we shouldn’t just brush it aside. Split it up, and it literally means place/writing, topos + graphein. And to talk about writing is what saves this initial place in Gerald’s Topography from being a just a stable place holder for the human and other biotic activity that follows in books two and three. Do me the favor of imagining the inevitable, Derrida’s spectral presence in the background of what follows. Gerald’s writing about place, certainly, but place is also presented as writing, as something that’s there before us and that will outlast us. Ireland, Gerald tells us, has been peopled five or six times since the Flood, with most of these settlements falling to disease, miasmas, or the inevitable Vikings. When Gerald invites his king to conquer Ireland, he’s also promising Henry a possession that can’t be anything but temporary and precarious. Like any other.

So, this Irish place is no foundation for human activity. Again, it’s not a “place holder.” Perhaps on human time scales, certainly, but geologically speaking, no: Gerald’s Ireland is also on the move, and if we start by thinking with the land, as he does, we’ll see it: Ireland’s “nine principal rivers” that divide it are just a start: “many other rivers,” he remarks, are “new, and with regard to the ones mentioned, only recently emerged. They are not,however, smaller than the former, and only on the point of antiquity are they inferior” (O’Meara trans, 36). He identifies a “fantasticam” island somewhere in the Orkneys or Faroes, thronged with phantoms, which sinks whenever anyone comes near, and whose furtive movements stop only when some intrepid sailors frighten off the phantoms with fire (66-67). And though God had promised never to flood the world again for its wickedness, Gerald has God do just that to part of Ulster; the flood-lake is still there, ancient steeples visible in its depths (64-65). And, one more, Gerald wonders how islands in general come to be: sometime after the flood, they emerged, “not violently and suddenly, but little by little, and, as it were, by a washing away” (68) or, depending on how we translate, “by alluvial deposits” (Probabiliter tamen ad hoc dici potest longe post dilivium, terra multiplicatis iam animantibus ubique repleta, non violeter et subito, sed paulatim, et tanquam per eluvionem insulas natas fuisse). For Gerald, land has its own slow vulnerability to water or perhaps it’s a kind of coagulation of water’s flow, a slowing down of floods.

To finish off this opening presentation, I’m going to borrow Steve’s recent habit of ending his papers with a three-point summary or program.

  1. Land is liquid too. It’s a standard move in the so-called “new” materialisms to decry the dominance of the “linguistic turn” and to demand a revaluation of material stuff. My approach to the Topographia might look like that, but I want to stress that this is a materiality where the same weird instability of writing prevails. We’ve not left behind language, but recognized what Derrida could have told us anyhow, that the language/material division, like any other, works imperfectly. Since there’s no master signifier that’s going to stop the movement, Gerald gives us not some “back to the land” authenticity, but rather — to borrow still more from Steve — a “post-equilibrial” ecology, unstable and always on the move, where terrestrial solidity looks solid only if we use a human time scale.
  2. We’re also on the move. The Topographia often imagines what we might call spatial taxonomies. Ireland abounds in its own islands and sites that divide men from women, good from evil spirits, fish from, well, other fish. If we remember that Ireland is, like its people, always shifting, we know that these divisions are only temporary. We are all things of the moon, whose constant movement, Gerald tells us, “directs and controls not only the waves of the sea, but also the bone-marrow and brains in all living things as well as the sap of trees and plants” (O’Meara 59). Gerald’s strict divisions — gender, ethnicity, species — all of this is on the move.
  3. But place still matters. To say that everything’s temporary is not to say that things don’t really exist. Graham Harman makes what I hope is an obvious point, that things exist no matter their smallness or brevity. For Gerald, these things, temporary nodes in the always shifting field of stuff, have real effects. They are material practices, and these material practices determine who lives, who starves, who gets to live out their life on the land they think their own, and who has to submit to, flee, or be killed by the conqueror. Our frameworks, human or otherwise, matter too. Nothing lasts; everything’s liquid; but things still exist for all that.