British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book I > chapter 1.1

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Chapter 1.1: Gildas sapiens and his sapientia

Fabio P. Barbieri


Our almost complete ignorance of Saint Gildas' powerful prophetic tract The ruin of Britain is one of the great artistic injustices, for it is a masterpiece that belongs in the canon of great works of literature. Of course it is hardly calculated to appeal to modern taste; in particular, its steady stream of extensive Biblical quotations, though most often brilliantly chosen to beautifully illuminate the flow of his argument, is bound to put off most modern readers - including some misguidedly dismissive professional historians who really, really should have known better. But St.Gildas should at the very least be recognized among the great Church Fathers[1]; not be abandoned as a curiosity to historians of the Celtic fringe.

De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, the traditional title, is in my view a later contribution. It shows ex post facto knowledge of the "slaughter" (excidio) and "conquest" (conquestu) of Britain by the English; something which Gildas did not foresee, and which would have pained him greatly. As far as he was concerned, the Saxons had been defeated and pacified forty-four years before he started writing. He did foresee, and not so much foresee as witness, "the ruin of Britain"; but it was not barbarian invaders he saw, but the native wickedness of baptized Britons. The ruin of Britain is a relentless account of the collapse of a semi-feudal system of government falling apart in the powerless hands of the kingly descendants of a national hero he calls Ambrosius Aurelianus, because of the criminal ambition of turbulent subordinate kinglets (five especially unpleasant specimens are attacked by name - a brave act) indulging in civil wars, repeated murder, and any amount of vices. A subsidiary cause, which looms large in Gildas' mind, is the extreme corruption of the Church, where the rebellious kings have intruded their rich, greedy, corrupt, mercenary creatures at every level from deacon to Bishop.

Written in 110 short chapters, the book opens with a long introduction describing in moving detail the struggles of Gildas' conscience as he spent over a decade wondering whether he should take upon himself to denounce the political degeneracy of his time. There is then a "historical" account of the origin of current conditions, starting with pure legend - Gildas' account of the Roman conquest and abandonment of Britain is mythological from beginning to end - and shading off into credible history by the early fifth century. Having taken his account to the present, Gildas gets to the heart of things with chapter 27, a thumping denunciation of the depravity of contemporary monarchs. From then to ch.65 he dissects their morality, first individually, then collectively, pleading with them to repent their sins - of which he seems closely informed - and buttressing his arguments with a constant flow of Biblical passages and a smaller amount of quotations from ecclesiastical writers and the occasional Virgil. From ch.66 on, it is the clergy's turn: stupid in church matters but all too clever in worldly affairs, ignorant, proud, vain, untrustworthy, selfish, lustful, grovelling, corrupt, bootlicking; a festival of ecclesiastical vice to cheer the stoutest anti-clerical heart. Gildas admits that there are good people around - people, indeed, with whom he is proud to be associated - but they are not enough; the Church needs the courage of martyrs and the miraculous power of the ancient prophets to clean itself of the filth before it is too late.

The ruin of Britain is an extraordinary display of magnificently barbaric Latin, passionate, powerful, full of Biblical scholarship but almost empty of classical learning, strange in style but excellent in grammar and vocabulary, and stupendously composed. No-one can read it without being certain that it was not a freak, but a part of a large and powerful cultural milieu combining brilliant if idiosyncratic use of Classical Latin with complete separation from Classical culture; the Bible, almost alone, was the connecting link. My modest linguistic competence can add nothing to Michael Winterbottom's analysis of Gildas' style[2], which is telling even beyond his intentions. Gildas' Latin, he says, was extraordinary in phrasing and style, but grammatically correct. He simply built up sentences in a way that no Latin prose writer would have dreamed, a way that was in fact condemned by the high authority of Quintilian: that is, with the kind of inversions and grammatical elaborations only poets were allowed. He had no notion whatever of the internal balance required of the Latin prose artist since the days of Cicero, and no regard for common word order.

Yet he was anything but unskilful in this extraordinary idiom: "[the book is structured] on the grand scale, conscious and calculated. And Gildas' style is of a piece with his structure. He thinks in paragraphs rather than sentences. Sometimes, where the basic unit is short, there are devices to construct interlocking systems out of them; thus the word quis - 'who' - or a variant of it opens virtually every sentence from 69 to 75, clearly marking off the section these chapters form.... The effort may be seen most clearly when we possess the source Gildas was adapting. Rufinus... lets his style rise with his subject as he prepares to tell of the coming of Christ: it was suddenly as if 'caelatus lumen ostensum aut radius quidam solis erumpens totum orbem claritate superni luminis inlustraret'[3]. From this material Gildas makes up the grand and elaborate sentence that makes up chapter 8... [which,] packed with conceits trailing clouds of decorative adjectives and subordinate clauses, yet not lacking direction, and finally ending triumphantly on the name 'Christ', is, in its shapeless splendour, wholly typical of its author."

This is the sentence: Interea glaciali frigore rigenti insulae et uelut longiore terrarum secessu soli uisibili non proximae, uerus ille non de firmamento solum temporali, sed de summa etiam caelorum arce, tempora cuncta excedente uniuerso orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento eius propagabatur religio, comminata senatu nolente a principe morte delatoribus militum eiusdem, radius suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta - Christus!

