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Illustrations from manuscripts of
Topographia Hibernica and Expugnatio Hibernica
(The Topography of Ireland & The Conquest of Ireland)
written in 1187 and 1189
by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales)

National Library of Ireland Ms. 700

Two Irish axemen

One Irish axeman slays another

An Irish king bathes in a stew of mare's meat

An Irishman riding a horse


Maurice FitzGerald

A king

Two Irishmen paddling a coracle
Source: National Library of Ireland Ms. 700

Gerald of Wales (b. 1146, d. 1223) composed the Topography of Ireland in between 1186 and 1188, after his travels in Ireland in 1183 and with Prince John in 1185. He produced a second edition before the death of Henry II in 1189, followed by a third, fourth and various 'late' editions before his death in 1223. The illustrative program was probably formulated by Gerald or under his direct supervision during his sojourn in Lincoln (1196-1198). There are four manuscripts of the Topographie Hiberniae illustrated with a series of marginal tinted drawings: British Library Ms. Royal 13 B VIII, Dublin, National Library of Ireland Ms. 700, Bodleian Library Ms. Laud. Misc. 720, and Cambridge University Library Ms. Ff.1.27. According to Brown 2002, the Dublin manuscript is the closest to the original copy, whilst British Library Ms. Royal 13 B VIII, produced in Lincoln, probably in Gerald's presence (1196-1198, or 1207-1208) is the earliest known.

Chapter X: Of the Character, Customs, and Habits of this People

From 'The Topography of Ireland' by Sylvester Giraldus Cambrensis, 1187

Edited by Thomas Wright, 1863

I HAVE considered it not superfluous to give a short account of the condition of this nation, both bodily and mentally; I mean their state of cultivation, both interior and exterior. This people are not tenderly nursed from their birth, as others are; for besides the rude fare they receive from their parents, which is only just sufficient for their sustenance, as to the rest, almost all is left to nature. They are not placed in cradles, or swathed, nor are their tender limbs either fomented by constant bathings, or adjusted with art. For the midwives make no use of warm water, nor raise their noses, nor depress the face, nor stretch the legs; but nature alone, with very slight aids from art, disposes and adjusts the limbs to which she has given birth, just as she pleases. As if to prove that what she is able to form she does not cease to shape also, she gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. But although they are richly endowed with the gifts of nature, their want of civilization, shown both in their dress and mental culture, makes them a barbarous people. For they wear but little woollen, and nearly all they use is black, that being the colour of the sheep in this country. Their clothes are also made after a barbarous fashion.

Their custom is to wear small, close-fitting hoods, hanging below the shoulders a cubit's length, and generally made of parti-coloured strips sewn together. Under these, they use woollen rugs instead of cloaks, with breeches and hose of one piece, or hose and breeches joined together, which are usually dyed of some colour.[1] Likewise, in riding, they neither use saddles, nor boots, nor spurs, but only carry a rod in their hand, having a crook at the upper end, with which they both urge forward and guide their horses. They use reins which serve the purpose both of a bridle and a, bit, and do not prevent the horses from feeding, as they always live on grass. Moreover, they go to battle without armour, considering it a burthen, and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it.

But they are armed with three kinds of weapons: namely, short spears, and two darts; in which they follow the customs of the Basclenses (Basques); and they also carry heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered. These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen,[2] of whom we shall speak hereafter. But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke. Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight's thigh, although it was incased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other. When other weapons fail, they hurl stones against the enemy in battle with such quickness and dexterity, that they do more execution than the slingers of any other nation.


[1] Seu braccis caligatis, seu caligis braccalis. The account given by Giraldus of the ancient dress of the Irish, in a language which supplied no equivalent terms, is necessarily obscure; but, connecting it with other sources of information, we find that it consisted of the following articles: --1. What our author calls caputium, was a sort of bonnet and hood, protecting not only the head, but the neck and shoulders from the weather. It was of a conical form, and probably made of the same sort of stuff as the mantle. 2. The cloak or mantle; to describe which Giraldus has framed the Latin word phalingium, from the Irish falach, which signifies a rug or covering of any sort. This cloak had a fringed border sown or wove down the edges. It was worn almost as low as the ancles, and was usually made of frieze, or some such coarse material. It was worn by the higher classes of the same fashion, but of better quality, according to their rank and means; and was sometimes made of the finest cloth, with a silken or woollen fringe, and of scarlet or other colours. Many rows of the shag, or fringe, were sown on the upper part of the mantle, partly for ornament and partly to defend the neck from the cold; and along the edges ran a narrow fringe of the same texture as the outward garment. 3. The covering for the lower part of the body, the thighs and legs, consisted of close breeches, with hose or stockings made in one, or sewn to them. It was a garment common to the Celtic nations, and is often mentioned by Roman writers. One of the provinces of Gaul had the name of Gallia Braccata from this distinguishing article of the native dress The word might be translated "trowsers" (Fr., trusser, to truss), or "trews," with which and the plaid, both used by the Scots, there seems to have been a great similarity in shape, material, and the particolour. The Irish were so much attached to this national costume, that, in order to break down the line of demarcation between the natives and the English settlers, they were forbidden to wear it by laws passed in the 5 Edw. IV., 10 Henry VII., and 28 Henry VIII, just as the distinguishing dress of the Scotch Highlanders was prohibited, in order to break the spirit of the clans, after their faithful adhesion to the Stuart princes had drawn upon them the severities of the English government. Griraldus might have added to the list of articles formerly worn by the Irish the brogues, made of dried skins, or half-tanned leather, and fastened with latchets, or thongs of the same material.

[2] "Danish battle-axes are usually mentioned in the old English and Frankish chronicles as excellent and dangerous weapons of attack. Nay, even from the distant Myklegaard, or Constantinople, where the northerners, under the name of Varangians, served for a long series of years as the Greek emperors' body-guards, stories have reached us of the particular kinds of battle axes which they wielded with such strength."—Worsaae's Danes in England, &c., p. 46.

The translated text of Topographia Hibernica PDF
The translated text of Expugnatio Hibernica PDF

Gerald's depiction of the Irish as savage and primitive was challenged and refuted by a number of Irish writers.

Illustrations of Irish Costume & Soldiers
Other 13th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers
Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers