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

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Book I: The world of Saint Gildas

The first book approaches Gildas as our most important single source, using an array of interpretative techniques - literary analysis, study of assumptions and of the intended public, quellenforschung, comparison with other writers - to extract as much historical information from his The ruin of Britain as possible. His "Roman" legends are treated as legends, and used as a source for his social and political ideas; but they are also shown to embody contemporary echoes.

 

Gildas’ culture and Latinity are analyzed in the context of his time, especially in comparison with his younger contemporary Gregory of Tours, establishing the nature and social context of the culture from which he arose.

This argues that the early chapters of Gildas’ so-called historical section represent in effect nothing else than a well-developped Celtic myth with strong parallels with the much later legends of Nennius and The dream of Maxen Wledig (from The Mabinogion). It also establishes Gildas and his culture’s attitude to the Roman past.

Gildas is shown to be aware of the campaigns of Justinian I. There is evidence that Justinian aimed to invade Britain; that Gildas and his contemporaries knew it; and that it was Justinian, not the Saxons (whom Gildas regarded as defeated at Mons Badonicus) that Gildas intended his readers to fear. A definite date is also proposed for the writing of The Ruin of Britain, (561) which agrees with the traditional dates of Mons Badonicus (516/8) and of Gildas’ death in Irish annals (570). I also argue that Gildas was familiar with an eyewitness account of the Saxon wars (which I call "L"), and that his work is to be understood largely as a reaction to it.

Close analysis of Gildas’ description of four of his five tyrants, showing that each is described in a different and personalized light, and that the description of each presupposes different sources of information - in other words, that Gildas did not merely make up his charges.

Analysis of Gildas’ description of Maglocunus. I argue that Gildas’ evidence about this king, and later notices, suggest that Maglocunus/Maelgwn was not based in Gwynedd or Anglesey, but was a Gododdin conqueror of the North the centre of whose power must have been in Brigantia (Yorkshire+ Lancashire).

Gildas’ view of the kings of his time, especially in its racial and social aspects.

Dense analysis, using concepts from social anthropology and a comparison with the poems of the historical Taliesin, of the Celtic background to the Gildasian idea of the king. It is important to understand the distance of the Gildasian idea of society from anything Roman, the more so because we will encounter the concepts involved over and over again.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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