(Meanwhile, to the island that ice freezes stiff and that is as if hidden away from the visible sun farther than any other land; that true Sun indeed, not only from the sky that exists in time, but even from the highest royal fortress of the heavens that go beyond all time, [that Sun] Whose bright shimmering rays stretch across everything that is; as early, as we were taught, as the time of Tiberius Caesar, when His religion was being spread abroad without hindrance, the sovereign having, against the Senate's wishes, threatened informers against His soldiers with death; He first made a gift of His rays - that is, of His teachings - He, Christ!)

English being mostly uninflected, such a sentence is of course wholly intolerable to it[4]; but, in spite of having nothing to do with the conventions of classical rhetoric, it goes fully with the grain of Latin, whose elaborate structure of inflections allows at least in theory an extreme flexibility in word order. Gildas makes full use of it, far beyond any other Latin writer I know. Dr.Winterbottom has thoroughly captured his peculiar rhetorical genius, especially in the fierce sense of direction, with the last word being the pay-off line of a whole paragraph; though I would say that "shapeless" is the very last adjective for such a formidably well-aimed style. C.S.Lewis and Erich Auerbach, if no-one else, should have cured us of taking the tenets of Classical rhetoric to be the be-all and end-all of style; there are more ways of writing pointed and effective Latin than Cicero knew.

To fully appreciate the intellectual maturity and control of this "shapeless" style, I can do no better than quote what the just-mentioned Auerbach had to say about Gildas' younger contemporary Gregory, bishop of Tours. Gregory lived in an admittedly undereducated and chaotic country, Merovingian France, and took it upon himself to write a history of his times because, he said, there was no-one else to do it - in fact, after him France falls silent for 150 years, except for the so-called Chronicle of Fredegar. This is Auerbach's assessment of his use of Latin when telling the story of a local feud in his diocese:

"I imagine that the first impression this passage makes on a reader is that here an occurrence sufficiently confused in itself is very obscurely narrated... As it stands, the nam[5]is neither exact nor justified... for... [it does not introduce] the cause of the renewed [civil violence], it only brings in the first part of a complex of facts.... the impression of disorder is considerably increased by a change in the grammatical subject. In both cases, the sentence starts out with Sicharius as the subject (both times Gregory evidently thinks of him as the chief character), and in both cases he is later forced to insert the subject of that portion of the complex of facts which represents all that he is capable of getting into a single construction. As a result, the sentences turn out to be grammatical monsters. True enough, [...] nam, in Vulgar Latin, like many of the once extremely clear and precise connectives of Latin, has lost its original value, that it is no longer causal but merely indicates colourless continuation or transition. ut this state of affairs has by no means been reached in... Gregory. On the contrary, Gregory still senses the causal value: he employs it, but in a confused and imprecise manner.[6]" We are clearly very far from the "structure on the grand scale, conscious and calculated" of Gildas, and from his "thinking in paragraphs rather than sentences"; even single sentences give poor Gregory of Tours great trouble.

Auerbach then broadens his argument: "It goes without saying that a classical author would have arranged the material much more clearly - provided of course that he had treated it at all. For if we ask ourselves how Caesar or Livy or Tacitus or even Ammianus would have told this story, the answer immediately becomes obvious that they would never have told it. For them and their public, such a story would not have had the slightest interest. Who are Austrighiselus, Sicharius and Chramnesindus? Not even tribal princes, and during the heyday of the Empire their bloody brawls would probably not even have elicited a special report to Rome from the provincial governor[7]. This observation shows how narrow Gregory's horizon really is, how little perspective he has with which to view a large, coherent whole, how little he is in a position to organize his subject matter in accordance with the points of view which once obtained. The Empire is no longer in existence. Gregory is no longer situated in a place where all the news from the orbis terrarum is received, sorted and arranged according to its significance for the state. He has neither the news sources which were once available nor the attitude which once determined the manner in which the news was reported..."[8]

Clearly, then, Gregory's poor Latin style directly corresponds to a social and political condition of impoverishment and narrowing of horizons. If he is not capable of arranging his sentences and paragraphs with any great clarity, let alone the extreme precision of formulation that classical Latin affords, it is because he has neither been taught nor had the opportunity to do so; because the need wasn't there. (Before I leave the subject, I think it only fair to the poor old bishop to point out that Auerbach goes on to praise the force and quite un-Classical realism of his perception of events, the immediacy and sharpness of his understanding of individuals, the power of his visual images; all virtues quite absent in the typical Classical writer. Gregory can so describe a scene as to make you see it, where even Caesar can only make you feel that you are absorbing an exceptionally well-prepared and interesting report.)

It follows that, in the same way, Gildas' very peculiar development of Latin represents a culture able to organize its thoughts, if not with the balanced exactitude of classical Latin, nevertheless with order, breadth, and cumulative power. Unlike Gregory's History of the Franks, his masterpiece is not a chronological collection of data and anecdotes, but a formidably organized assemblage of facts (often not described, but only alluded to with writerly economy), well-chosen Biblical passages, and invective, all brought together to express a view of the state of the whole nation and built into an awe-inspiring rhetorical structure. (As our study proceeds, we will also find that Gildas, writing to make a point, is not only able to put in all he needs, but to carefully leave out everything that might tell against his views; and what he has left out will at times turn out to be as telling as what he has put in.) Although he certainly must have stood out in the use of this peculiar manner, it cannot be imagined to be his own invention: it shows an ability to assemble, select and interpret data that is not the property of a single man, whatever his genius, but of a culture.

This manner owes little or nothing to classical Latin. Gildas only ever quotes the first two books of Virgil's Aeneid[9], and never correctly[10]; in this if nothing else, Gregory is ahead of him - he had read three books of the Aeneid, not two, and Sallust as well. Other than that, neither churchman had any acquaintance with what we regard as the Classics: every quotation that can be traced in their work belongs to Christian writers or the Bible. That is what they wanted to read and loved to quote. And it follows that they read Virgil not, like Dante, for the sake of the poetry, but as a school exercise - they read him because they had to. What kind of person is likely to have read only the first two or three books of the Aeneid, to remember them so poorly that virtually every passage he quotes is misquoted, but nevertheless to have them so inextinguishably at the back of his mind that quotations bubble up again and again? The question answers itself: a schoolboy. Or, rather, someone who faced them as a set text as a schoolboy, long ago.

By the same token, Gregory must have read Sallust as an example of prose style, to go with Virgil as the model for Latin verse. That Gildas had no such exemplar and only knew classical Latin from Virgil does something to explain the peculiarities of his construction, for, as I said, they are the kind of liberties that Classical Rome allowed only her poets; that handsome yet horrifyingly baroque one-sentence chapter that ends, against all precedent, with the subject - Christus - could probably, with a little effort, be turned into very effective epic verse.

There is otherwise very little to choose between his reading and Gregory’s. Both of them seem to have been taken through a portion of Virgil, probably mainly as a foundation to Latin grammar, and otherwise reared on Christian prose and verse. Gildas quotes no Classical prose writer; indeed, only four non-British Christian authors, St.Jerome, Rufinus, Orosius and Sulpicius Severus, get a look-in, and even the quotations from these fade away as Gildas' argument thunders on, leaving the field clear for an unchallenged and unrelenting avalanche of Biblical quotations. Evidence of the reading of some others, in particular John Cassian, Prudentius and perhaps Augustine, may be found in his prose[11], but he did not formally quote them.

He does however rely on quotations from other British writers, mostly unknown. Four such quotations are explicit: 32.2 (from an otherwise unknown Christian poet), 38.2 (possibly from a Pelagian tract), 62.3 (an otherwise unknown predecessor of Gildas who felt that it was probably impossible for British people to "serve the Lord in goodness, and in simplicity of heart seek him"), and 92.3. It is also extremely likely that his chapter 21, describing the moral decline of Britain before the Saxon war, represents a summary from some unknown author of the period. Also, 21 and 62.3 have so much in common that they may well be by the same man[12], and we will later see reason to suspect that 92.3 may have come from the same or a similar source. The similarity of his denunciation to items by Jerome and the Gaulish church writer Saint Salvianus has been pointed out[13], but these items, with their denunciation of British attitudes, prove that Gildas had British predecessors as well.

Several more passages sound like quotations from unknown authors. The first one to suggest itself is 12.3: the description of Britain as "a country that always longed to hear some novelty and never took firm hold of anything", coming as it does with little preparation, suggests a quotation from someone else's previous judgement, but on the other hand the view of the British Christian public as being drawn away from the right path by every transmarinum uenenum - poison from abroad - implies that, left to themselves without all those nasty foreign heresiarchs to seduce them, the British are really decent faithful Christians: a smug xenophobic view which definitely is not Gildas' own.

Ch.21, as I said, is another chapter surely based on direct quotation. This detailed and hostile description of Britain before the Saxons stands in the course of Gildas' argument like a stray boulder left by some earlier flood, longer than any previous chapter except the first and forming a longer continuous argument than any point in Gildas' "history" thus far. It demands to be read as Gildas' own recasting of one of his predecessors, aimed at social conditions in Britain before the Saxon war; Gildas describes them with a confidence that would be quite out of place unless he had a clear source for all his points.

He also seems to have misunderstood his predecessor in a way that is typical of the difference between periods. He opens the chapter expecting that it will prove that the British always had a fondness for ciuilia bella, civil wars: but nothing he actually mentions shows it. The only violence described is the overthrow and assassination of kings, and all he has to say about it sounds prima facie no different from the palace conspiracies that were a commonplace of Roman and Byzantine politics. Otherwise, the chapter speaks of quarrels and divisions, but not of war. Used to a society where disagreement and greed most often led to open violence, Gildas seems not to have understood what he read about the way things were done in the previous century: the sort of creative misreading that happens when a reader applies the standards of his own day to work from an earlier century. This surely must mean that he had access to a written British source for the social mores and sins of his ancestors' days; how could he have misunderstood it, unless he had it?

