On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas

“Alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.”

The 6th century Welsh monk Gildas is the patron saint of all those well-educated people who think the country’s going to the dogs. He is the first Daily Mail leader writer, 1,400 years before the Daily Mail was founded. He even blames the immigrants for bringing the country to its knees – though for him it isn’t blacks or Asians or Poles – it’s the damn Angles and Saxons and Jutes.

And I thought to myself, ‘If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, “My first begotten Israel,” its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout so many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy?’

These quotes are from his best-known work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in which he bemoans everything. The work is in 110 paragraphs which are conventionally divided into three parts: the background or history (the bit we’re interested in); a short condemnation of three contemporary kings followed by a long sequence of extensive quotes from Old Testament prophets to back Gildas up; and then condemnation of his fellow religious, priests and monks – all are to blame for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain.

Despite its slavish, often obscure and extremely lengthy references to Scripture and its convoluted style, the De Excidio is the only significant source for the period written by a near contemporary of the people and events described – and as such is invaluable.

But it is, alas, not a history:

To my mind, it is a grave mistake to call Gildas a ‘historian’: neither Columbanus, writing about forty years after his death, nor Alcuin, in the last quarter of the eighth century, regard him in this light… Gildas would never have regarded himself as a ‘historian’: he is a preacher, a revivalist, who will ‘attempt to state a few facts’ (pauca dicere conamur), by way of illustrating his message, that divine anger must visit with punishment a sinning people and priesthood. (Hugh Williams).

It is a sermon against unjust rulers, a Tract for the Times, a warning and a harrowing blast against ungodliness. The brief history it contains is just an introduction to the lengthy diatribe.

Choice of editions

I am aware of three web locations for the text:

Summary

Preface Paragraphs 1-2 – Preface and motives for writing

Part I Paragraphs 3-26 Description of Britain and a history from the Romans to Gildas’ time. His account of the 400 year Roman occupation seems garbled: he thinks the Romans only stayed periodically, arriving to put down incursions by the Picts and Scots or Boadicea and promptly departing. Very wrong. He skips several centuries from Boadicea to arrive at the crowning of Maximus emperor who takes the Roman legions with him to claim his throne on the continent in the 400s. It is in this section that we have our only reference to the letter supposedly written to Aetius the Roman by the Britons once they’d been abandoned to their fate by the departed legions:

Therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them…

For Gildas the greatest catastrophe was to invite the Saxons to come help us against the raids of the Picts and the Scots in the North:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!

The Saxons ask for more and more pay until open hostility breaks out with their British hosts and, as the Saxons recruit more and more reinforcements from across the North Sea, the Britons are forced to retreat in their own land:

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain… some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation… Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

But the remnant is led by one Ambrosius Aurelianus who leads the Britons to victory against the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and a period of peace ensues, though a peace among the ruins.

But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.

These three – the begging letter, the invitation to the Saxons, the battle of Mons Badonicus – occur in no other source and are taken up by all succeeding historians down to our own time.

Part II Paragraphs 27-37 form the Denunciation of the Five Kings for their various sins, a list which includes utterly obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones:

  • Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia: charged with murdering two royal youths in a church – murder and sacrilege – putting away his first wife – adultery & fornication
  • thou lion’s whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus, a pagan, charged with murder, fornication, adultery
  • Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians – growing old and rich in murder and adulteries and the practices of a shameless daughter
  • Cuneglasse who has rejected his wife and married her sister
  • Maglocune who killed his uncle, the king, converted to become a monk, but then abandoned his vows to revert to being a dissolute licentious king, murdering his nephew and first wife. Gildas says his sin is all the worse because he had the most eloquent master in Britain as tutor. Who?

How useful it would have been to have their family trees explained, their achievements listed and their supposed crimes explained; instead Gildas resorts to lengthy biblical quotes and exegeses which bury the reality of historic individuals under tonnes of second hand verbiage:

And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, “Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; “I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon.

BUT, Gildas’s learning and sense of design is to be noted a) the five princes chosen for vilification are described with the same adjectives as the beast in the Book of revelation b) the long section in which Gildas quotes the authority of the prophets to back up his condemnation of the kings follows the same order of the source books in the Old Testament.

He was known as Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, and is referred to in letters of St Columbanus to the Pope around 600, and by Alcuin in the later 700s. He was clearly a name, a big man, in his time.

Part III Paragraphs 38-63 Extensive quotations from Scripture against wicked kings. Gildas works systematically and in order through the books of the Old Testament taking quotes which rail against unjust kings and how they will be sent to Hell.

What then shall unhappy leaders do now? Those few who have abandoned the broad way and are finding the narrow, are forbidden by God to pour out prayers for you, who persist in evil and tempt Him so greatly: upon whom, on the contrary, if you return with your heart unto God, they could not bring vengeance, because God is unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calls it back, lest he who is cast away should utterly perish. Because, not even Jonas the prophet, and that when he greatly desired it, could bring vengeance on the Ninevites. But putting aside, meanwhile, our own words, let us rather hear what sound the prophetic trumpet gives: And if thou say this in thy heart, wherefore are these evils come? They come for the greatness of thy iniquity. If the Ethiop can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, ye also can do good, who have learnt to do evil.

Part IV Paragraphs 64-110 a similar attack upon the British clergy of the age which holds up to them lengthy examples of self-sacrifice and holiness from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs.

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. They have church edifices, but enter them for the sake of filthy lucre; they teach the people, but by furnishing the worst examples, teach vice and evil morals; they seldom sacrifice, and never stand among the altars with pure heart; they do not reprove the people on account of their sins, nay, in fact, they commit the same; they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: they get possession of the seat of the apostle Peter with unclean feet, but, by the desert of cupidity, fall into the unwholesome chair of the traitor Judas.

Regret

The De Excidio is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a 6th century Welsh monk, a very educated man living in difficult times whose entire mental outlook, whose intellectual framework, is completely determined by Christian Scripture and teaching, its slightly hysterical millennial sense of the nearness of Doomsday and the burning urgency of repentance and prostration before God. Compared to the suave ironies of the pagan Tacitus, this is the new verbose, florid and emotional voice of the Christian Middle Ages.

But oh oh oh if only he had made fewer tedious references to the Old Testament we all know too well and had elaborated just a little on the pagan Britons’ religious beliefs and rituals of which we know virtually nothing:

I shall, therefore, omit those ancient errors common to all the nations of the earth, in which, before Christ came in the flesh, all mankind were bound; nor shall I enumerate those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.

What diabolical idols? Where were these temples, what were they like, what ceremonies were carried out there? Why were the idols features stiff and deformed? How did the people pay honour to the mountains, fountains, hills and rivers?

So tantalisingly close – and yet so frustratingly far.

More about Gildas

1638 translation of Gildas into English

1638 translation of Gildas into English

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Gary Lea

     /  October 1, 2015

    An interesting article but it misses the nuances of Gildas’ writing because of reliance on fairly literal (or at least non-contextual) translations.

    Gildas was writing in a rhetorical style derived from the work of Late rhetoricians such as Martianus Capella (fl. 410-420). Capella’s approach allowed for a use of not only prose but even poetical meanings of words in a way impermissible to Classical rhetoricians. Thus, when faced with translation of a word in DEB, not just literal but technical and even poetical meanings need to be considered.

    So, consider here the phrase “Quibus statim Romam … repedantibus” (lit. “With which [persons] immediately to Rome … returning”: DEB, 5) – taken at face value, this suggests that the Romans went home after the Boudiccan Revolt (the big mistake referred to above). However, an accepted non-literal meaning for ‘repedantibus’ would be ‘turning attention’ and, noting that the [persons] are the rulers of Rome from the previous Chapter, the translation would then look something like:

    “With the Emperors of the Romans turning their attention to Rome …”

    And this is precisely what happened – after Claudius died, Nero neglected Britain, called in loans to British leaders (as did his tutor, Seneca) and even considered pulling out of Britain altogether. This lack of attention, compounded by the vile treatment by local officials of Boudicca and her daughters after the death of her husband (the late client-king of the Iceni), is what led to the Boudiccan Revolt.

    Moreover, the reason Nero wanted to pull out was the lack of return on investment in setting up and garrisoning the province – this fits neatly with the phrase “ob inopiam caespitis”. Literally, “on account of the poverty/lack of the turf”, noting that “caespitis” can refer also to (a) a field (i.e. agriculture), (b) a dwelling (i.e. the state of urban development), (c) an ore body (noting that most decent silver/lead/gold/copper ore bodies lay *outside* the territory held by the Roman’s during Claudius’ and Nero’s reigns) and (d) a whole territory. Once allowance is made for rhetorical style, there may be a little bit more history here than might appear at first glance.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: