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

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Chapter 1.7: Resurgent Celticism: Function and power of Gildas' kings

Fabio P. Barbieri

The culture of Gildasian Britain was not, except for the Catholic faith, Roman. Procopius regarded the British ambassadors who frequently visited Justinian's court as "barbarian"[1], like the Huns; in spite of the fluent Latin we must expect in Gildas' contemporaries, their fundamental alienness struck him forcibly. In the late 460s Sidonius Apollinaris had addressed the British general Rigothamus in terms that suggest that he saw him as a fellow member of the Roman world, cultured and worthy of respect[2] (though his men were something else again, disregarding Roman law and making free with other people's slaves); in the 530s, Procopius saw the British emissaries to the emperor as alien to Roman civilization, though these are bound to have been men of wealth and culture, the social equivalents of Rigotamus.

We hardly need this evidence to prove their alienness when we have Gildas, but comparison between Sidonius and Procopius is instructive about the time element. Gildasian Britain must be regarded as a barbarian successor state, no less so than the Vandals and Franks, Longobards and Arabs. And we have found time and time again that comparison both with later Wales and with the related Celtic culture of Ireland help explain the peculiarities of its vigorous and independent literate culture (Gildas was the product of no stammering herd of illiterates). Given the national distaste for Picts and Scots, Gildasian culture is unlikely to originate in Pictland or Ireland; given the evident and intricate continuity between Gildas and later Welsh tradition, there must be a strong presumption that Gildasian British culture was in fact British Celtic or proto-Welsh, with a small admixture of Roman elements mostly in the area of religion.

We have seen that Gildas' view of the Roman Empire had a lot to do with the Roman Empire of his time, to wit Justinian's; but at the same time, that his tale of the Roman conquest of Britain - that is, his view of the Romans in Britain, as part of his view of Britain itself - was quite legendary. It centred on Britain, embodying ideas about the nature of the British people in its origin story. To those who composed and first recorded this myth, the Romans were - as they could not be to Gildas - part of the past. This suggests that they originated in an area which simply did not appreciate - at least at first - that a Roman power, in the distant East, had survived the fifth-century catastrophe; an area neither cosmopolitan nor well informed. But they became the standard for Gildasian Britain: Gildas re-read them in the light of a far more cosmopolitan and informed set of concerns, but he took their basic tenets for granted; he reversed many of their meanings, but assumed their basic truth. This argues that Gildasian culture originates from this distant uncultured area, and spread from it to the rest of the island. Where this was will become clearer as we examine the evidence further.

The myth of the Roman invasion, however, was directly relevant not only to Gildasian Britain, but to the isolated parent culture whose existence I just suggested; despite its concern with a bygone and legendary empire, it was directly relevant to those who formulated it. And its content tells us why. Though Maximus’ folly took the Romans as a body from the island, we know that Britain still has a few left; in particular the house of Ambrosius. These people carry in themselves the special status that belonged to Rome as a whole when Rome took over, or married, the island. In other words, a number of leading families believed themselves, rightly or wrongly, the inheritors of Roman rank.

Do these Romans make up the whole of the contemporary aristocracy? Certainly not; Gildas clearly implies that Cuneglasus, at the very least, is decidedly native and inferior.  And Cuneglasus fights ciues - he was a Briton fighting Britons, for to Gildas ciues and Romans were not one and the same, but opposite and complementary. Ambrosius was "almost the last of the Romans", and in all of Britain there were only a few sturdy reliquiae; but there were plenty of ciues, who flocked to him. In other words, ciues and Romani were two separate groups. The ciues gather to Ambrosius because he is one of the few Romans left. The ciuis is the ordinary Briton; the Romanus is the descendant of that ancient, wonderful, vanished race of heroes and kings, who ruled the island long ago.

But there was an even older race of kings, and they were not wonderful; and, like the Romans, they affect the way the island is today. Gildas clearly postulates a continuity between the "tyrants" who ruled Britain, under gods even more loathsome than themselves, before the Romans came, and the "fresh shoots of tyrants" (tyrannorum uirgultis crescentibus) multiplying again in the last days of Roman rule. His imagery is always apt and carefully chosen: this picture of the damaging return of life to an unwelcome plant, something like the unwanted growth of weed in an otherwise fertile garden, implies that the plant in question had been subjected to severe pruning before. Now its shoots are multiplying again, "just now", iam iamque, that is in the last decades of Roman rule, while the pruning or weeding in question took place long ago: it can only refer to the legendary massacre of the traitors of the leaena dolosa.

What Gildas is saying, therefore, is that the Romans did not exterminate, or nearly exterminate, the British people as a whole; what they exterminated was the aristocracy - that loathsome aristocracy of originally pagan "tyrants", that bowed in feminine cowardice to Roman demands, then tried to break their yoke by stealthy murder, and finally proved utterly incapable of standing up and fighting like men. Gildas defines them as perfidi, the faithless, and implies that they were part of the leaena dolosa’s conspiracy to slaughter the rectores. The Romans killed many (multis), but had the bad judgement to leave a few (nonnullis) as mancipales. Dr.Winterbottom translates this word as "slaves", but the etymology means more precisely "those who have been caught by hand", manu capti, the subdued-by-force. Therefore, though we are told that these mancipales were reserved ad seruitudinem, this cannot refer to slavery in the same sense as a bondsman working the land is a slave, for what Gildas is describing is the replacement of a vast majority of the British upper class - which had conspired to destroy the rectores but had then not been able to organize any defence against Roman revenge - by an immigrant Roman nobility, and the survival of a remnant as mancipales to be kept in seruitudinem, in a reduced condition parallel to slavery - but within the context of the world of lords and kings.

This is clearly reminiscent of the common Irish fact of "unfree" tribes. Irish “unfree” tribes have their own political existence, but have subject status as compared with the tribes whose ruling dynasties were at the head of a province. The kings of these tribes were not slaves in our sense of the term, but their rank was servile with respect not only to the provincial kings, but also to the kings of the "free tribes". These latter are generally reckoned to be genealogically close to the royal provincial lineages, sharing common ancestors and holding definite rights.

In the same way, the British nobility whose foundation legend we may read in Gildas seems to have divided itself between "Roman" houses and "British" ones. The "Roman" dynasties, to which Ambrosius claimed to belong, claimed descent from the conquering nation that punished the traitors and replaced them in the distant past, and were therefore free and of kingly rank; the "British" dynasties, on the other hand, bore the stigma of treason, rebellion and defeat and were seen as of inferior rank. They were, in that sense, like the "servile" tribes of Ireland; but, like them, they actually had their own political existence. Gildas emphasized that the evil of Magnus Maximus' days was caused by the resurgence of a previously nearly-destroyed class of British "tyrants", or, in his richly metaphoric language, the re-growth of the "tyrant thickets" native to the island. What has poisoned the ruling classes is the growth in importance and power of British blood which eventually sent forth Magnus Maximus

That such a person was able to take over the resources of the island under the plausible guise of being a Roman proves again that we are speaking, not of slaves proper, but of people who could plausibly pretend that they were equal to the Roman-descended aristocracy; therefore, “British" dynasties or tribes were not "subject" or "servile" in any modern sense, in spite of Gildas' talk of whips and torments - they were actually independent enough to carry on their own policy and be able to aspire to great power (in the same way as the most famous of all the high kings of Tara, Brian Boruma, began as the king of one such "servile" tribe, the Dal Cais of west Munster). In Gildas' world, the conquest of power by a "British", "tyrannical" family, is possible, though wrong. And it is - it must be - from the traitors of the leaena dolosa, that the class of "British", inferior, lords is descended.

In later Wales, the mythological figure that stood for the inferior kind of lordship described by the Latin tyrannus was Beli son of Manogan. When, in Nennius, the British tyranni oppose Roman claims, he is their national representative or leader. And The dream of Maxen Gwledig shows that his "rule", however we are to understand it, represented anarchy and localism. Elen, once married to Maxen[3], ordered roads to be built to criss-cross the island, unifying its various tribes[4]. The story, therefore, opposes her rule to his in terms of unity against separation, contact against isolation: the various tribes and lordships of Britain are separate under him, but become knit together under her. This is clearly the difference between a small, isolated kind of lordship and a large, national, coordinating lordship. The marriage of Elen with Maxen, that is the submission of Britain to Rome, represents a unifying act for Britain itself[5].

I think it is possible to trace a closely similar set of concepts in the poems of the historical Taliesin, the earliest Welsh-language documents. Taliesin, court bard of the northern kinglet Urien of Rheged, wrote such marvellous songs of praise for his lord that he became something like the standard of Welsh court poetry, and drew to his own name the legend of the sage poet/wizard; as did, for much the same reason, Virgil in Latin-speaking medieval Europe. (He also managed to bring his lord to the attention of every subsequent Welsh and Breton learned person, with the result that more unhistorical legends were written - and believed - about Urien and his son Owain than about any other early Welsh hero except Arthur; some of them, such as the supposed "siege of Lindisfarne", still bedevil to this day the work even of brilliant historians who really should know better[6])

Now, Taliesin seems to me to draw a marked distinction between two words for "king", Teyrn and Gwledig. (He never uses Brenhin, which is significant, but if I make out the original Welsh right, he does sometimes use the very archaic Rieu for "kings in the mass, the whole class of kings, both gwledig and teyrn".) When Urien's bard praises his lord in the most emphatic and ringing terms, he calls him gwledig. Urien is the gwledig of cattle-lifters at his great battle at Gwenystrad, in the sense that nobody in the world is better at taking wealth away from enemies. Gwenystrad must have been a tremendous triumph for Urien: speaking of it, Taliesin describes this single northern lord as the scourge of the men of all the island, gathered in battle-lines (gwyr Prydein adwythein yn lluyd). Clearly a large coalition had been gathered to teach the impudent cateran a lesson - and had ended up learning one instead[7]. It is by virtue of this great victory over men from many parts of the island that Taliesin awards his lord the title of gwledig, qualifying it, even then, as gwledig only in that he takes cattle away from so many enemies. He still is not said to rule over them, even though he defeated them. It seems clear that the sovereignty of Rheged, alone, does not make a gwledig. Gwledig is a term of praise, specifically for victory, and in particular for the kind of victory that proves supremacy over a large number of competitors.

Indeed, the posture of Urien and his son Owein is mostly defensive, more often meant to defend Rheged and to deny tribute than to raid or subdue other countries. Owein's great deed was the defeat and destruction of Fflammddwyn, lord of Lloegr[8], who had claimed hostages from his father. On more than one occasion[9], Taliesin smartly underlines Urien's role as diffreidyat gwlat, defender of the country (gwlat), suggesting the word gwledig without employing it. But when Urien goes beyond the borders of his own country, he is not very successful: his northwards raid into Aeron and Alclud (in the poem "Rheged arise") is half a disaster, if not indeed a whole one.

Taliesin seems to have a positive dislike for calling Urien a teyrn; even when he has to mention his specific title to Rheged, he avoids the word and calls him glyw Rheged, the (generic) lord of Rheged. You can see why when you look at the use he makes of the term. Defeated enemies and submissive lords are always teyrned (in the plural): for instance those Brecknock-men and Cornishmen (or Cornouii from Wroxeter, perhaps?) who tried to extort tribute from Cynan Garwyn (another patron of Taliesin) and had to cry for mercy, or the teyrned whom Urien first holds at bay and then mows down at Gwenystrad. In the same poem, Taliesin is also dismissive about their horses: they are kaffon, mere nags or ponies[10] - do teyrned ride no better? And it is relevant that the word teyrn is most often heard in the plural, teyrned. So is tyranni in Gildas' Latin. Teyrned, to Taliesin, are a class, not individuals.

There are two exceptions, both heavily qualified. In Ni'th oes cystedlydd, Taliesin does use the word teyrn several times; but not without having first called Urien gwledig, in a mood of high exultation, affirming his military and personal superiority over all and any enemies, and ending in magnificent praise: "there is more glory in the world/ because Urien and his sons exist", a sentence for which alone, I think, he deserved the gift of Llwyfenidd and Eirch (whatever they were) and the "gold upon gold" that Urien gave him. But this is a rather general kind of gwledig-hood, that does not imply that he is actually the gwledig of anything in particular. Only after this does he mention that he is a teyrn - and not without qualifying it with the most splendid attributes: he does not call him teyrn glewhaf, "the bravest teyrn", without saying that he is "the bravest of the race[11] of the brave, unrivalled among those who have been and will be", exalting him to a position almost above mankind; then he is teyrn gocnaw, "imperious teyrn", and eurteyrn gogledd arbenhic teyrnedd, gold-teyrn of the north, foremost of teyrnedd. Clearly, it would be rude to call one's lord a teyrn without at least loading the term with majestic praise. And then there is Dadolwch Urien, The conciliation of Urien, which strongly hints that Urien's status had fallen off[12]; in this poem, it is the sons of Urien, not he himself, who go to war against the enemy, and we are shocked to discover that Taliesin's hero has grown old. Even there, when he does he call him a teyrn, it is as the best of teyrned. Other than that - especially in passages that report military victories - Taliesin does not care to use the word. Certainly no court poet ever served his king better; but it is clear that Urien is a gwledig only because he is so personally impressive - like "Count" Basie, "Duke" Ellington and "King" Oliver.

Teyrned, therefore, are those of the lord class who either cannot fight or are defeated in battle, an inferior kind of lordship. Gwledig are the kings who assert their right to rule by victory, who take cattle and do not have cattle taken away from them (surely a poetic version of the claiming and refusal of tribute). But this is not merely a contingent fact depending on the changing fortunes of arms: these ranks are at least to some extent permanent. Gwallawg, subject of two Taliesin poems, is a Gwledig without qualifications, and the poet twice mentions the whole of Britain as in some way his natural sphere, reaching from Edinburgh (Eidyn) and Ayr to Brecknock, Anglesey, and a number of otherwise unknown regions - Pencoed, Coed Bayl, Gwydawl, Gwensteri, Rhos Eira - which presumably are now part of England. Taliesin seems less impressed by Gwallawg as a person than by Cynan Garwyn or Owein, let alone Urien, but he mentions his disciplined force, and his manifold activities (and again comes up with a splendid phrase: "he has not seen a man who has not seen Gwallawg", Ny wyl gwr ny welas Gwallawg). He even reviews four great heroes of his day, including Owein, as if they were in some sense part of the praise of Gwallawg; this can only mean that they were part of his sphere, retainers or subsidiary lords. (Because he mentions Owein, but not Urien, as one of the famous heroes of Gwallawg's time, we must conclude that Urien was dead by then.) Teyrned submit to him in silence; Urien has to fight to subdue them. Gwallawg is also involved in a market economy of some sort, selling off the increase in his herds of cows at the end of each summer, which suggests that he had a Texas rancher's amount and the ability to escort them to market unharmed; and he has a fleet ready for battle, with a full arsenal of spears. Even if we take Taliesin's notice about the whole of Britain as hyperbole, it seems clear that Gwallawg was a much greater lord than Urien or Cynan Garwyn; if he was only "the ordained magistrate of Elmet", then Elmet must have stretched much further than South Yorkshire in his time. Where, if nothing else, would he anchor that fleet - in Sheffield?

Therefore the distinction between teyrned - lords indeed, each with his tribe and/or territorial lordship, but dependent and carrying the status of a defeated or unmilitary person - and gwledig - a lord with subsidiary lords around him, a lord who won supremacy by the sword or is born to it - is both in and out of time. Teyrned, especially in the plural, are always seen as somehow defeated, even if that defeat did not actually come in battle; they carry defeat as it were in their rank, even in their birth perhaps. Urien is reduced to a teyrn when he can no longer mount his big horse and fight[13]. And conversely, a gwledig carries victory, and therefore command, as part of his nature[14].

This is quite close to the Gildasian notion of "Roman" and "British" aristocrats. The former carry in their own selves a victoriousness and an absolute right to command that derives from a victory far in time (in fact it never happened) but yet as active in its effects as if it had happened yesterday; and the latter carry in their own being, though they are in fact aristocrats and lords, the status of defeated persons, of mancipales, people captured and put under authority. And nevertheless their status can change: in the range of his activities, Urien gains, in Taliesin's eyes, the right to be called a gwledig so long as he is victorious, and especially so long as he is victorious over many tribes like he was at Gwenystrad. This is, seen from a positive and admiring angle, a process of promotion not unlike that which Gildas hated, and declared illegitimate, in the case of Maximus, certainly of Cuneglasus, and probably of Vortigern and Maglocunus.

We have already seen that the Celtic word Tigern(os), "dominus, lord of the house", may have been connected in Gildas’ mind with Greek and Latin "Tyrant"[15]. The "British" lords are therefore "unfree" and "tyrannical" by definition, as opposed to the "Roman" lords. Even in Nennius, 300 years later and in greatly changed circumstances, the British lords oppose Caesar's claim of right over the island cum essent tyranni et tumidi, as they were tyrants and swollen [with pride above their station]. Tyranny, "British" lordship, resistance to legitimate "Roman" authority, military defeat, and treachery, apparently all went together in one bundle of concepts.

I speak under correction here; but I think there is a clear difference, if not opposition, between teyrn, *tigernos, lord of the house or ty, and gwledig, lord of the country or gwlat. The latter clearly represents a broader kingship, a country rather than a house. It is surely no coincidence that Welsh poetry and Breton legal texts closely associate the teyrn with courts or halls (Welsh Llys, Breton Latin aula) in which the Breton teyrn offers surety and deals with lites, quarrels, between his subjects[16]. Evidently the qualifying element of the teyrn was the great house: he was the man in the Big House - an idea easy to understand to any rural society; think of the "country houses" that later lords of Britain were to raise in the same countryside - something a step above the ordinary paterfamilias, but decidedly inferior to someone who is qualified as pertaining to the whole gwlat. It is peculiar to Celtic society that the man in the Big House should be recognized as an independent lord, rather than as one of a number of local squires or petty aristocrats; but that is the dimension of his lordship. He belongs to the class of kings, but over no more than the shadow of his Big House; he is no king of a country or of a whole nation.

There is something about this bundle of concepts that is quite extraneous to our thinking, and that we already came across, hardly realizing it, in discussing Blathmac mac Con Brettan's poem on Christ's passion Blathmac's attitude is that there is a complete correspondence, with no difference in category, between the fact of treachery and the condition of slavery; that is, that the permanent condition of subjection is exactly correspondent with the individual crime of rebellion against a previously accepted sovereign. He is not saying that the one thing follows inevitably, as a punishment, on the other, but that they are one and the same thing.

The difficulty with pointing out the difference between this sort of thinking and our own is that ours is so rooted in our mind that we do not conceive of it except as universal. It just does not occur to us that a permanent category, something that is, or is assumed to be, in the nature of things, that a man is or is not at birth and that he cannot change, should have any overlap, let alone a perfect correspondence, with individual actions such as treachery. Certainly, treason is a crime, a terrible crime, and may well be paid for with death or with life in jail. But what the Celtic mind says is something else: that certain men are born traitors, and therefore slaves, so that the act of treachery, if and when it happens, is only the manifestation of an inner nature that might be manifested just as well by their being in slavery.

This is the same concept that lies at the back of Gildas' distinction between "Romans" and "Britons", born kings and born traitors. A man may be born into treachery, as into slavery: that is why the treachery of the leaena dolosa is an active force to this (Gildas') day. Conversely, a man may be born, like Ambrosius Aurelianus, into valour and victory, as into royalty. This frame of mind not only does not recognize the difference between events and conditions: it positively denies it[17].

We cannot be sure whether this picture had any racial connotations in the mind of Taliesin, who never mentions any alien folk except for the English (Eigyl); one might read all his poetry without once realizing that there was such a place as Rome, and at any rate he would not be likely to place any emphasis on a distinction between Roman and British lords which, if it existed, placed him and his lord Urien on the wrong side of the fence. But to Gildas, tyranni are both a lower and a far older component of British society than Romani; they are the first bloodlines to establish royal power of any sort in the island, and have survived near-destruction at the hands of the ever-victorious Romans, to grow back into life and power.

We will not understand the full force of the survival of this remnant of an evil old world, and its return to strength in its ancient haunts, until we realize that Gildas' picture of the nature and relationships of kingdoms, especially of conquest, is fundamentally different from ours. What happens to Britain after the Romans came? Not annexation. Although we are told that the name of the island is changed from Britannia to Romania[18], we are never told that the island is annexated to the Roman empire. Indeed, Gildas seems to have trouble with the idea of annexation, of an existing state being absorbed into another. He sees the empire of the world as a central entity of immense military power, surrounded by tributary kingdoms. These kingdoms are permanent: the Romans can oversee their government and even engineer massacres and population transfers[19], but they seem either unwilling or unable to destroy them as entities. Even after most British tyranni are exterminated and replaced by Romans, there does not seem to be annexation. The Romans had originally sent rectores to oversee the native lords; but even after the destruction and punishment, the system does not change. These new settlers do not herald political union with Rome; they are simply a much reinforced and more ironbound layer of rectores. We can say this because we are told that Maximus' hare-brained enterprise deprived the island of her rectores; which means that for all the period of Roman rule, the island had been ruled by them.

Roman settlement, it seems, does not mean Roman annexation. These tributary kingdoms are expected to provide the first line of their own defence; the Romans proper, those from Italy, may come to help when native strength fails, as they are "outstanding helpers" (auxiliares egregii). As a matter of fact that is never put to the test, since, so long as they are overlords and their kinsmen live in the island, there is no mention of any external threat whatever; it is only when Magnus Maximus denudes the island of its armies that we first hear of Picts and Scots. It is also at this point that the Romans first send armies over to help defeated Britons - which begs the question, surely, what point there was in having any Roman connection so long as Britain had its own Romans as rectores and could marshal itself. (It is at this point that utter legend begins to shade, through vague memories of the circumstances surrounding the "Rescript of Honorius", into history.)

Gildasian language and ideology have a feature we should notice. Although he sees every free-born man in Britain as a ciuis, when he speaks of Britain as a nation, as a corporate body, he only means the upper classes; in particular, when he speaks of "the Britons" being slaughtered by "the Romans", we have seen reason to think that he is speaking of the upper classes alone - the tyranni, the teyrned, those who effectively own the land. Ciuis therefore does not mean "citizen" in the Roman, let alone in the modern, sense; only fellow-countryman. In fact, it covers precisely the semantic area of *combroges, from which comes modern Welsh cymry: fellow (com) country (brog) man. The combroges is the man of the same country, the born Briton, but the word does not imply political rights. And as "the Britons" mean the British aristocracy, not the whole people, the body that replaced the massacred "Britons" must have been a similar aristocracy.

This explains why the end of Roman rule (Maximus' rebellion) takes the form of the general desertion of Britain by her rectores, Roman rulers. The fact is that there is no difference between the way the rectores incarnate the power of Rome in their own persons, and the power of Rome itself. As long as Roman rectores are in Britain, directing British states, then Rome is there; the moment they are taken away along with the Roman "great military youth", is the moment that the Britons begin a series of increasingly desperate appeals to Rome, invoking the very thing they could no longer claim to have - their nomen Romanum, the Roman name.

This also sheds some light on what Gildas meant by wishing that Britain, in his own time, had more rectores: what he wanted was in effect a complete takeover of the affairs of the peripheral kingdoms, ruled by the likes of the Five Tyrants, by the centre, a replacement of their whole aristocracy with rectores nominated by, and loyal to, the Ambrosian central state. He believed that the mere existence of a large number of rectores would restore Ambrosian primacy, just as, long ago, the presence of a Roman aristocracy in power, even (he thought) without any administrative contiguity with Rome, had kept the island Roman.

The rectores guarantee order and political sense. When the Romans, called back to Britain by an urgent and abject British plea, try to set into place measures to keep the Picts from further invasion, the first thing they do is to order a wall built across the neck of Scotland; but as they take no direct part in its building, the wall is built by inexperienced Britons, uulgo irrationabili absque rectore, a multitude incapable of reasoning, deprived of a rector. (The Latin construction, by placing the words together, strongly suggests a causal connection: being absque rectore, the uulgo is irrationabili; hence, it seems that the uulgo is irrationabili just because it is absque rectore.) Therefore it is only made of turf and does little good. (This is the wall of Antoninus, across the neck of Scotland.) If they had had proper rectores, it seems, the uulgus, however irrationabilis, would have been sanely directed into building a proper and militarily valuable wall of stone. The Rectores in this case direct public endeavour according to rational plans; they also seem to be in charge of military technology and large-scale political projects; and they can establish permanent borders - a matter whose importance will become clear in a minute.

Now the reason why Gildas takes the Wall of Antoninus to be British-built is that it is no different from an earthwork, a kind of building technology which he regarded as typically British; when the Romans take charge themselves, they build a wall of stone. Gildas must have had in mind the numerous dykes that seem to have sprung up across Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. These dykes are later than the Roman period, but the first English settlers found them already made. As John Morris saw, the English thought they had been raised by the gods long ago; wherever they went, from the Wall of Antoninus to the Wansdyke, they called them by such names as Grim's Dyke or Ditch, Grim being a name for Odin/Woden. The Wansdyke bears the god's name undisguised (Wansdyke = Woden's dyke). And that means that they found them not only already made, but made long since. They did not know their origins. The dykes were part of the landscape.

Now it was part of the Germanic myth of creation that Odin made a wall to keep giants and trolls out of the countries of men[20]. Less important than the fact that the barricade was made, according to Snorri, with a giant's eyebrows, is that there is plenty of evidence that the giants, enemies of the gods, could in practice be identified with any hostile human tribe. Hence it made perfect sense to identify a borderline against hostile tribes, delimited by a great earthwork, as built by the gods against the Giants. Giants did not live in distant lands: both Germany (the Riesengebirge, on the Bohemian frontier) and Norway (the Jotunheimen) had their "mountains of the Giants". There is no way that the Wansdyke, or even smaller dykes such as the various ones built on the borders of East Anglia[21], could be seen as military assets. To serve a military purpose, they would require standing armies tens of thousands strong, and a whole system of fortifications, lodgements, barracks, supply lines and magazines, easily found in the case of an effective defence line such as the Roman Wall, and completely absent in the case of British earthworks such as the Wansdyke. The military requirements for the defence of two large contemporary fortresses, South Cadbury and Cadbury-Congresbury, have been worked out[22]: they are, respectively, 850 and between 400 and 650 men. This agrees with other ideas we may form of the permanent armed forces available to a local British lord; the kind of army needed to defend the Wansdyke line definitely does not.

So: for what reason, other than for defence, would such a pharaonic undertaking as the Wansdyke, which stretches from Somerset to Hampshire, have been built? Reflecting upon the effort it must have taken, it seems clear that only something of ultimate importance could have had a claim on so much labour, in an age not noted for prosperity or advanced technology. English names suggest barriers between different realms, the realm of "our kind", men worshipping Woden and living according to proper law, and the Outside where alien men, often identified with foreign nations, live in conditions of fabulous evil and shade off into demonic giants and trolls. In other words, what the English ideas suggest is borders between kingdoms and regions of the world.  The English themselves eventually raised a dyke, Offa's Dyke, to seal off their own land from the remaining Welsh; not that the dyke had any real military value, but it marked clearly enough for anyone to see the point after which any marauding Welshman might find the air rather hot.  Therefore, we have good reason to suspect that dykes and earthworks were meant, not as military defences against any invaders, but as border markers. The Wansdyke, with its enormous outlay in time and labour, must have marked a particularly important and disputed border; almost certainly that of that leaena among British kingdoms, Dumnonia.

But Gildas' comment about the uselessness of turf walls to hold back invaders is telling in another way; what he is saying is that, in spite of their apparently robust aspect, these dykes have done nothing to define territorial control beyond dispute, since wars can and do rage across them. The existence of a series of parallel dykes near East Anglia, showing where a border had moved forwards and backwards like a tide[23], seems to support him. Now the important thing about this is that Gildas wants borders to be beyond discussion. He ascribes to the Church the duty of defining tribal borders indisputably; indeed, he blames churchmen for failing to do so in the middle (70.2) of the Quis...? sequence, that is of his general complaint about the failure of his colleagues when compared to splendid examples from the Old and New Testament. Because they have not delivered an infallible definition of borders, they have failed in their duties. They should, like Joshua and Phinehas, have defined borders between the tribes of Israel (Britain) wisely enough to ensure that each tribe should know what belonged to it.

This is a very remarkable claim. I very much doubt whether the Catholic Church, even at the height of its powers and pretensions, ever claimed to make such definitions authoritatively and above any temporal power; the only occasion that occurs to me is the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which the Pope arbitrated between rival Spanish and Portuguese claims already in existence - an arbitration, not a sovereign act, which still does not compare with Gildas' claim that the Church should divide up the land between tribes and kings. And Gildas slips the claim with the air of someone stating something obvious. On other occasions, his subversive intent is clear; he makes claims that deliberately hit at the weaknesses and pretensions of his age; but this idea that churchmen should, by virtue of their rank, be able to speak a final decision about the borders between states, comes out of nowhere, goes nowhere, has little to do with the centre of his argument - it is just given as one out of many duties in which the Church of Gildas' age is failing.

In other words, Gildas' claim is a local British feature. His contemporaries expected the Church to make such divisions. This is so sharply at odds with every other European practice before or since that we could almost fail to notice it. We have been brought up in a history and a theory in which the borders of kingdoms and tribes were always a matter for political power, defined by treaties and backed by the force of the contracting parties and their allies; so that France, if strong enough, could take Alsace from Germany, and vice versa, and both countries could give their annexation the force of law according to the situation. We could and do assume that this attitude to kingdoms and territories is permanent and universal; after all, we have all been educated out of history textbooks full of maps detailing which country took over which territory after which war. But to Gildas borders are a matter above politics, to be resolved by religious authority. The borders of kingdoms must be permanent, a part of the elemental religious truth of things.

This agrees with what we just saw: that Gildas' idea of an "empire" did not comprehend annexation and administrative takeover; as well as with the fact that Celtic wars were about tribute. If the borders of states were something implicit in the nature of things, to be decided (or should one say revealed?) by religious authority until they can no longer be questioned, then it is only by exacting tribute that the superior power can be recognized from the inferior. In actual fact, state borders did change in Celtic countries; but much more so in Wales than in Ireland, where change was as slow as molasses, and heavy prescriptive rights were claimed for each tuath and larger kingdom as if they were written in timeless truth. And Wales, the mere leftover of a colossal historical loss and subject to violent and unpredictable change dictated by a far larger neighbour, is not a good indication of how a Celtic culture, left to itself with no overwhelming alien pressures to bear, would behave[24].

We can also see why it is so interesting that a rector should be said to be able to determine a border line; evidently this power, or rather this wisdom, resided in the ultimate emperor of the world as well as in the Church. The rector, incarnating the authority of "Rome", could deliver a judgement as perfect as a good churchman's; it is even possible that the reason why the British failed to build a successful wall against the Picts without a rector is not so much because they lacked the technical ability as because only a rector - or a suitably qualified churchman - would be able to bring the right kind of semi-mystical power and wisdom to the task.

But the perfection of boundaries is only an ideal to Gildas, who laments that a firm division of the land had not been achieved. Clearly there were conflicts, and in actual fact wars must have been fought not only for tribute but also over disputed borders. Independent Britain had emerged from a Roman administrative world where borders were an administrative convenience, not a firm rooted reality; and one of the by-products of the cycle of Saxon wars must have been an unstable and repeatedly altered map, determined more by the accidents of war and a surely treacherous diplomacy than by any ultimate right. The doctrine of permanent land borders determined by wisdom or by religious decree, therefore, was not grounded in the recent historical experience of the island. It must have been something imposed upon it, for ideological reasons. But it was an ideal taken very seriously; the enormous collective effort that must have gone into building the Wansdyke is an indication of the value everyone placed on definite territorial delimitation - especially, perhaps, in the case of Dumnonia, the she-monster.

Now if the boundaries of states were seen as something eternal, as much a part of the nature of things as the course of rivers and the location of mountains, then the matter of who ruled each state became absolutely fundamental. Political change could only happen by a change of rulers. This is what the legend of the Roman conquest means: that a race more suited to rule had come to the island, taking it over from a lesser race of "tyrants". The king is the central social institution of Gildas' world. His choices are choices for the entire social body, with no limiting factor. Gildas speaks as though it was absolutely up to him to choose the members of his court, so that if his commanipulares happen to be sanguinarios, superbos, parricidas... adulteros, Dei inimicos ...bloodthirsty, arrogant, parricidal, sex-maniacs, enemies of God... the guilt and shame of it is far more his than theirs. He shows no trace of the belief often found in many monarchic or authoritarian systems, that "the King is all right, it's his advisers who are bad", the shifting of blame for perceived injustice or dishonesty from the sovereign to the court; even when he does speak of evil advisers, as in the case of Maglocunus, he makes the king alone responsible for all the evil committed.

There are two exceptions. Gildas does blame two, and only two, classes of society, for their own actions, independently of the kings (though royal wickedness is a factor with them as well): the clergy and Maglocunus' bards. The clergy have the ability and indeed the duty to resist royal corruption and denounce royal crimes; as for the corruption of the bards, it is self-generated, not really Maglocunus' fault, except in that he listens to them and pays them. Both groups share the distinction of being able to initiate societal good or societal evil independently of the king, who is otherwise responsible for all the wrong in society - indeed, to a very large extent he incarnates it.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that this category of all-responsible sovereigns includes every kind of king, from the highest to the lowest, high kings, gwledigs and teyrned.  Gildas starts by blasting all the kings of Britain, awarding to them all, impartially, the name of tyranni - that is, the lowest kind of king, teyrned - and proceeds from there; and we have seen that his five prize specimens are visibly of different ranks. The whole class of kings, along with priests and (secondarily) bards, is responsible for the evil state of Britain; and no other group of people is.

The omnipotence of the Gildasian king is another aspect of Gildas’ general habit of speaking only about, and to, Educated Britain. The poor, the mass of the people, are simply not his subject. It is not that Gildas despises them. He is fond of the honest working ciuis, and, more to the point, he is incapable of letting ideology get in the way of his appreciation of individuals. His ideology may tell him that Cuneglasus, a British ciuis, should not in principle be a sovereign, but Gildas is only interested in the real man Cuneglasus; racist ideology would insist that, by getting into the place of his betters, Cuneglasus has committed the unforgivable crime, but Gildas says nothing of the kind. He may accept the racist beliefs of his time, but, faced with a real human soul, what prevails is his Christian belief in God's special creation of every single soul and in His will that all should be saved.

The same Christian morality leads him to despise clergymen who, while they flatter the rich (by which he certainly means the kings - Gildas never speaks of a rich man who is not a king), at the same time regard treat the honest poor with the physical unreasoning horror of a man seeing a snake (66.2). Gildas was not exaggerating: John Morris[25] quotes a hideous passage from a Breton Life of St.Malo in which the so-called saint loses a cloak and, when it is returned to him, refuses to wear it because a poor cottager had used it as a blanket. It was beneath him to touch what such a man had touched. Another Breton "saint", Winwaloe, refused to call the poor "brothers".

Before this sort of caste arrogance, Gildas' protest on behalf of the poor is simply good Christianity. He was no social revolutionary. One of the pronouncements collected in the Penitential of Gildas declares that it is just as right to offer Mass for a good king as it is wrong to do so for a bad one. Though he reproaches proud clerics who avoid the poor, his letters are just as hard on rebellious rigorists who "prefer slaves to masters and commons to kings". He has nothing against the established order, and only wishes it were ran with some decency; it is his profound Christian feeling that makes him protest at caste attitudes and sentiments that are, after all, the inevitable product of the social system that seems so natural to him.

In the light of his contempt for caste arrogance, then, it is remarkable how little he has to say about or to the poor in The ruin of Britain. The call to care for them is good Christian morality, and it makes their apparently complete exclusion from the sphere of political discourse - an exclusion that seems quite unconscious, as if Gildas had never even thought that they might be addressed on the future of their own island - that much more noticeable. It may be said, no doubt, that they are not what the book is about: from the beginning, Gildas announces that his subject is the ill-behaviour of the British clergy and nobility, and, as he always does, he sticks to his point. But it is also the case that the lower classes are never seen as any-thing but the object of others' activities. They are never a political subject in their own right; not even as mobs. So far as we can judge from Gildas, the power to act and decide is vested entirely in the two educated classes, nobility and clergy[26], and that is the reason why their moral decline is so disastrous for the nation.

Does this remind us of anything? Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico 6.1: "In all of Gaul there are only two classes of men to be considered of any real importance." (Caesar, of course, meant political importance.) "The commons are regarded more or less as slaves, are never consulted on any matter and never dare to act for themselves." Caesar might have been describing the situation in Gildas' Britain; a very different society indeed from Rome, where, from beginning to end, the "mob" never ceased having political weight.

Caesar believed that the commons were held down by economic means, reinforced by the abuse of law: "Most of them, crushed by debt, heavy taxation or the pressure of more powerful people, enter the service of noblemen who exercise the same control on them as masters have over slaves." And who were these noblemen? "The two privileged classes are the Druids and the Horsemen." The Druids are in charge of religious matters; the Horsemen take part in the virtually perennial tribal wars, each accompanied by a retinue, that has to be as large and splendid as possible - their sole criterion of prestige.

This, from the sociological point of view, is no doubt why Celtic free men suffered from so many pressures to enter the retinue of noblemen. It is also certainly why the sin of "denial after recognition" was so dreaded; and why it was directly connected to the idea of slavery. Once a retainer has given up his allegiance to a lord, committing "denial after recognition", the only way he can be brought back into line is by depriving him of his legal, though hardly factual, freedom. In other words, the dreadful sanction hanging over those guilty of "denial after recognition" reinforces the social position of the heads of retinues, even though it seems clear that to control slaves is not as socially prestigious as to head a large retinue of legally free men.

But what must be understood is that this feature was not a historical accident, but a structural feature, a basic part of whatever made up a specifically Celtic society. Caesar, born and bred to an economy which was, like ours, basically mercantile and individualistic, in which property was individual and indivisible, observed Celtic society accurately; he just did not have the frame of mind to understand what he saw. He saw the envelopment of the Celtic free man by a weave of debts and legal obligations as a contingent phenomenon, the result of the economic triumph of the upper classes, a process that could be outlined and that deviated from some earlier model in which Gaulish freemen would have been freer and more like proletarian Roman citizens.

That was not the case at all. The close correspondence between the description of a society which, as a conqueror who lived among the conquered for eight years, Caesar must have come to know very well, and the implicit facts to be recovered from Gildas' intensely political tract, cannot be casual. The "fingerprint" element, the peculiar feature that leaps to the eye, is that, though the commons are entirely powerless and in the hand of the two upper classes, which alone determine the politics and religion of the country, nevertheless they are not slaves in law; they have, theoretically, the rights of citizens - like the helpless native ciues of Gildas. Gildas' society was related to the Gaulish world of Caesar's day not directly, but genetically; they were two historically separate growths from a common origin, which I insist in calling Celtic. And when we find an exactly similar state of society, down to the peculiarity of a class of freemen treated as if they were slaves but legally distinct from slaves proper, then we have to believe that this state of society was a common Celtic one.

In Celtic society, wealth must have always been bound up with the core of society, that is the king. It was not, as it is in a Roman or modern world, parcelled up, invested in individual or juridical persons, tradeable, and above all absolute: it was fundamentally vested in the royal element of society, however we see this element. The royal element handed it down to its actual users, but retained ultimate ownership and an absolute claim to it. This claim to wealth is what Caesar saw as being " crushed by debt, heavy taxation or the pressure of more powerful people" - only it was not contingent, but structural, a part of the whole social world. All the lines of economic power simply went back to the king or lord, to the man in the Big House or the man who held the gwlad.

Archaeology shows that Gildasian-age British courts tended to be at the centre of trading networks: foreign merchants went there and goods tended to be gathered there. Whole animals, say archaeologists, were taken to the royal fortress of Dinas Powys and butchered[27]. In Cadbury Castle, a comparatively small excavation has discovered over 160 sherds of imported pottery, but not one local one; quantities justified only by large-scale trade[28]. The Egyptian trading ship described in the Byzantine Life of St. John the Almsigiver naturally takes its cargo to "the chief man of the district" when it reaches Britain.

The heroic accounts of Celtic princes feeding great retinues in their halls, for as much as a whole year, have been seen as reflections of their raiding and plundering activities; the king was generous to his followers out of the plunder he and they had gathered. Professor F.J.Byrne calls heroic-age kings "vainglorious parasites"[29], dependent for their splendour on stolen goods. But that is the one thing that Taliesin does not say of Urien; rather, he describes him as having two outstanding characteristics: Yt lad, yt gryc/ Yt vac, yt vyc/ Yt vic, yt vac/ Yt lad yn rac!: "He kills, he hangs/ He feeds, he dispenses/ He dispenses, he feeds/ He kills in the van!". The act of feeding followers and scattering largesse is not dependent on the act of fighting and raiding; it is an equal and separate aspect of Urien's glory, which Taliesin, with exquisite simplicity, places in an inextricable opposition/connection with the ferocity of his fighting strength. Fury and nourishing generosity are the two opposite aspects of the good king, woven together out of antithetical elements like the coiling and counter-coiling animals in an Irish book. As he gathers, says another poem, he scatters, and so does his son Owain in yet another.

What this means is that the wealth of the kingdom all passes through the court of the king, and is from there redistributed back into society. There is archaeological evidence for this: "the Mediterranean imports that have been used to identify these high-status settlements also found their way, though in fewer numbers, to smaller rural settlements that were seemingly farmsteads, trading posts and industrial sites"[30].

Social anthropology calls this a redistributive exchange system. According to a textbook[31], "in a redistributive exchange system, one person or group accumulates goods for the purpose of subsequently distributing those same goods to members of the society, including those who were the original producers and contributors. While some form of reciprocal exchange is found everywhere, redistribution, a broader system, is usually found in societies that have a hierarchical sociopolitical system. In such a system there are rules concerning the organization of labour and the ownership of the products of labour, unlike the rules of such societies as that of the !Kung Bushmen, which are characterized by reciprocal exchange. In the kingdom of Bunyoro in Uganda, East Africa, for example, the king had the authority to grant land to his subordinate chiefs, who, in turn, gave the use of the land to their subjects. In return, everyone was required to give the king vast quantities of foodstuffs and other goods, which the king then redistributed to the people after keeping a share for himself. The redistribution, however, was not equal; a larger proportion of the goods went to members of the royal family, to high-ranking subjects, and to those who distinguished themselves in military endeavours".

The Bunyoro are not the only model of redistributive system: "More equal redistribution exchange occurs in a number of Pacific island societies also ruled by a king or chief. The Buin, for example, live on the island of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The Buin collect herbs, roots and berries, and also do gardening. The main crops are taro, sago and sugar cane. Barter is an important part of the economic system. The main objects of value for barter are pigs and shell money. Of these - symbols of wealth - the chief "owns" most of the pigs, but a system of redistributive exchange works to insure that everyone gets a more or less equal share of the pigs. In this society, the chief is dressed and housed in a manner somewhat better than, but essentially similar to, that of his subjects..."

There is no trace of egalitarianism in the Celtic system, in which it is clear that the comitatus of the king, poets like Taliesin, and favoured ecclesiastics, get the best pickings. Gildas complains about ecclesiastics accepting the tainted gifts of bad kings; but the community he belongs to is itself well off, surely as a result of royal gifts.

The royal claim to all the land's wealth has a clear ideological justification: I mean what is absolutely the best known and most widely explored of all Celtic mythological ideas - the sovereignty marriage, the king's wedding to the land[32]. It may be said that every Celtic king was inaugurated by being ritually married to his kingdom, and every tribal legend tended to centre on the marriage of a prehistoric patriarch with the goddess of the country. Dynastic legend after legend after legend, from Scotland to Massilia, repeat with infinite variations the image of the land as a bride awaiting her manly and beautiful bridegroom, the king; to the point where mythographers have grown used to suspecting it every time they meet scenes of marriage or even adultery in any Celtic legend. There can hardly be a known Celtic kingdom or royal family without its tale of a king wooing and marrying a goddess of the land, or else a heroine in whom such a goddess can easily be discerned.

I mentioned earlier the importance of dynastic change and renewal in the history of Celtic kingdoms, and it is part of all the legends of Sovereignty that Sovereignty can and does change husbands. From this point of view, the arrival of the Romans to the kingdoms of Britain represents the arrival of more suitable bridegrooms for the land. The land, it is clear from the beginning, is to Gildas a different entity from the British as a people (that is, never forget, the British aristocracy); the British he describes with contempt, but the land, he all but sings about. It is clear that the land of Britannia is not stained or shamed by the unworthiness of its citizens; rather, we may feel sure that she confers nobility to those who marry her - and, in turn, has the right to expect exceptional bridegrooms.

It is significant, from this point of view, that Gildas clearly regards a king's duty to marry and have a virtuous home life as fundamental. Listen to his invective: "Britain does have kings, but they are tyrants, judges, but irreligious. They often attack and take prey - from the innocent; they offer lord’s protection and stand security - for thieves and villains; they have as many wives as they can - whores and adulteresses; they often swear - and perjure themselves; they make vows - and continuously, continuously lie; they start wars - but civil and unjust; they greatly pursue bandits all over the country - but those who sit at their table, they don't only love but reward; they give alms - but pile up a mountain of crimes from the ground; they sit in the seat of arbitration, but rarely ever search the rule of right judgement; they despise the harmless and humble, but raise to the stars their proud, bloody, parricidal patrol-companions and their God-despising adulterers (if Fortune, they say, so wills), men whose very names ought to be wiped out; they hold many men in chains in their jails, not so often because they deserve it as because of deceit...[33]"

This gives us a list of the duties of a king in Gildas' world: to fight just wars: to offer lord’s protection, stand security, swear oaths[34] both for himself and for his subjects; to give alms; to pursue bandits, throw villains into jail, arbitrate in disputes - and to have a wife and a clean home life. All these obligations are on the same level. It is no coincidence that, according to the penetrating insight of the Reverend Hugh Williams (Gildas’ last editor before M.Winterbottom), it was the sequence of outrages against marriage that joined together the five villains in Gildas’ mind. “After waiting ten years, his patience came to an end in the enormities witnessed ‘this year’, when the prince of Dumnonia, disguised as an abbot, murdered two royal youths in the church. British law and custom, as we know from the laws of [Hywel dda], allowed divorce under conditions which the Christian Church had no choice except to condemn[35]. Every one of these five had been guilty of forcible divorce, accompanied by other crimes, and the old cry of Jerome against Roman imperial law repeats itself in the work of a Briton: ‘The laws of Caesars are different from those of Christ: Papinianus says one thing, Paul another’[36]. [In other words, Gildas’ treatise] is no empty declamation, but a truthful man with instances of real criminality before his eyes, becoming witness, like one of the Hebrew prophets, and availing himself of their words, for righteousness and good living. We have before us, in fact, a page in the large volume of the history of morals…[37]

This heartfelt testimony to the honesty and courage of Saint Gildas (and it is worth noting that those who study him the closest - Williams, Winterbottom, myself - love him the most; it is those who make superficial and inattentive contact with him, who dismiss him) misses however the importance of “clean”, unchallenged marriage, marriage as unchallenged sexual lordship, within Celtic ideas; something of which Gildas is consistently making use, to insist that his five tyrants are no true kings - “they have as many wives as they can - whores and adulteresses…” - their kingship was fouled at the source.

The Celtic king was an arch-bridegroom, married to the land in a very real sense. The King's power was a sexual power, and if anyone proved able to seduce his bride, he would have proved sexually more powerful than himself - in other words, more royal. And from this point of view it seems clear that Gildas' adumbration of Britain the Bride, chosen and awaiting her bridegroom, belongs to the same theme, though he only hints at it. But there is a marked difference between Gildas' figure of Britain the Bride and such stories as the meeting of the future Niall Noigiallach and the Sovereignty of Ireland: Britain the Bride can only be properly married to a Roman lord. Gildas describes all the kings who ruled in Britain before the coming of the Romans, without distinction, as tyranni, and he is followed by Nennius (ch.19) who says that the kings of the British denied the Romans, already lords of the world, the two attributes of a Celtic high king - tribute (census) and hostages (obsides) - because they were tyranni et tumidi, tyrannical (or: teyrned) and over-swollen. Gildas invests the Roman nation with the attributes of royalty, and though he does not show it married to Britannia, there can be no other view.

It is easy to slip into loose talk about "the Celtic goddess of sovereignty", or even simply "the goddess", as if there was only one, taking infinite forms. In fact, the number of such figures in Celtic legend is nearly infinite. And what we have seen about the nature of kingdoms tells us why: the king is married only to his own kingdom, one out of many; and that kingdom is a permanent reality in the world, with limits that the wise should be able to determine beyond dispute and for ever. It must follow that every kingdom however big or small must have its own Sovereignty, and that the Sovereignty of Ireland, or of Tara, was only the greatest of a number of definite goddesses, each with her own kingdom to confer. The same, surely, must have been true for Britain. Vagueness was not a characteristic of the Celtic mind, though its categories are not always those to which we are used.

The ultimate royal claim to the wealth of the land, a claim that included and transcended, rather than substituted, the claim of every single individual, is clearly rooted in this sacred marriage of the king to the land. As all men are children of the land, the king is their father and the land their mother; he has the same ultimate claim as a father has over his family, where, even if wealth passes through the hands of his children, it still is ultimately his. Caesar saw the ways in which this ultimate possession worked, through a highly developed and intensely felt complex of legal obligations - typically Celtic in the importance it laid on law - but he failed to understand it; six hundred years later, Gildas gave us the bones of its meaning in a few sentences, but, as the concepts involved are so far from our own, we understood him no better than Caesar.

The argument is long, but the conclusion is simple. There is nothing whatever in Gildas' depiction of society that is not thoroughly Celtic, except the belief in suum seruare ordinem, which he has probably absorbed from Roman army textbooks. His sociology, in its entirety, represents a reborn and triumphant Celticism with little or no leaven of Roman law or practice: even the place of the Church is better explained by comparison with the rank of the Celtic Druids than with the legal powers and concessions that the likes of St.Damasus and St.Ambrose won from Christian emperors within the framework of Roman law.


[1]Secret History 19.1

[2]SIDONIUS APOLLINARIS, Letter to Riothamus (Letters 3.9), Loeb edition; cf. J.D.-Q. ADAMS, Sidonius and Riothamus, in Arthurian literature 12 (1993) 157-64.

[3]In The dream of Maxen Gwledig, Maxen is apparently the first Roman lord to reach Britain, since he knows nothing of the island until he starts searching for the beautiful woman of his dream. Having reached Britain, he conquers it - a role played in other Welsh legends by Ulkessar (Julius Caesar) - from Beli son of Manogawn, who, in the earliest version that we have - that of Nennius - is Caesar's enemy. I think we may take it as granted that Maxen, in this legend, took over Ulkessar's role, probably to flatter a Welsh dynasty that claimed him as an ancestor; and therefore there is no problem with seeing him as the first Roman to find and conquer Britain, at least within this legend.

[4]There are indications that another heroine with a Roman name, a certain Marcella, was associated with Roman roads in Brycheiniog (Brecknock) and elsewhere. A corrupt saga apparently has her marching along certain Roman roads of south Wales, stopping at strategic sites and intersections; near Welshpool there is an Ystrad Farchell ("Roman road of Marcellus/Marcella"), and North Wales has another couple of Marchell place-names. John Morris explains her as a misunderstanding of a Roman or post-Roman commander who fought a war in South Wales - Age of Arthur, 127, map, and notes to text and map - a far-fetched but not impossible explanation given, alas, with excessive confidence. My point is however that, whatever their sources, the mediaeval Welshmen who actually wrote the story saw "Marcella" as a heroine of exactly the same kind as Elen: not only was she connected with the great Roman highways, she also was a daughter and mother of kings, the daughter of the famous Tewdrig, the mother of Brychan founder of Brycheiniog. Roman princesses, Roman highways, and the origins of British dynasties, it seems, went together.

[5] It is of considerable importance for the self-image of Britain, and indeed for the rest of our research, that Elen is also said to demand that the Emperor should come and live with her, so that he vanishes into Britain; that is, her submission to Roman power had the curious side-effect of moving the territorial seat of that power (which, as a sacred and eternal reality, was not necessarily tied to a contingent single place) to Britain. That it is the “Roman empire” based in Britain, and not the Continental one, that is the true and powerful one, is proved on the field by Maxen’s final victory over the rival emperor, won with the decisive help of a small but splendid Welsh force. We must remember the claim to imperial rank implicit in this story.

[6]cf.Appendix VII: Urien and his legends.

[7]It is important for the dating of this poem that the English are no part of its picture: the gwyr Prydein adwythein yn lluyd are fairly clearly a homogeneous coalition of men with one purpose in mind - to stop Urien's cattle-raiding and punish him - and his defeat of them proves not that they are wicked barbarians, but that they are presumptuous in trying to match themselves against Urien in terms of a code recognized by both sides. One poem (Ni'th oes cystedlydd) does describe a raid on English settlements, but almost in passing, as part of a grander picture of the wealth and success of Urien. The evidence for English activities in Taliesin's poems is otherwise thin, amounting to the participation of one Ulph and his English war-band to Urien's failed raid into Aeron, apparently on Urien's side (!); at any rate, the patriotic instincts in the Taliesin poems go no further than Rheged - that is the gwlad which he praises Urien for defending.

[8]In later Welsh, of course, Lloegr is England; but there is not a single statement in Taliesin to suggest that Fflammddwyn is himself one of the Eigyl, who appear in a completely different light - as helpless victims.

[9]For instance, in "Urien at home",PENNAR op.cit. p.61.

[10]According to the argument of PATRICIA KELLY, The earliest words for "horse" in the Celtic languages, in S.DAVIES & N.A.JONES (ed), The horse in Celtic culture, Cardiff 1997. This is a difficult word, found only in this poem, but connected with other words such as ceffyl, whose first attested use, in Peredur, is also disparaging.

[11]Meirion Pennar translates this as "of most courageous stock", apparently thinking that it applies to Urien's lineage; but as Taliesin practically never praises Urien's lineage, and as there are plenty of reasons to believe that he was a self-made lord - see Appendix VII – I rather think that this is a reflex of the idea we have found in Gildas' Romani, seeing the brave as a sort of hereditary caste or race, genetically separate from the common run of humanity. By making Urien the best of this whole "race", I think that Taliesin means to short-circuit the problem of Taliesin's lack of illustrious forebears.

[12]According to Pennar, the poem describes his sons throwing twigs at him in an age-old Welsh ritual of contempt.

[13]It is possible that Taliesin avoiding the title of teyrn in some of his poems may have corresponded to a definite political move by Urien and Owein, probably their refusal to send hostages to Fflammddwyn. As we know from the case of Maglocunus, bards were instruments to influence public opinion, and it would have been inconvenient for Urien if his glorious and renowned bard recognized in public that his master was a teyrn.

[14]In the light of this, Snyder's summary of the data about usage is telling beyond what he thought: "Teyrn (pl. Teyrnedd) is the most common term for a 'King' in the Taliesin poems, but is used in the more general sense of 'prince' in the Gododdin and the Armes Prydein" - SNYDER op.cit 106, quoting authorities (underline mine). The picture of Britain in the Taliesin poems is pre-English conquest - the Eigyl are feeble and helpless, "without protector", and all the wars happen, as in Gildas, between British kings - and therefore set in a still functioning, probably sixth-century British culture; whereas the English conquest is already a part of the landscape in the Gododdin, let alone the Armes Prydein, which therefore bear witness to a much later idea of society. It is not surprising that the specific characteristics of Teyrnedd seem to have been lost, or at least become murkier, as the whole Gildasian structure of over-kings and under-kings collapsed under the blows of the English, and the royal house of Ambrosius vanished from the landscape.

[15]In the cartulary of Saint-Sauveur de Redon, a Breton abbey that preserved a number of legal documents from the dark ages, tyrannus is often used as an alternative spelling of the Latinized title tiernus - i.e. tiern, theyrn. One charter, dated to between 814 and 825, actually uses the words machtiern - great tiern - and tyrannus of the same person, Iarnhitin of Ruffiac, in an honorific context. This is the clearest evidence we have for tyrannus being understood as tigernos, or vice versa; though any amount of material from Procopius to Nennius suggests it.