In short, Gildas may not have known more than seven or eight non-British Christian authors, but he knew more British Latin writers than we can guess, let alone quantify; including at least one Christian poet, quoted with great respect. What is more, he expected his audience to know them. He never troubles to illustrate any of his four quotations with the name of his source or an allusion to his personality: it is only "one of us", "a predecessor of mine", "the poet". In other words, he expected the kings and clerics he knew to be familiar with these works. "The poet" is so eminent as to need no other description, and a line of his verse should be enough to shame the adulterous king Cuneglasus and the faithless woman he is courting[14].

The Bible dominates his mind, all his other reading being, literally, only an introduction to it. He had learned to read Virgil, Rufinus, Orosius, John Cassian, Prudentius, Sulpicius Severus, and sundry British and Continental authors, only so as to be able to go through it confidently. His whole book is woven from it; his knowledge of it is exceptional even for a churchman, and we may well believe his account of how he would immerse himself in it day after day for years, trying to find an answer to his growing horror at his country's descent into chaos, continuously asking whether he should put himself forwards to denounce the abuses of kings and clergy. He had not only read Old and New Testament, he understood what he read; and while, to make his attack on contemporary figures more authoritative, he stuck closely to the text, the few times when he allowed himself some elaboration are enough to prove that he could have built powerful imaginative structures on Biblical themes, had he wanted to. His imagination was particularly stimulated by the tales of kings and prophets in the OT, helped no doubt by the closeness of the moral world of Israel and Judah to that of the small British kingdoms of his time.

The book's autobiographical opening, by the way, with its acute and agonized examination of his own motivations - am I being arrogant, am I putting myself forwards, am I looking for my own glory? - is unimaginable outside of a Christian mentality. Gildas knew quite well that he had the power to make people sit up and take notice of what he said; fifteen hundred years later, he has it still. But he distrusted those who sought attention and glory; and the sort of worldly or over-clever, corrupt or heretical clergymen he rails at must have increased his distrust - so that for years he held back out of a suspicion that, if he did the right thing for the wrong reason, he would be little better than those he denounced.

He is thoroughly familiar with the allegorical method of interpreting (and drawing the sting out of) the more "difficult" passages of the Old and New Testament, and uses it fluently and without the least inhibition; but he is also capable of distinguishing between allegorical and historical readings of a passage. This actually presupposes a solid grounding in a fairly complex discipline such as late-Roman and early mediaeval exegesis, and means that he read, not only the church history whose writers we find on his lips, but also a certain amount of theoretical writing. He only does exegesis when addressing the clergy; when he is attacking the kings, he simply quotes from the Bible with little comment or distinction between allegorical, moral and historical meanings.

Even so, he is demurs from venturing on the troubled seas of doctrinal debate, claiming his intellect to be too slight to cope with the intellectual promoters of schism and heresy of his time (104.2-106.1). Nobody, of course, can believe that who has read his work; plenty of important doctrinal polemics have been argued from lesser intellectual powers than his. It is rather that he sees the presence of heresies, in the plural, as a part of the general disorderly state of British society, and, speaking to British society as a whole, finds it more to the point to respond to them by quoting St.Paul on Catholic obedience and unity, reminding the whole class of heretics of their duties as Christians just as he reminds the class of kings of their duties as kings. To discuss doctrinal issues would not be to the point in a treatise about society; Gildas wants not to deal with single errors, but with the presumptuous self-seeking attitude that claims to be cleverer than the Church, however that presumption manifests itself. We will see in his attack on Constantine of Dumnonia that he is apt to see intellectual deviation and heresy as side-results of an unsettled personality. But the presence of widespread and probably multifarious heresies in his time argues that Christian doctrine was being discussed at a high level of sophistication.

Gildas was profoundly Christian, and many of his fulminations against crooked kings and time-serving, corrupt priests sound true and good to any Christian to this day. In Book 9, ch.1, I will show that he probably was, unconsciously, a member of a schismatic tradition; but it is nevertheless no coincidence that he has a high and awful regard for the See of Rome - the dominica margarita, the Lord's pearl (67.6)[15]. Margarita is his term for any office of bishop or presbyter. He clearly refers to two favourite Matthew[16] parables, the throwing of pearls to swine (Mt.7.6) and the merchant finding the pearl of great price, for which he gives up everything else (Mt.13.45), and condemns - in the same chapter - the practice of buying them, even going abroad for the purpose. Episcopal and presbyteral titles are priceless pearls, not to be cast before swine and demanding supreme sacrifices; but that of Rome is the Lord's own, dominica.

This is typical of his whole mind. His longing for Rome, like that of Catholics down the centuries, is the desire for what is both common and compelling, both normal and normative.  He has no wish to go chasing his own precious moral intuitions; rather like Dickens, he believes in common morality with uncommon force. Likewise, he has no political party, and his political demands form no structured plan: what he demands from the current social system is no more than decency. He feels that would be enough, and knows perfectly well that if his demands were applied, there would be something very close to a revolution anyway. This kind of mind is perhaps infrequent among modern intellectuals - many of whom seem to feel that a political position is required of them - but it is hardly unknown among the majority of inarticulate people. It is not properly a conservative morality, not intended to preserve the mighty in power and things as they are, since its demands fall with much greater force on the strong than on the weak; and it does not fear what it condemns. It is what I, for one, regard as the Catholic mind. Gildas may perhaps have come from a Pelagian or schismatic tradition, but he speaks and thinks about power and morality as any Christian would to day; in fact, the very familiarity of his polemic and his views may tend to obscure those things in which his world is really thoroughly unlike ours.

