Gerald of Wales, Part 2: Flesh in the Topographia Hibernica

 BN Latin 4846 and a nicely placed PLACUIT



First of all, please read, if you haven’t already, the Babel fundraising pitch below, and go here and throw some money at Babel to make some more Babel. Think of it as putting a down payment on an inspiration and community machine.

And now, with so many of you folks at SAA or MAA, I’m slyly producing the promised second half of last weekend’s Gerald of Wales paper. My shared keynote at the St John’s University Graduate Student conference started with PLACE. The second half continues work on edibility and vulnerability that’s I’ve been teasing out in print in my “Former Age” chapter in Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, in my Hessian Wolf Child chapter in Animal Vegetable Mineral, and, most recently, in my worms essay in the postmedieval ecomaterialism issue. Here’s more.

This is about flesh.
The first part of Gerald’s Topographia has a brief portrait of three lakes in Meath, each with its own species of fish, each unique to Ireland, each that must stay in its own proper lake or die. One of these may be some kind of salmon, rounder and longer than trout, with “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis,” firm and tasty white meat. It’s this word for meat, “carnibus,” that’s striking.

First, there’s the knotty question of defining fish as meat. By profession, Gerald was an archdeacon, ordained as a priest, and he followed the prevailing rules of Roman Christian abstinence, which meant no meat on fasting days, which constituted about one third of the year. More specifically, this meant the flesh of no quadruped: no mutton, no pork, no beef. Just fish, for three reasons: because, after the expulsion from Eden, God cursed only the earth, not the water (eg Speculum Sacerdotale 53); because, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ate fish after his resurrection; and because fish were less like us, and therefore less likely to stir up our strength and our pleasure. I’ll say more about this last point in a bit.

Elsewhere in the Topography, Gerald marks this clerical obligation, and some ways to finesse it. He tells us that some Northern clerics eat beaver tails, and only the tails, during Lent, since beaver tail looked and tasted like fish. And like many medieval writers with a side interest in natural history, Gerald believed that certain geese hatched from barnacles, “tak[ing] their food and nourishment from the juice of wood and water during their mysterious and remarkable generation.” It’s a clever solution to the mystery of migration and the consequent absence of nests or goslings from Ireland; but it’s also an opportunity for certain Northern clerics, likewise, to eat geese during Lent, by reasoning that geese are “not…flesh, since they were not born of flesh.”

Gerald isn’t on board with either argument. A later revision to the Topography adds the argument that, in effect, beavers are beavers all the way through, and, furthermore, that anyone who eats a barnacle goose during Lent is “moved into error through sophistry. For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really flesh, although not born of flesh, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating flesh” (Sed hi quidem scrupolose moventur ad delictum. Si quis enim ex primi parentis, carnei quidem licet de carne non nati, femore comedisset, eum a carnium esu immunem arbitrarer). As Gerald’s remark about Adam and Eve indicates, the question of edibility and abstinence circled around the question of identification: how much like our flesh is theirs? And, by extension, how much fun is it going to be eat? In a larger sense, how much are fish like us?

The human cultural regulation of carnivorousness concerns just this identification, and this delicate negotiation between in-groups and out-groups, between eating something excessively like us and choking on something too alien to be edible. The one, key hang up is the word caro itself. This word is just what Gerald and a host of other medieval writers would have included as one of the three traditional enemies of mankind, “mundus, caro, et diabolus,” the world, the flesh, and the devil, where caro is nominative singular of the Latin noun, and carnibus its dative and ablative plural. It’s the same word Gerald uses to describe the mortal stuff of our flesh — or our meat, the words are the same — when he speaks of the death that finally finishes a long-lived early Irish settler, “the fate,” he writes, “that falls on mortal flesh” (debitam…misere carnis fatalitatem non evasit).

Or meat. To my knowledge, there’s no separate Latin word — or English, for that matter — meaning just “fish meat,” nor, in Latin, a word that differentiates “flesh” from “meat”: for Gerald, as for other writers, caro is caro, whether he’s talking about fish, or cows, or humans, whether he’s talking about edibility, vulnerability, or the pleasures of the flesh in this world. Gerald simply doesn’t have the language to distinguish this fish from his own carnibus, itself firm and tasty, at least in standard medieval accounts of anthropophagy.

So let’s try that again: “For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really meat, although not born of meat, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating meat.”

With that, let’s end with another Mentz three-point program.


  1. There’s no way to do it without delight. Eating fish was a way for Christians to eat, they argued, without pleasure: if meat like ours stirred up delight, then fish — not like quadrupeds, but “of another nature,” as the penitentials termed them — was suppose to be dull. But if fish is caro too, then we have a difference without a difference. Gerald’s description of the carnibus of this Irish fish assesses it, appreciates its color and the resistance of its flesh, finding a spot for it in the way he and his world push up against each other.
  2. Flesh is up to its own business. For Simone de Beauvoir, writing in a Nietzschean mode, flesh stands for the creativity generativity of material, where “having a body no longer seems like a shameful failing […] Flesh is no longer filth: it is joy and beauty”; for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the “fifth element,” the “element of experience,” especially in its “reversibility,” the “weird intertwining…of things that are different but not opposite.” Flesh connects us; it brings us into each other; we feel each other: the fish, the human, the cow, we are all here as fleshy things.
  3. We are food too. But our flesh is up to its own business. Standard medieval Christian morality knew we were creatures of the flesh, but it also wanted us to master our flesh. We were and were not our flesh. And to think of ourselves as flesh, or as only partially flesh, to think of ourselves as at once our flesh and its master, means to know ourselves not fully absorbed by our being in the world. And yet also absorbed. Our fleshiness has its own being, one that alienates us from ourselves, because to be flesh is to be meat, too. It means to be available for others, in excess of what we think our own being, exceeding the capacities of our own self-sovereignty. It means to be the background or the object for the existence of another, who may find that so far as they’re concerned, we too are creatures of an “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis.”