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

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Chapter 1.2: Gildas' history re-examined: Rome and the deceitful she-monster

Fabio P. Barbieri

 

Gildas' account of British history is, uniquely, a legend of extermination. Refusing to deal with stories of native "tyrants" and paganism which he claims to know and which would have been of great interest to scholars, it opens with "the Roman kings" demanding submission from the British as of right: they have already established the empire of the world. The British consent to this without a fight, and therefore any armed force they may from then on oppose to their masters will be in the nature not of fair war, but of illegitimate rebellion. Gildas adds the amazing remark that the British were the only nation in all the world who were not first brought under control by the Roman sword, but rather, being cowardly by nature, gave up their independence without a fight. This statement is so extraordinary that one is bound to suspect a distortion of an existing legend such as that of Shakespeare's Cymbeline[1], where the British, after honourably defeating the Romans, rejoin the world empire of their own free will because it is better to be in than out.

After their surrender, the Romans came to take possession. "Because of hunger" or "poverty" (ob inopiam)[2], they went back to Italy, leaving behind a number of representatives called rectores. These were slaughtered by "a treacherous lioness" (leaena dolosa), and, outraged at the underhanded murders, the Roman Senate sent an army to punish the islanders. The leaena seems in some way to be connected with a conspiracy, or at least with collective guilt, since Gildas then goes on to speak of murderers, in the plural, which he describes as uolpeculae, little foxes - "little", no doubt, in the sense of "petty, mean"; to the Romans, this will be no more than a fox hunt.

Lacking the means and bravery for a battle, the British flee the Roman army and are mowed down, "offer their neck to the sword" (dantur et colla gladiis) and their hands to the fetters like women (muliebriter); Gildas describes with savage contempt the lack of a fleet to repel the invaders or an army able to arrange itself in order of battle. Men of Roman race are left to be masters, and the few of the perfidi, the traitors, whom they left alive, are to be in their service. The island's new Roman aristocracy is to command absolute control, enforceable with whip or sword, over the indigeni, without limit of time. All Britain's gold and silver is to be stamped with the image of her masters (even coining is turned into a token of Roman enslavement of Britons and their property!). And in all this the Romans are simply right, they are doing nothing else than what is their right in revenge against the treachery, rebellion and cowardice of the British. They are right in the massacre, right in the despoiling of the country, right in setting up an inhuman law which condemns the natives to eternal punishment. Gildas never breathes a single word of disapproval; a quite freakishly ferocious picture which reminds me of nothing so much as the more wild-eyed prophetic texts of Qumran, but complicated by the fact that while the "Kittim" of Qumran are simply evil, enemies of God and destined for destruction at the Last Battle, the Romans of Gildas are right in whatever they do, whatever cruel punishment they elect to inflict on the island. He posits the most radical dichotomy between Britons and Romans: the relations between the two are those between master and slave, between treacherous and defeated rebel and relentless avenger.

We are still far too hag-ridden by the Classics. Minds raised in the giant shadow of Tacitus read Gildas with Boudicca and Agricola in mind, and promptly found the former in the "treacherous lioness". In actual fact, there is not a single point in common between their stories. Boudicca did not betray a few functionaries and murder them in the dark, she raised an army and destroyed great towns. The army that defeated her was already in Britain; the Romans had never gone anywhere, they had stayed and marched into Wales. No adjective applies less well to that bloodthirsty royal fury than dolosa, a treacherous plotter, someone who designs subtle deception behind people's back. Gildas, our master of Latin, knew this perfectly well and used exactly the word he wanted to use. His whole point, part of a theme on which he weaves a million variations throughout the book, is that the British are treacherous; the leaena was not an outraged queen eager for revenge, but some sort of backstabbing traitor. And in spite of Suetonius Paulinus' exterminating activities at the end of the rebelllion, there was nothing like the near-total annihilation Gildas describes; nor any massive inflow of Roman settlers. Walk down any British street, and you may conclude that not all that many native Britons are of Mediterranean origin.

Last but not least, we cannot be sure that the leaena dolosa, the lioness plotting treachery, was to be read as a person, let alone a woman. Gildas has been misread. He is fond of that twisty word leaena, with its vowels moving back and forth in the mouth, and uses it frequently: but in only a single other place are we allowed even to suspect that he might use it to describe an individual person. That is when he calls Constantine of Dumnonia inmundae leaenae Damnoniae catulus, which is normally translated as "cub of the foul lioness of Dumnonia"; this "lioness" being understood to be a woman, Constantine's mother. The Latin, however, reads at least as well as "cub of the foul lioness, Dumnonia". And while no other passage suggests that Gildas could see individual women as lionesses, there is one that positively proves that he could use the term for a land that produces evil men. When he wants to strike his listeners with the horror of the Saxons, he makes them all not crawl, but explode out of a common leonine womb - tum erumpens grex catulorum de cubili leaenae barbarae... "Then the flock of cubs, bursting out of the lying-place of the barbarian lioness..." Clearly one single barbarian woman could not have given birth to all the crew even only of the three ships on which Gildas brings the first of her monstrous brood to Britain; he is speaking of the horrible generative power that creates evil thoughts, evil things, evil men and evil peoples. A leaena is a power for destruction, the evil that gives rise to tyrants in Dumnonia, barbarians in Germany, and treachery against Rome in Britain. Revenge also is a leaena, and the despair of good men can bring it upon the heads of evil ones: the sobs of religious men who personally witnessed the crimes and treacheries of Cuneglasus are immanis leaenae dentium ossa tua quandoque fracturae, "the teeth of an horrendous lioness that is some day soon to shatter your bones". When he does not have evil in mind, Gildas resorts to the male beast: the heroic troops of Maglocunus' uncle have "the face of cubs of a lion", catulorum leonis, masculine. Both lions and lionesses have catuli, cubs, but lionesses generate bloody traitors, and lions give birth to heroes[3]. It is perhaps worth pointing out that Gildas is hardly likely to have seen a real lion or lioness: to him, they were fabulous beasts like dragons or griffins, and accordingly they might be endowed with all sorts of fabulous characteristics - including even (if we are so to read these passages) single-sex generation.

However, there is a suspicious insistence on feminine characteristics among the Britons of Gildas' legend. They act like women, muliebriter, and their treachery is a female monster; and as nothing could be more obviously masculine than the Roman courage, strength and commanding power, their relationship with the Romans has something about it of a conflict between a feminine and a masculine principle. Add to this Gildas' astounding remark that the British had been the only nation not subdued by Roman force of arms, but peacefully handed over to the Roman yoke - and the suspicion must arise that the original legend, which Gildas must indubitably have distorted in the service of his polemic, was one of marriage, with a representative of Britain as the bride and a representative of Rome as the groom, describing a "special relationship" between Britain and Rome such as does not exist between Rome and any other country. Others, this seems to suggest, are conquered; Britannia is married. And we are reminded that Gildas opens his whole argument with a description of the country "as a chosen bride adorned with manifold jewels", electa ueluti sponsa monilibus diuersis ornata (2.4). Whose bride, chosen by whom? Gildas speaks of "the Kings of Rome" when speaking of the first submission, as if individual male incarnations of Roman power had to be part of it, but of "the Senate", the collective headship of the State, when punishment is decreed and no wooing or personal agreement is necessary.

As soon as this suspicion struck me, I rushed back to the best-known and most complete of several stories of Roman Emperors in Britain, The dream of Maxen Gwledig; and it soon hit me that every single element in Gildas' account has a match - distorted, sometimes reversed in meaning, but present - in the Welsh fable. This is a summary:

Maxen, emperor of Rome and high king over thirty-two minor kings, dreams of the fairest woman in the world. After a first fruitless attempt, two of his ambassadors find her in what seems to be Anglesey. Maxen goes to Britain in imperial style, with an army, and easily takes its crown from Beli son of Manogawn, almost as an afterthought: he has not come to fight, but to woo, or rather to demand, since it is his right as Emperor of Rome (and now lord of Britain) to have the bride he wants. Though the story is written with some care, there is nor description of wooing at all: Maxen's envoys come, say "Hail, Empress of Rome" and that's it.

But the girl, Elen, drives a hard bargain: she cannot deny the Emperor his wish, but she can and does claim a wedding gift. Her father Eudav (Octavius) is to be King of the island and three royal strongholds are to be built for her family. (She also designs a network of roads to connect the island's various fortresses, so that its peoples should be more united.) She also demands that he come to live with her in Britain.

The Emperor spends seven years with her, and is as much in love as on the first day. But meanwhile the rulers of Rome have nominated a new Emperor. That is obviously not to be borne, so Maxen takes the army he had led into Britain back to Rome, and besieges the city; Elen comes with him. After a year her brothers, tired of the long and inconclusive war, come to join them with a small but splendid company of Welshmen; they enter the city by stealth while its armies are eating, and murder the pretender emperor and his supporters. They spend three days inside the still closed gates, subduing the town, and then - just as Maxen is communicating to Elen his impatience - they open it to him.

As a reward, the Emperor gives them the Roman army he had led thus far, and they spend several years conquering and cruelly subduing peoples. They kill the men but keep the women, cutting off their tongues so that they should not pollute their British speech with foreign sounds. In the end one of the brothers, Adaon, goes back to Britain; the other, Cynan, remains on the continent and becomes the first ruler of the Britons of Armorica, descended from those conquered women whose tongues were cut off.

As I said, every element of Gildas' account may be found here:

1) The kings of Rome have already conquered all the world. 1) Thirty-two kings live at Maxen's court and go hunting with him, to underline his supremacy[4].
1a) It is possible that Gildas' mention of reges Romanorum, in the plural, may find an echo in... 1a) ...the fact that the legend of Elen has two Emperors, Maxen and his rival.
2) Nevertheless, Rome has not yet subdued Britain, and may even be unaware of its existence. 2) Nevertheless, Rome has not yet subdued Britain, and may even be unaware of its existence.
3) Any army that Britain might hope to muster is not remotely comparable to the Roman host. Cynan and Adaon have a mere company, and when Maxen wants to reward them for winning the war for him he hands over to them his own army. 3) Any army that Britain might hope to muster is not remotely comparable to the Roman host. Gildas speaks of Britain's inability to gather together a decent army or fleet.
4) There is a conquest, but no real battle.  Maxen's host seems to have bundled Beli son of Manogawn out of the island without apparent effort. 4) Gildas' defeat of the British can hardly be called a battle.
5) Elen is clearly the female representative of Britain who stands before the very masculine Maxen. She is chosen, does not herself do any choosing. She submits to his demands without demur, muliebriter[5]. It is as a result of this feminine attitude, and not of any arrogant defiance, that Elen's family obtains supremacy over the island. The lords of Britain stand before the Emperor of Rome in the position of a dutiful wife before her lord and husband. 5) The British submit practically without demur, muliebriter, to Gildas' reges Romanorum (I mean before the betrayal of the leaena and the massacre). Defiance means disaster, because the British simply do not have the character, let alone the power, to back it up; besides, rule by Romans and Roman law is a good, uniting thing, naturally opposed to British disunity and lawlessness.
6) The brothers of Britain's female representative Elen do kill Roman leaders in a way that may without stretching a point be called more doloso, using not military valour but cunning to sneak into Rome and murder its leaders at a time of informal truce. 6) The female power of British treachery, the leaena dolosa, murders the Roman leaders at a time of peace.
7) When their Emperor has vanished in Britain - not murdered like the rectores, but at any rate impossible to reach from Rome - the Senate is responsible for nominating another (then, instead of punishing dolosi British murderers, they are themselves murdered by dolosi Britons). 7) In Gildas, when the Roman rectores have been murdered, it is the Senate, and not the king or kings of Rome, who decree punishment: the Kings are suddenly not on the scene. This may possibly be seen as in some way an inversion of what the Roman authorities do in Maxen.
8) Maxen lends the Roman army to Cynan and Adaon, who destroy whole nations, except for a remnant left to serve their conquerors. The remnant spared is wholly made of women. 8) The Roman army then reaches Britain, destroying whole native tribes, except for a remnant left to serve their conquerors. The conquered are conquered because they are womanish in spirit.
9) There is little or no limit of time to the cruelty inflicted by the Roman host on the conquered peoples; in Maxen, the host goes on conquering and destroying till all its leaders' hairs are grey. Nevertheless, there is apparently nothing wrong with what the conquerors do to the conquered: Adaon and Cynan are founding heroes, revered figures. 9) There is little or no limit of time to the cruelty inflicted by the Roman host on the conquered peoples, who are to be slaves for ever. Nevertheless, there is apparently nothing wrong with what the conquerors do to the conquered.
10) Most amazingly, the conquered nations whose men are slaughtered and whose women's tongues are cut out are in fact British - that is, they are the (female) ancestors of the Continental British of Armorica. (At this point, the fable seems to have lost from sight the fact that Cynan and Adaon's army was originally Roman!)[6] 10) The conquered and enslaved nations are British.
11) Maxen transfers the peculiarly brutal kind of union described by Gildas from Britain to Armorica, but the protagonists are still a Roman army and a native population, turned by this savagery into (a part of) the British nation. The Bretons were, after all, little more than Welshmen in exile, and the legend of Arthur, among other things, connected them closely. 11) Both Gildas and Maxen tell the story of a very brutal kind of fusion of two nations, the British and the Roman.