Gildas thought nothing better than ecclesiastical learning, and among his many charges against his arch-villain Maglocunus is that he completely wasted the teaching of paene totius Britanniae magistrum elegantem, the exquisite man who taught almost all Britain. The presence of this great if unnamed individual in Gildas' polemic is remarkable for what it tells us about his world and its common assumptions. Gildas attributes to this unnamed great master the force of a powerful teacher of morals, since his influence ought by rights to have reformed Maglocunus; but the adjective elegans lays the emphasis rather on grace and skill of address, on a cultivated and superior taste in both morality and culture, than on sheer force and fire. Some elements make us suspect a lack of the schoolroom severity we imagine in ancient masters: the term elegans does little to suggest sternness, and Gildas' own personality is shown by his Fragments and Penitential to have been gentle and tolerant. If this has anything to do with the magister elegans, then this man was not only elegant, but civilized; and indeed, Gildas' mind and manners are so unusual when compared with sixth-century testimony outside Britain that they seem to demand an explanation.

There is no doubt that Gildas himself strives for a refined and superb style, and if he was taught by this same master (and the text encourages us to suspect it), his work shows that this man had a striking if overwrought literary taste. In Gildas' view, he had "taught nearly all Britain"; that is, he was personally, maybe single-handedly responsible for the best that was said and written in his time, all the best minds and pens came from his school. And Gildas, as his admiring quotations tell us, had a high idea of more than one contemporary writer. "Almost all Britain" studied with this man; from all the island young men full of intellectual ambition came to fulfil it at his feet, even students of royal descent such as the young Maglocunus. This implies the existence of a whole educated society able to value such things as the possession of a strong writing style and an educated intellect; and confirms that Gildas was not a solitary bloom, but a man of genius in a whole social milieu of men of talent, whose talent was fostered and developed in schools and academic centres.

Teaching at this level cannot have been a matter of going through things by rote, so much as of learning to think and write to a very high standard - intensive, demanding in time and effort, and highly personalized. Such a master has more in common with a university tutor than a school teacher. The magister elegans will have been doing other things besides teaching: he will probably have written books of his own, and is very likely to have been involved in the running of some religious establishment, perhaps be a bishop or abbot. He will not have had more than a few dozen students at a time; and yet, over a busy life of teaching, he affected "nearly all Britain". That a single master, if no doubt industrious and long-lived, could have such an impact on the educated stratum of British society, so that "nearly all Britain" (meaning of course the educated part) could be affected by his teaching, gives us an idea of the dimensions involved. Educated Britain was not a large society. It can hardly have amounted to more than a few thousands, at most tens of thousands, of people. This is credible on other grounds: before the Industrial Revolution, the island never supported more than five or so million people, and the great age of Shakespeare took place in an England of scarcely three million. For a long time, English educated society - like the political strata that made up Parliament and Court, with which to a large extent it overlapped - was a little world where everyone knew everyone[17], and which two universities were enough to serve. In such a world - and Gildasian Britain must have been even less populous - one man's activities can go a long way.

This explains the peculiar form and atmosphere of Gildas' masterpiece. He is writing to a group large enough to be treated as a public, but small enough to be addressed almost individually. The listeners he has in mind (for I am confident that the book was meant to be declaimed in public places rather than read by individuals) are the educated class of Britain: in all its 110 chapters there is hardly any reference to the commons, except to reproach clergymen who flee from the poor as if from a pollution. Gildas cares for the poor, but it never occurs to him to discuss matters of royal conduct and the future of Britain with anyone except the educated, capable of following and appreciating his elaborate Latin style. His very language is an exclusion, for, even if it was the case - and I will argue that it was[18] - that Latin was widely spoken in Gildas' Britain, still his manner would have demanded far more than average conversational powers. However we assess the likely Latin of an ordinary British Latin-speaker, Gildas would strain it.

Even Gildas' protestations of having no power or influence must be taken with a pinch of salt. He makes no claim for himself, but he does remind the reader that he has been encouraged to write by his religious brothers. He had three reasons to write: In zelo igitur domus Domini sacrae legis seu cogitatuum rationibus uel fratrum religiosis precibus coactus... "In zeal therefore of the holy law of the house of the Lord, or by reasons of thought, or indeed driven by the religious prayers of the brothers..." The first two terms are connected by seu, the third by uel. Now both seu and uel mean "Either, or, or else"; but of the two, uel has the connotation of a stronger alternative, sometimes accompanied with optime and maxime to signify the best or most forceful term of a comparison. And coactus, past participle of coego, is exactly the right verb to underline that meaning: it has a sense of "being impelled by people or by circumstances". The careful word-choice clearly suggests that, though reason and religious zeal both pushed him to speak out, what convinced and indeed compelled him were the religious prayers of his brothers. They did not force him; they only prayed; and yet their prayers had the same effect as a coercion - he had to do it. And notice, by the way, of what great, classical precision of language Gildas is capable; his accurate uel is worth comparing with Gregory of Tours' messy use of nam. In our study of his work, we must never fail to watch what words he chooses.