[16]J.G.T.SHERINGHAM, Les Machtiern: quelques temoignages gallois et cornouaillois, in Memoires de la societe d'histoire et d'archaeologie de Bretagne, 58 (1981) 61-72, quoted by SNYDER op.cit. 106f. and notes.

[17]Gildas has not seen the obvious contradiction between this theory of mankind and the Christian one: starting from a racist assumption of the essential qualities of a "British tyrant", he nevertheless is passionately convinced that God's supernatural grace can redeem even the likes of Cuneglasus and Vortiporius; what is more, he clearly states that the royal - and therefore necessarily victorious - blood of Ambrosius has not prevented his descendants from being a disgrace to him, which makes nonsense of the belief in inborn qualities and their inevitable manifestation. Yet Gildas argues as if that was an acquired fact, which only God's grace can overcome. It may be that he is pushing the argument for inborn qualities further than he would in private, because it was a widespread belief among his contemporaries, and he wanted to reach them through their own views - suitably reinterpreted - according to St.Paul's prescription of becoming all things to all people so that by all means some might be saved.

[18]This change of name, in fact, relates almost certainly to Gildas' own elaboration on the idea of nomen Romanum which I will discuss in the next book.

19]The real-life counterpart to these legends of population transfers by victorious kings is obviously slaving raids; and we have the best possible evidence, from St.Patrick, that both Irish and North British Celtic kings such as Coroticus indulged in slaving on a regular basis. Patrick speaks of thousands of slaves taken in one single raid on Britain.

[20]Snorri Sturluson, Edda, Gylfaginning 8

[21]Map on page 4, The age of Sutton Hoo (ed.M.Carver), Woodbridge 1992. One of the dykes is called the Devil's Dyke, which suggests that it, too, was originally attributed to Woden/Odin, sometimes turned into the Devil in later folk-lore.

[22]IAN C.BURROW, Hillfort and hill-top settlement in Somerset in the first to eighth century AD, BAR British Series 91 (Oxford 1981), 157, based on the Burghal Hidage evidence of 4 men every 5 yards of rampart; quoted in SNYDER op.cit 329-330 (notes 247 and 262 to pages 179 and 182).

[23]See note 21 above.

[24]Professor Wendy Davies had come to parallel conclusions in a preliminary study on the Llandaff Charters, legal documents from the most obscure period of Welsh history: "From at least the early sixth century" [that is, the period at which I date the first clear presence of the distinctive Gildasian British culture] "Welsh politics were dominated by kings (the reges of the Latin texts and the 'territorial rulers' of the vernacular poetry) who - in the earlier centuries - were clearly associated with territorial kingdoms... This strongly territorial framework to rule contrasts with English practice at the period, for in England it was usual to define rule in relation to groups of people... Of course, in Wales rulers did use people as well as territory, but it is the idea of territory that predominates... vernacular [terms like] gwlad... used to express the notion "sphere of rule", although it is a sphere that has a territorial dimension" WENDY DAVIES, Patterns of power in early Wales, Oxford 1990, quoted in SNYDER op.cit. p.299 (note 42 to page 87).

[25]The age of Arthur, 459

[26]The bards, as I said, are also treated as a responsible group. In the pagan Celtic society which I see as the matrix of Gildasian culture, the bards, of course, were part of the druid class. Even in Christian Britain, Welsh bards regarded themselves as an alternative to the clergy. As late as mediaeval Wales, there is plenty of evidence of professional jealousy between bards and monks. The poem Preiddeu Annwvn (Book of Taliesin no.30), which is among other things an emphatic statement of the claims of bards as a supernaturally learned caste, ends with the contemptuous description of monks "howling like a pack of dogs" in the service of ambitious lordlings, to which the poet proudly answers: "I shall worship the king"; that is, not only a poor little lord in search of fame, but the great king who, according to the opening lines, "has spread his rule over the shore of the World", that is over all the "farthest lands" of mediaeval geography, Britain and Ireland. And he concludes: "may I not be sad, [for] Christ [Himself] endows me". What Christ endows him with is awen, poetic inspiration, which mediaeval Welsh poets regarded as literally equivalent to the Holy Spirit. Cf. PATRICK K.FORD, Ystoria Taliesin, Cardiff 1992. Therefore Welsh bards could regard themselves as a member of the superior, sacred class, the first-function class; and in terms of the analysis of Celtic society as a whole, and especially of their relationship with the free populace at large (which is the issue here) they may be classed with the priesthood.

[27]SNYDER op cit. p.192 and note 320, quoting the work of Dr.I.W.Cornwall in the 1950s and Roberta Gilchrist more recently; note 321 quotes Ms.Gilchrist's A re-apparaisal of Dinas Powys, in Medieval Archaeology 32 (1988) 50-62.

[28]SNYDER op.cit. p.329 (note 249 to page 180, quoting LESLIE ALCOCK, Cadbury Castle, Somerset: the early medieval archaeology, Cardiff 1995)

[29]Irish Kings and High Kings, p.71

[30]SNYDER op.cit., 200, summing up the results of an analysis of a large number of archaeological sites.

[31]JOSEPH B. ACEVES and H.GILL KING, Cultural Anthropology, Morristown 1978, p.161-162.

[32]Among the many writers on this subject: T. O'MAILLE, Zeitschrift fur celtische Philologie 17 (1928), 129; A.H.KRAPPE, Journal of American Philology, 58 (1942), 444; J.WEISWEILER, Heimat und Herrschaft, Halle, 1943; ANANDA K.COOMARASWAMI, Speculum 20 (1945), 391; T.F.O'RAHILLY, Eriu 14 (1946), 14; GEORGES DUMEZIL, Ogam 6 (1954), 3; PROINSIAS MAC CANA, Etudes Celtiques 7 (1955), 76 (all quoted in A.& B.REES, Celtic Heritage, note 117 to page 73).

[33]Ch.27: Reges habet Britannia, sed tyrannos, iudices, sed impios; saepe praedantes et concutientes, sed innocentes; undicantes et patrocinantes, sed reos et latrones; quam plurimas coniuges habentes, sed scorta et adulterantes; crebro iurantes, sed periurantes; uouentes, sed continuo propemodum mentientes; belligerantes, sed ciuilia et iniusta bella agentes; per patriam quidem fures magnopere insectantes, sed eos qui secum as mensam sedent non solum amantes sed et munerantes; eleemosynas largiter dantes, sed e regione immensum montem scelerum exaggerantes; in sede arbitraturi sedentes, sed raro recti iudicii regula quarentes; innoxios humilesque despicientes, sanguinarios superbos parricidas commanipulares et adulteros Dei inimicos, si sors, ut dicitur, tulerit, qui cum ipso nomine certatim delendi erant, ad sidera, prout possunt, efferentes; uinctos plures in carceribus habentes, quos dolo sui potius quam merito proterunt catenis onerantes...

[34]That this function is also to do with the intimate relationship between the king and the land is shown by a peculiar feature of early Welsh charters: "...a king was nearly always present when lay grants were made, and [was] recorded in the witness list... the essential point seems to be that most grants were made at public meetings at which a king was present." DAVIES, Early Welsh microcosm, 103-05, quoted in SNYDER op.cit. 299, n.43. These "grants" were grants of land, and it was obviously felt that only the consent of the king could validate a permanent transfer of land to a sacred body or monastery. Why? Obviously, because land ultimately pertained to him.

[35] And we add to Williams’ observation, that the laws of Hywel Dda were already a much-evolved and diluted version of an early Celtic code. If, after centuries of dilution, they still preserved the un-Christian institution of divorce, in spite of constant ecclesiastical condemnation, it must have been very rooted indeed.

[36] JEROME, Letter 77 (Williams’ note).

[37] HUGH WILLIAMS, Transactions of the honourable society of Cymmrodorion 3, 1899 (1901), p.88: his introduction to his monumental commented translation of Gildasian materials including the Ruin and the two legendary “Lives” by Caradoc of Llancarfan and an anonymous monk of Rhuys.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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