Although some of these elements are a bit speculative, I think that there are so many of them that a genetic relationship cannot be denied[7]. Let us forget about Boudicca, then. Gildas never heard of her, and his "Roman" history has nothing in common with Roman history, in or out of Britain. The search for more or less vague historical memories has prevented us from seeing it for what it is, a well-arranged cycle of British legends interpreted in a very individual way by a man with a point to prove.

Excessive reliance on a fundamentally Classical viewpoint misleads, in my view, Christopher A. Snyder[8] in his assessment of Gildas' attitude to Magnus Clemens Maximus - identified with the Maxen of the fable - about whom Gildas has a lot to say. Magnus was a Roman usurper who started from Britain and, after five years of success, was eventually defeated by the surviving legitimate emperor Theodosius in 388. Gildas, Dr.Snyder says, had read Sulpicius Severus, the biographer of St.Martin of Tours; Sulpicius' view of Maximus was positive; and yet Gildas regards him as a despicable tyrant. Why can he not agree with his source? Because, says the learned historian, Gildas had been misled by a change in the semantic value of tyrannus - from "successful usurper" to "morally worthless and contemptible tyrant".

Perhaps. But why is Maximus important, in a work whose emotional core is in the present? What did Maximus actually do for Gildas to remember him so bitterly? Not just to rebel against the legitimate lords of the world; that was, literally, ancient history, and Gildas has no use for ancient history. No: what matters, as Gildas tells us with the utmost clarity, is that Exin Britannia omni armato milite, militaribus copiis, rectoribus licet immanibus, ingenti iuuentute spoliata, quae comitata uestigiis supra dicti tyranni domum nusquam ultra rediit, et omni belli usus ignara penitus... "Thenceforth Britain, denuded of all armed soldiers, of armies in numbers, of rectores however terrible, and of her great [male] youth, who, having accompanied the aforementioned tyrant, never came home again, and [therefore] more or less ignorant of all habit of war -" was delivered helpless into the hands of successive invaders, Picts, Scots, Saxons. In Gildas' scheme of history, it was a turning point, taking the country down a disastrous road out of which she had never managed to stray.

This is a mirror image of his own idea of the original Roman invasion. What Britain loses is the rectores, those Roman representatives whose murder long ago had brought the wrath of the Senate on the island, and who, however immanes - awesome, terrible - were all she had; and she loses the whole class of men able to bear arms. The movement we witness is the exact reverse of what had happened at the beginning of Roman rule; then a Roman host had come to Britain and, because they could fight and the cowardly British could not, had enslaved or destroyed them; now a large host, including all those classes in Britain who were mentally and by training able to fight, left the island never to return, abandoning it to an unmilitary rabble that has not learnt to defend itself in a hundred and fifty years or more - except when led by "almost the last of the Romans".

Who, then, are these military classes who, once they leave, cannot be replaced? There can be no other answer but that they are the descendants of the original Roman host, meant by birth and blood to be warriors. And who is disastrously leading them away from the island, to an unjust war and his own inevitable destruction? A latter-day sprig of "tyrant thickets", rulers from native bloodlines that pre-date the Roman age, and that, after having been so nearly burned to the ground by "the keen edge of flame" of the first Roman conquest, had blossomed again into an illegitimate power, to the disaster of the Roman settlers and the destruction of their own native soil. And it is typical of such a racial vision that the Host itself, in later legend at least, should not be lost, but rather impose itself on Armorica and become the forefathers of new kingdoms. The Host is not at fault; its racially inferior leader is. Probably, Maximus' admitted victories - an emperor driven out, another killed - are to be attributed not to his own abilities but to the excellence of his Host.