This community of "brothers", whether or not we see it as monastic, looms large when we consider the resources that must have been involved in the production and publication of The ruin; a great work that makes no sense unless it is intended to be widely disseminated - broadcast, in the old sense - across the island. This demands that several copies should be made in a relatively short time, since this is not the ordinary process of hand-copying written texts, but the publication of a contemporary diatribe that demands action now; and by scribes of uncommon ability, given the complexity and power of the language - elementary-school Latin would not have been enough. There is enough to keep maybe half a dozen copyists busy for days[19]. Messengers must then be sent to the four corners of the kingdom, since the polemic embodied in the book will amount to nothing unless it becomes widely and swiftly known; and if, as I said I believe, this book was meant to be declaimed in public, these messengers must be capable public readers - a skill in itself.

Such an enterprise could not be undertaken without the consent and active involvement of a community of some importance. It represents not an individual, but a collective decision to intervene in the affairs of Britain with the clergyman's weapons, moral prestige and the power of the preaching Word. Only the prominence and weight of an influential religious body would have guaranteed that messengers whose message was meant to be unwelcome to many men of high place and low scruples could deliver it without hindrance and come home safely. A century before, in a far less unsettled and violent Britain, St.Patrick had been worried that his letter "to" Coroticus (which is in fact a denunciation of Coroticus to Britain at large) might be suppressed or altered; suppressing a single letter would surely not trouble overmuch the leathery remains of the consciences of such men as Aurelius Caninus or Constantine of Dumnonia, who did not scruple to kill enemies at the altar.

And the murder of priests wasn't unknown. In 94.3, Gildas throws at simoniac would-be priests in the service of bad kings the famous text about not casting pearls before swine "lest they trample them underfoot and turn and rend you apart" (he had foreshadowed it a full twenty-seven chapters before, in the margarita passage; so long-range is his literary art), and chillingly concludes: quod saepissime uobis euenit, which little matter happens very often to your likes. The reward for simony and the betrayal of the religious vocation in the service of a corrupt temporal king is, not only sometimes, but very often - saepissime - murder at the hands of that same king.

Gildas' protection was in the prestige of whatever religious group he belonged to; and it is not only because of his own humility that he specifies that it was "the religious prayers of the brothers" that had driven him to write. Unlike St.Patrick, he is not worried that his work will be tampered with; and yet he intends that his voice should be heard throughout Britain. He probably intended that the very publicity of his attack would shield him and his community from the criminals he denounces by name. Now, apart from the prestige of his community, this argues that Gildas believed that such a thing as public opinion existed in Britain and was influential; that the kings of Britain, however wicked, cared about what others said of them. Gildas wrote in the certainty that he would be listened to: that is one of the few points he had in common with St.Patrick a century earlier. Both Gildas complaining of the degeneracy of the whole British nation, and Patrick denouncing a single piratical British lord to Britain at large, were addressing all Educated Britain by means of formal written addresses to be declaimed in public. The fact that Maglocunus had a whole propaganda department of hired bards argues the same.

This is surely Educated Britain we are talking about: Gildas expected his extremely elaborate Latin to have an effect on public opinion, and therefore public opinion was made up of the sort of people who would understand and appreciate it. There was a national audience for it, and this audience was the public opinion he wanted to reach. This was the state of learning in Gildasian Britain: a high and advanced culture that compared very favourably, in mores and intellectual achievement, with contemporary Merovingian France, but that had almost no connection with the classics; and whose learning, save for the common Catholic heritage, was of a kind that a Roman of the classical age, or any sufficiently educated successor to the traditions of Cassiodorus and Boethius, could only have regarded as barbarous.

How did this idiosyncratic culture come about? How could Latin be known to the astonishing level testified by Gildas, with a vast vocabulary precisely used, an ornate style, an arrestingly perfect grammar and an ability to write on a large scale that put Continental contemporaries to shame, in a culture that knew nothing whatsoever of Livy, Tacitus and Horace?

The process cannot be made absolutely clear; but the evident pre-eminence of one individual such as the magister elegans gives us a clue. The peculiar brilliance in some areas, and complete deficiency in others, that seems the keynote of this period, is typical of a situation where the abilities and peculiarities of individual teachers could be of decisive importance. One, two, five, ten learned men had clung on to their learning in the middle of war, robbery and destruction. They had kept receiving pupils and busying themselves with the recording and transmission of all their learning. Among them there was at least one able grammarian, probably in possession of a textbook that used Aeneid I and II as the base for a very elaborate in-depth course in Latin grammar; and directly or indirectly, Gildas learnt from him - the precision of his grammar and the vastity of his vocabulary demand to be explained by academic study on a very high level. We may never know his name, but he is likely to be the man he praised as "the" elegant master.

