c. 1188 | England

East of Eden

Gerald of Wales sees death at the gate.

What wealth can Eastern lands boast that is comparable to the advantages of the Western climate? They possess, indeed, those silken fabrics, the produce of a little worm, which glow with colors of various dyes. They have the precious metals and sparkling gems and odoriferous trees. But what are these, procured at the cost of life and health? Are they not attended with the presence of a familiar enemy—the air the Orientals breathe, and which constantly surrounds them?

In those countries all the elements, though created for the use of man, threaten wretched mortals with death, undermine health, and bring life to an end. Plant your naked foot on the earth, death is at hand. Incautiously seat yourself on a rock, death is at hand. Drink pure water unmixed, or smell it when it is putrid, death is at hand. Expose your head uncovered to the free air, if it be cold it pierces you through, if it be hot you languish; death is at hand. The heavens terrify you with their thunders and flash their lightnings in your eyes. The blazing sun allows you no rest. If you eat too much, death is at the gate. If you drink wine undiluted with water, death is at the gate.

Besides all the more common annoyances that abound in these regions, the safety of man is threatened and endangered by swift panthers of various kinds; by rhinoceroses, allured by love of virgins; crocodiles, fearful by their breath; hippopotamuses frequenting the rivers; lynx, with piercing eyes; and lions that fear nothing but the hyena’s urine. The country is infested by asps and vipers, by dragons, and by the basilisk, whose very glance is fatal. It is infested by the “seps,” a little reptile whose malignity makes up for its diminutive size. Its venom not only wastes the flesh but the very bones.

Let the East then have its abundant stores of venom and poison, while we, possessing in golden moderation whatever is necessary for decent use and the wants of nature, are compensated for oriental pomps by the single circumstance of our temperate climate. O incomparable gift bestowed on the land by God! O inestimable favor—one not sufficiently appreciated, conferred on mortals from above! We sleep secure in the open air, secure on the bare rock. We fear no wind piercing us with cold, prostrating our strength with heat, or carrying pestilence in its blast. The air we breathe, and with which we are surrounded, lends us its beneficent and salutary support. The nearer, indeed, we go to the regions of the East, and warmer climates, the greater is the fertility of the soil, and the more plentifully does the earth pour forth her fruits. There also are found in abundance the precious metals and gems, with silk and cotton wools, and wealth of all kinds is overflowing. The people also, thanks to a brighter atmosphere, although slender in person, are of a more subtle intellect. Hence, they have recourse to poison rather than to violence for success in their schemes and gain their purposes more by their arts than by their arms. But when we come to the Western parts of the world, we find the soil more sterile, the air more salubrious, and the people less acute but more robust. For where the atmosphere is heavy, the fields are less fertile than the wits.

Contributor

Gerald of Wales

From The Topography of Ireland. Born into a noble family at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, around 1146, Gerald studied at the University of Paris before being appointed archdeacon of Brecknock in 1174. Ten years later he entered the service of Henry II, setting off on a military expedition of Ireland. The journey resulted in The Conquest of Ireland and his Topography, a description of the landscape, customs, and history of Ireland. After retiring from the king’s service in 1195, he wrote his autobiography, Concerning the Facts of My History.