This is not Roman history; it is the end of a legend cycle of which the Roman invasion was the beginning. What Gildas has to say about Maximus is no less close to later Welsh tradition than what he said before. Although the racial edge is largely lost in later Welsh legend, where the "Silver Host" led out of Britain by Maxen and Elen is Welsh rather than Roman[9], the fundamental meaning of the story is one and the same. The ambition of Maxen empties Britain of the best of its warriors, generating a weakness that cannot be filled and that will dominate succeeding British history until the Saxons sweep in. Gildas' "Roman" history, whatever tangential contact it may have with historical reality, is nothing more and nothing else than the first written record of Welsh historical legend; and Maximus/Maxen is not a historical figure - save perhaps for the name - but a part-player in an epic cycle.

The basic moral values of the legend, including that which allows and excuses the savagery of the "Roman" conquerors, may be retrieved in a quite independent Celtic poem about Christ and his Jewish opponents:

Withstanding Christ mac Living-God, for them
Was "a spear-point against right subjection";
As they say in this royal island,
It was "denial after acceptance".
Every advantage that the King
For their obedience, gave the Jews
Was no more than "wealth to slaves";
They broke counter-obligations
[10].

This places a peculiar interpretation on the death of Christ: that is, that since the Jews had already accepted the Living God as their King, they were not allowed to resist his Son; and the poet calls up the legal spirit of "this royal island" to testify to their injustice. What is more, when a king accepts men and gives them benefit as the Living God had accepted the Jews, those who violate their counter-obligations are no better than slaves. Conversely one should not give "wealth" - gifts, benefits - to slaves, because they would be inevitably ungrateful; the very expression is a by-word to signify ingratitude. This is how the Irish poet Blathmac mac Con Brettan treats the most important story in Christianity; Blathmac, incidentally, was himself of royal birth[11], and his use of such expressions as "a spear-point against right subjection" and "wealth to slaves" proves that they, with all their burden of ideas and concepts, were common currency among royal Irish clans, expressing common and intensely felt tenets.

As the story of God's Son is the most important story in Christianity, so the story of the Roman conquest is one of the most important stories in the secular legend of Britain; and to place the exact same value-system at its heart shows its importance to Celtic morality. Once a chief is accepted, and the ritual - but deeply felt - exchange of benefits has been put in place, to revolt against him and his patrilinear descendants is the lowest crime anyone can commit. It is like crucifying Christ again. And those who do it are not only no better than slaves, they are slaves - there is no distinction between the opprobrious legal status and the moral degradation of a traitor.

There can be no doubt that the distinction between Romans and Britons in Gildas' legend is a distinction between masters and slaves. Those who live in Britain and are masters are of Roman descent, and those who serve them are of British. At the back of it, more clearly in Gildas than in Maxen, there is a peculiarly cruel doctrine of society: because in the past the ancestors of today's slaves have been cowardly, treacherous, murderous and - last but not least - incapable of thinking ahead, therefore today’s society is divided in two parts, masters and slaves. The British are slaves, and therefore traitors; the Romans are rightly masters. And there can be no doubt that the conscious stroke of rhetoric that reduces the revolt of the exotic female monster, as soon as the avenging Roman host has set foot on the island, to a mere fox-hunt, is another mythological image carrying the same picture. The Roman senate, that is the upper class of Rome as a collective entity, dispatches the host to Britain to chase down the uolpeculae, the cowardly British murderers, like foxes. Unlike lions and lionesses, foxes are a common and detested breed of British vermin, known to every farmer; and I wonder whether it is more than a coincidence that to this day they are hunted and slaughtered through the island by gathered hosts of largely upper-class hunters, to whom the right to pursue the vermin the length and breadth of the land is a conscious assertion of their right to the land itself[12].

To blame Gildas for racism would be deeply unjust. The racial doctrine cannot have been his creation: he tosses it off too off-handedly, leaving half the Ts uncrossed and half the Is undotted, as a man speaking of things both he and his listeners take for granted. Gildas was born in a culture whose basic assumptions were more naturally racist than anything we may know or easily conceive, in which racist ideas had never been challenged, as even those of Ku Klux Klan and Broederbond members have long been, by any opposite ideology of equality; he had never in his life heard, let alone been taught, the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. But though he accepted this account, he turned it against the caste it flattered, seizing on it with all the anger and fire of his impetuous mind and reshaping it into the opposite of what it what originally meant. Magnus Maximus and the Saxon wars, he says, have depopulated the country: Ambrosius was almost the last Roman left, and his descendants have degenerated. This accounts for the sheer contemptibility of the aristocracy of his day. They are not Romans, not proper lords; they are, at best, descendants of the "tyrant thickets" of old, or of even baser birth. His whole picture of the past depends on the assumption that the British, left to themselves, will be guilty of cowardice and treachery, deprived of the warrior values. Their tendency to treachery and internal violence is such that they have to be shouted at to get them to hear the obvious truth.

