At Strata Florida: Gerald’s vision of male beauty

January 10, 2020 0 Comments
Gerald of Wales

I’ve been reading the account written by Gerald of Wales of the tour he made, on horseback and on foot, around the perimeter of Wales in the year 1188.  The manuscript – there are actually three versions – is usually called the Itinerary through Wales, and it’s the earliest account of a long journey in Britain to have survived. 

Gerald – he’s also known as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerallt Cymro – was a complex character.  By birth part-Welsh, part Norman, he was a churchman – Archdeacon of Brecon when he made the tour. He was thoroughly steeped in Anglo-French culture, but felt a strong pull towards Wales, perhaps like some London Welsh today.  His long-felt ambition was to have St Davids declared the metropolitan see of all Wales – and himself installed as Bishop and Archbishop.  But by 1188 his dream was beginning to evaporate.  Maybe his offer to accompany Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the tour was an attempt to impress on the head of the church the rightness of his case.

Frederick Barbarossa on crusade

The idea of the tour, almost as doomed as Gerald’s career ambition, was to recruit thousands of Welshmen to join Henry II’s Crusade against An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin – the Osama bin Laden of his day.  Saladin had seized the city of Jerusalem the year before.  Baldwin and his entourage started from Hereford and moved from town to town, preaching and trying to persuade men to ‘take the cross’.  Gerald tells us something about the journey and the preaching.  But his narrative is really an early example of ‘magic realism’.  He’s never happier than when digressing to describe a tall tale or historical anecdote or folk custom or miracle associated with the places they pass through.

You need to read between the lines to uncover the truth about the trip: that it was a failure.  Few signed up for the Crusade (many found excuses not to), and you strongly suspect that most of those who did promise didn’t actually made the trip to Jerusalem.  Baldwin himself did go, but died in the Holy Land in 1190.  Gerald started off too, but he was luckier: he was ordered back home from France.

Archbishop Baldwin (Canterbury Cathedral)

Something else you need to work out for yourself is that Baldwin and Gerald spent much more time in south Wales than they did in the north.  It wasn’t just that they paled at the fearsome mountains of the north – though they certainly did – but that they felt painfully uncomfortable in unconquered ‘Welsh Wales’, where their welcome was less warm and their preaching fell on even deafer ears.  Towards the end their daily mileage increased enormously – they were covering 45 miles a day – as they sped back towards Hereford and safety.

In south Wales the party had been under the protection of the ruler of Deheubarth (south-west Wales), Rhys ap Gruffydd, or ‘The Lord Rhys’ as he was later known.  Rhys was one of the most effective of medieval Welsh princes.  He’d met Baldwin and his friends in New Radnor at the start of the tour, and accompanied them all the way from Cardigan to the river Dyfi.  After a rocky start he was by now on good terms with Henry II and no doubt wanted to demonstrate his goodwill by welcoming the king’s archbishop.  But there was a limit to his loyalty.  Though they may have made the right noises, neither he nor any of his sons actually signed up for the Crusade.

Gerald of Wales (Manorbier Church)

Gerald was towards the northern limit of his comfort zone as the group moved beyond Lampeter to visit the Cistercian abbey of Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida) – a diversion from the main route.  This is how Gerald describes the visit:

We reached Strata Florida that night and stayed there for a while.  From there we journeyed on, leaving on our right the lofty mountains of Moruge, called Elenydd in Welsh.  Here we were met near the side of a wood by Cynwrig ap Rhys, who was accompanied by a band of lightly armed young men.  Cynwrig was tall and handsome, with fair curly hair.  He was dressed according to the custom of his race and country, for he wore only a thin cloak and beneath that a shirt.  His feet and legs were bare, and he seemed to care nothing for the thorns and thistles.  He had a natural dignity, which owed nothing to affectation: he was, as it were, a man adorned by nature, not by art.  In the presence of their father, Prince Rhys, we preached a sermon to his three sons, Gruffydd, Maelgwn and Cynwrig … (Lewis Thorpe’s translation from the Latin)

Rhys ap Gruffydd (St David’s Cathedral)

This is a remarkable passage: the only one where Gerald sounds more like Oscar Wilde than a medieval cleric.  The sudden appearance of Cynwrig from the wood seems to have struck him like a thunderbolt.  It’s not just his sheer beauty that fells Gerald.  There’s something magical or otherworldly about him, and more than a hint of what critics call ‘soft primitivism’: Cynwrig seems a child of nature, as if, like Romulus and Remus, he’d been reared in the forest by wild animals – and had taken on some of their features, like bare feet and invulnerability to thorns.  Rhys’s other sons, Gruffydd and Maelgwn, receive no individual attention from Gerald.  Indeed, elsewhere he calls Gruffydd ‘a cunning and artful man’, as if in direct contrast with Cynwrig.

Cynwrig disappears from the narrative as swiftly as he appeared.  And in fact he’s otherwise unknown to history, except for a brief annal entry (he died in 1237).  Sir John Edward Lloyd, the godfather of Welsh medieval history writing, gives him a single half-sentence in his History of Wales (1911):

… the tall and handsome Cynwrig, singled out as a young man by Giraldus Cambrensis for special admiration, played no part in the political strife of his day and carried his goodly presence to the grave without having in any way disturbed the tenor of his long life of dignified inaction.

This dismissal drips with a Tacitean disdain which I suspect we should be wary of echoing today.  Lloyd was writing when the ‘men of action’ he seems to prefer were propelling Europe swiftly towards world war and the deaths of millions.  When you read Lloyd’s account of Rhys and his sons it’s entirely understandable that Cynwrig apparently wanted no part in the dynastic quarrels of his family.  Rhys had great difficulty in controlling Gruffydd and Maelgwn, who heartily detested each other.  In 1189 Rhys had Maelgwn imprisoned at Gruffydd’s urging.  Later released, Maelgwn took arms against his father and in turn locked him up.  Rhys named Gruffydd as his heir, but Maelgwn refused to accept the decision, and the two continued to fight each other until Gruffydd’s death in 1201.

Strata Florida Abbey

What was Cynwrig doing in the vicinity of Strata Florida?  It’s entirely possible that he was associated with the Cistercian Abbey there.  It was founded originally in 1164 by a Norman, Robert FitzStephen, but Rhys soon drove the invaders out and re-founded the Abbey.  In 1184, four years before Gerald’s visit, he granted the monks a charter giving them extensive lands, and the Abbey became an important economic centre.  It also won a name as a centre of Welsh scholarship: in its scriptorium manuscripts were copied, preserving some of the earliest literature and history in Welsh.  It would be pleasing to think that Cynwrig might have been a patron of this essential work – or might even have been a scholar himself.  At any event, he was wise to excuse himself from the brutal and murderous world of medieval power politics, and to devote himself to quieter things.  Perhaps we should remember him, for his natural beauty and his ‘dignified inaction’.

Gerald’s map of Britain and Ireland (from his Topography of Ireland)

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