(Beside the obvious point about Latin grammar and Aeneid I-II, another area of classical skill had almost certainly been preserved. Michael Lapidge has made what seems to me a very good case[20]for Gildas having the skills of a classical Latin speech-writer, a rhetor, arguing that the large-scale structure of The ruin of Britain is very close to that of a Cicero speech. I lack the technical knowledge to assess his theory, except that it is striking that Gildas' structure should seem so Ciceronian when his style is about as un-Ciceronian as it is very well possible to be. On the other hand, the next books will show a great deal of evidence for a strong Roman-derived legal tradition in immediately post-Roman Britain, with a rhetorical tradition to match.)

By the time of Gildas, this thin stream of learning had turned into a flood. The Church of his time was rich: though he inveighs against the gifts given by murderous and immoral kings, and never refused however much they stank, Gildas himself, as we have seen, had a well supported and well educated church community of some sort behind him. But his learning still bore the tokens of its fractured beginnings: the British schools he knew could teach a man to write with enormously developed literary skill, and ground him in a good deal of Christian literature, but they were unable to give him much knowledge of the older and wider traditions of Rome, Athens and Alexandria.

However, though the influence of single gifted individuals accounts for much, it can also be seen that this British situation was something of a caricature of what the growing prevalence of Church learning was causing on the Continent. Gildas is full of Church writing and only a little Virgil; but so is Gregory of Tours, though descended from three centuries of Roman Senators. Like Gildas, all his reading is in theology, sacred history and hagiography. But there is one fundamental difference: the British cultural environment has kept no reliquiae of Classical culture such as can never quite be separated from Late Roman and Continental Dark Age writing; Britain had no Vivarium[21]. In the great island, only church learning had survived.  Gregory and Gildas would probably have understood each other immediately - though Gregory would have wondered at Gildas' style - if they had found themselves discussing doctrine, sacred history or Church governance; but a curtain as thick as a wall would have fallen between them the moment their conversation strayed into Roman history or geography, with Gregory wondering where on Earth and why Gildas had got his outlandish ideas. Secular culture may have lain moldering in monastic libraries and unread private collections on the Continent; but in Gildasian Britain, secular culture did not exist at all. The only alternative to the literature of monks was the native and still oral literature of Welsh bards.

At some point between the fourth and the sixth centuries, the classical tradition of secular learning in Britain was superseded by a different one, which had little in common with it except the Latin language, most aspects of Christian doctrine and literature, and probably an elaborate tradition of large-scale rhetorical construction dependent in some ways, though not in style, on the great public speakers of ancient Rome. This is itself a historical fact of great significance, as worthy of the attention of historians as the political events to be teased from Gildas' weave of allusion and denunciation. We have found out something about the world-view of at least one school of educated ecclesiastics in his time; it is time to make use of it to clarify the views and assumptions held by this man, who only seems an eccentric genius because his is the only large-scale work of literature to survive from his period.


[1]A study of Gildas as a Church Father is present in LAPIDGE & DUMVILLE (eds.), Gildas: New Approaches, Woodbridge 1984, but is quite inadequate. It quite ignores the evidence for a major clash between St.Gildas and St.David and tries unwarrantedly to melt all the Fragments into a single Letter. See below, bk.9, ch.1.

[2]Preface to GILDAS, The ruin of Britain and other documents, Chichester 1978. This is the version I will use throughout, although I have also read HUGH WILLIAMS (ed.), Cymmrodorion record series 3, London 1899-1901, a majestic old compilation of Gildasian material with a huge, occasionally nave, but impressively learned apparatus and notes, especially useful in the matter of St.Gildas’ use of differing versions of the Bible. Although I have used mainly Winterbottom’s recent translation – for the practical reason that I own a copy – my gratitude to the Reverend Williams is none the less.

[3]..."a hidden light should be shown, or as if some ray of sunlight, breaking out, should enlighten the whole planet with the clarity of the light from above". This is a matter of taste, but I find Gildas' recasting, though hard to follow, a great deal more attractive.

[4] If this seems a mere freak on Gildas’ part, I would point out that English is quite capable of similarly convoluted sentences, untranslatable in certain other languages. Take the following: Even so, an account of the Greek class struggle that which devotes no more than a short paragraph to the Thirty Tirants, glosses over Thucydides’ lethal account of stasis on Corcyra, and makes no reference at all (among other interesting omissions) to Melos, Hesiod’s fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale, or that fascinating if usavoury right-wing intellectual ultra, Critias, might be thought, to say the least, something more than idiosyncratically lopsided. (PETER GREEN, Classical Bearings, Berkeley and London 1989, p.121) Half-way through this enormous sentence, I found myself thinking, How the Hell do I translate this into [my native tongue] Italian? And the answer, as with Gildas’ ch.8, is, You don’t; you rewrite it.

[5]A Latin conjunction used improperly by Gregory to introduce the antefact of a series of violent riots rather than to describe its cause, as it normally should. Gregory, it is pointed out, misuses the nam not once but twice in the passage in question, showing a poor grasp of grammatical niceties; one doubts that Gildas would have been guilty of a similar error.