One difficult passage is best explained in this light: when Gildas pretends to translate the name of the villainous Cuneglasus as "Red-haired Butcher" (lanio fulue), he cannot but have been aware that it actually meant Grey Hound. It is brutal satire, rather like a Private Eye rechristening - the Queen as Brenda, Sir David English as Sir David Fester. What he is saying, in effect, is: "to your fellow-countrymen, speaking the barbarous jargon of born slaves, you may perhaps be an elegant and lordly hunting animal, with smooth grey fur; but to any true-born Roman, who not only thinks but speaks as a Latin, you are not grey but carrot-haired (fulue), not smooth and elegant but foul with dripping stinking congealing blood, not a hound but a mere butcher (lanio)". He is assuming a radical discontinuity between the mind, culture and actions of a Roman and of a Briton, and implying that ceci tuera cela.

The satire is social as well as national: the hound was the totem of many Celtic aristocratic and heroic figures, from Cunotigernus to Cu Chulainn, but a butcher (lanio) was inevitably a working-class figure, filthy not only with meat and blood but with the excrement of the carcasses he carved up, a million miles from the graceful figures of noble greyhounds on the hunt - yet busy with the same thing: dismembering bodies. And indeed, anyone who had the experience of reading native Welsh or Irish writing about battles, both prose and poetry, is apt to find the emphasis on the most purely physical aspect of fighting with spears and swords - the flesh cut like meat, the shed blood, the disembowelling - closer to the language of the butcher's shop than to what we would regard as the warrior virtues, courage and contempt for death. There is no doubt plenty of both in Welsh poetry, but Gildas has caught, in that single insult lanio, all the least pleasant aspects of Celtic battle fury. Social and racial aspects are hardly distinguished: the native British are the slaves of the Romans, inevitably base and socially low, born to serve their masters; and Cuneglasus is a jumped-up piece of road trash whose natural place is in the butcher's shop, but who, having been thrown up by the vanishing of the real aristocracy into a rank to which his British blood does not qualify him, misapplies a butcher's natural instincts in the seat of a King, delighting in the shedding of blood and the carving of limbs. This is not Gildas' whole view of him: it is a picture of what he is if he does not allow the grace of God into his life, and Gildas begs him to climb out of the mire of sin in which he is sinking. But it is certainly his picture of the natural man Cuneglasus, without supernatural grace. He is trying to shock his audience; and what he is telling them, that should so shock them, is that they aren't Romans. You are, he tells them, of the treacherous blood of their slaves. It follows that they must have thought themselves such, or else his assault would not have gone home. And though his picture of the past was by and at large of the same kind as later Welsh historical theory, Gildas says nothing of the close relationship between Romans and Britons which is a commonplace until Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales, indeed until Shakespeare and Andrew Marvell.

Knowledge of Roman history, even late Roman history, does not enlighten but darken our understanding of Gildas. A reader searching for it will obviously discard, without even thinking about it, his picture of an ethnic massacre of native Britons and of their replacement with a large upper stratum of immigrant Romans, assessing it instinctively as a deformation of vaguely remembered events. It is not: it is an entirely independent and anything but vague historical legend, with a clear content that Gildas develops in succeeding chapters (Gildas' picture of society cannot, in my opinion, be understood without it), and hampered only by being factually quite false. Because we are looking for Boudicca where there is no Boudicca to be found, we miss what is really there. A thorough grounding in bardic/triadic Welsh tradition would be more to the point; Gildas knew no Classical writers and had no Roman history, but he was very learned in such learning as his country offered.

Notes


[1]Which was at any rate descended, through several generations, from the same Welsh legends of Roman conquest. Northrop Frye, in A Natural Perspective (New York 1965), pointed out how many Shakespearean plays, not only "histories" but "tragedies" and "comedies" too, from Troilus and Cressida to King Lear and even Hamlet (set during the period of Danish power in England), are tied up with the Troyan legend of British history, taken as fact in the Elizabethan age; even the Roman plays, he points out, are about the "other branch" of the "Troyan" people.

[2]This curious and unexplained statement - who is suffering from inopia, the Romans or the British? - may have to do with Gildas' descriptions of great famine or individual starvation, attendant on war and the conquest of Britain by two other invading groups, Picts and Saxons; it seems, that is, to be part of a standard picture (with variations) of the consequences of invasion.

[3]On the one occasion in which he uses catule leonine, "o cub of the lion", for a villain (Aurelius Caninus) he is quoting from the Bible; in his own words, the lion is always the father of heroes. Besides, the adjective leoninus could refer both to leones and to leaenae.

[4]The aristocratic nature of hunting on horseback is excellently described by IRENE HUGHSON, Horses in the early historic period, in The horse in Celtic culture, Cardiff 1997: "Hunting on horseback is the classic high-status activity, rarely, if ever, undertaken to provide food. There have always been more efficient ways of bringing down game. Hunting on horseback, however, provided opportunities to display martial qualities - boldness and daring, horsemanship, expertise with the spear and bow - without as many risks as a real military encounter. It allowed men to display their good horses, decorated harness and personal finery, again without the risk of losing them all. The organizer of a hunt could strengthen the bonds of clientship through inviting others to join in and through hospitality before and after. Hunting displayed the extent of a chieftain's domination of an area..." (35; italics mine). See also ARRIAN, Cynegeticus 23.

[5] The national meaning of Elen becomes evident when she takes it upon herself to bind all the royal fortresses of the many peoples of Britain by roads, uniting and enlarging the island's peoples. She is a federal figure, a patroness of a united island. And why in God's green Earth had Beli son of Manogan not taken this obvious measure? Elen is a better national leader than he ever was. What this image signifies is that Britain is not properly knit together as a country until it is subjected to, or married to, Rome; before that, the kingship of Beli, whatever form it was imagined as having, stood for disunity and isolation.

[6]This, however, is actually a by-product of making Maxen the first, rather than the last, Roman emperor to reign in Britain. The army he takes to Britain is the functional equivalent of the Roman host of Gildas, replacing the natives and therefore becoming itself British; the army he takes out of Britain is the functional equivalent of that of Gildas' Maximus, depriving Britain of the military strength of Roman blood which - in the Gildasian version - has been settled in Britain for generations. It is this British host which Maximus/Maximianus/Maxen takes out of Britain in every version of the legend; in effect, the beginning and the end of (the legendary version of) Roman power in Britain have been compressed into the career of a single person, Maxen, with the result that he enters Britain, taking it - like Nennius' Julius Caesar - from Beli the great, with a Roman army, but leaves it, to conquer Rome, with a British one. The British nationality of "the army which went to Rome with Maxen, Elen, Adaon and Conan Meriadoc" is a firm point in every account, from the Welsh triads to Breton charters.

[7]Appendix I of this book discusses the various legendary versions of the conquest of Britain.

[8]An age of tyrants 96f., 101f.

[9]Triad 35, in RACHEL BROMWICH, Trioedd ynis Prydein, Cardiff 1962, 75-83. This Triad details no less than three separate "silver hosts" that left Britain (along, interestingly, with huge quantities of gold and silver) at various points in her legendary history. There is no suggestion that any of them were not native; which native savants would at any rate probably see as a false problem, since they saw the history of Britain as a series of invasions from outside - so that if a large nucleus of population (such as a Silver Host) ever left the land for ever, it would only be going back on an earlier path. From this point of view, there would be little or no difference between a host of "Roman" origin and any other; and at any rate the British savants believed themselves to be ultimately of the same blood as the Romans.

[10]Professor F.J.Byrne chooses this eighth century hymn, with fine insight, to display the Irish view of monarchy and clientship. BYRNE, Irish Kings and High Kings, London 1973, p.44.

[11]BYRNE, op.cit., 29.

[12]Alcuin, in his letter to Archbishop Eanbald of York, was already warning against fox-hunting as a violent upper-class sport, quite unsuitable to sober clergymen; this was three centuries after Gildas, but eleven centuries before our time.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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