[6]ERICH AUERBACH, Mimesis, New York 1957, pp.70-71. I can only say that it is a pity that such a brilliant judge of other people's style should be translated into such poor English - I wish I'd read the original - and that some of his own sentences should appear, if not grammatical monsters, at least freaks. Take for instance the one that opens with In both cases and ends with single construction: at first the subject is "the sentence", then it moves to "Gregory" in a clause in brackets, and remains there thanks to a wholly inappropriate use of he where the subject's name would be necessary - a bracketed clause, by definition, being outside the flow of the argument! This is most likely the translator's fault, and does nothing to detract from the extraordinary genius of Auerbach and the capital importance of Mimesis; but I could easily do without it at a point where someone else's clumsy grammar is being assessed with unpitying justice.

[7]For a perfect confirmation of the truth of this attitude, cf. Acts of the Apostles 18.12-17, in which the Roman governor of Achaia positively refuses to take action about a violent dissension among local Jewish residents, even when a community functionary is bloodily beaten up in front of him. De minimis, indeed, non curat praetor.

[8]AUERBACH, op.cit. 73

[9]GILDAS op.cit. 156-157 (index of quotations). Two Aeneid quotations do not come from books 1 and 2: 10.513 in ch.16 and 9.24 in ch.25.2. But we can argue that they must have reached Gildas at second remove from previous Christian authors; one of them certainly is from a letter of St.Jerome.

[10]GILDAS ibid. WINTERBOTTOM, preface and note 8. Dr.Winterbottom thinks that Gildas consciously adapts Virgil's tags for his own purposes, but given that he is substantially more exact in his quotations from the Bible and other sources, I think it far more likely that he was remembering, maybe even unconsciously, verses read long before.

[11]NEIL WRIGHT, Gildas' reading, in Dumville & Lapidge (ed.), Gildas: New approaches, Woodbridge, 1984.

[12]I mean that though Gildas takes 62.3 as representative of the temper of his own times, it seems to me more typical of an urbane and cohesive age such as the original of 21 castigated: it attacks not the gross sins that screamed at Gildas from every corner - murder, parricide, civil war, oath-breaking, sacrilege, mental cruelty, sodomy, gross flattery, simony, heresy, ecclesiastical worldliness and unbridled greed - but the more sophisticated kinds of a less violent world. What the author quoted in 62.3 said was that it was practically impossible to "serve the Lord in goodness, and in simplicity of heart search for Him". These are words that fit more easily a rich and corrupt society than a poor, divided and violent one, for which there are a good deal of more suitable Old Testament passages. The sins it attacks, the lack of simplicity of heart and of inner goodness, seem to me practically the same as those escoriated in 21.

[13]CHRISTOPHER A.SNYDER An age of tyrants, Stroud 1998, p.44 and note 109, quoting several scholars.

[14]Possibly Gildas expects her to know the verse even if Cuneglasus does not, since it seems to be in praise of monastic virginity and the mystical love of God, and she was supposed to be a consecrated widow.

[15]ovatianus was an ultra-rigorist cleric for whose followers the term puritani, Puritans, was first invented.Towards the end of the third century, he apparently either convinced or tricked three provincial Italian bishops into consecrating him Pope (the reigning Pope, Cornelius, had been consecrated by sixteen bishops). His reasons were, in his own eyes, honourable, but his procedure was no more than usurpation, and his theology was savage and vindictive: he was a Platonist, a doctrine that has always had a brutalizing effect on Christian thought. The episode is described in EUSEBIUS, The history of the Church 6.43, quoting at length from a furious letter by Cornelius himself, who cannot be expected to be fair. Gildas follows Eusebius' and Rufinus' mistake in calling him Novatus.

[16]Professor Charles Thomas claims that Matthew seems, from the evidence of inscriptions, to have been the favourite British gospel in this period; CHARLES THOMAS, Christian Celts: Messages and images, Stroud 1998, p.29, and cf. his index of Biblical references, 221, where Matthew outnumbers every other Vulgate book. Gildas also favours him: the list of Biblical references in Winterbottom's edition shows twice as many quotations from Matthew as from any other NT book, and, astonishingly, no quotations from the Gospel of John at all!

[17]As late as 1726 there were only 176 Peers of England. J.H.PLUMB, England in the eighteenth century (1714-1815), Harmondsworth 1963, p.34.

[18] Book 7, chapter 4.

[19]If the copies were written on parchment, dozens if not hundreds of treated sheepskins - expensive and time-consuming to make - must have been used. But that is rather unlikely: use expensive and durable parchment for a contemporary diatribe? However, even if Gildas' people used cheaper writing materials, they would still have been an expense.

[20]MICHAEL LAPIDGE, Gildas' education and the Latin culture of sub-Roman Britain, in LAPIDGE & DUMVILLE (ed.), Gildas: New approaches, Woodbridge 1984.

[21]The great monastery in Calabria where the ageing writer and minister Cassiodorus dedicated almost half his life - he died at 96! - to the preservation of a Christian-directed but Classically based culture, while Italy was being destroyed around him by the hordes of Justinian I.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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