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

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Chapter 3.1: Reflections on Gildas' chapter 21

Fabio P. Barbieri

Britain's strategic position after 410 was unpleasant. To the north she faced the Picts, who had several times forced the Wall and were, according to Gildas (probably quoting from A), constantly bent on conquest. To the west, the Irish may not have been as powerful as the Picts, but they were perfectly capable of raiding the island, taking large numbers of slaves, and even occupying coastal strips. To the east, seafaring Germanic tribes, though not yet interested in settling in numbers, were more than willing to go on fearsome pirate raids; and to the south, neither the Empire, as long as it remained a factor, nor the Franks which increasingly tended to take its place, could be regarded as well-intentioned to an independent Britain. "The misfortunes of Britain" seem to have become a cliché: mentioned by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, they had by Procopius' time found their way into the Sybilline Books, the prophetic books of pagan Rome[1]. From the island of tyrants, Britain seems to have become in popular Roman imagination the island of the unfortunate.

Some of these misfortunes may have been painted in grimmer colours than they deserved. In its first thirty years of independence, the island seems rather to have been exposed to a drip-drip-drip of raids from various directions, than to have suffered the kind of vast settler invasions that tore the rest of West apart. It is possible, indeed probable, that the victory against A's Third Pictish Invasion, discussed in the last chapter, put a temporary end to any such threat, and without the Picts to spearhead invasions, the Scots (Irish) were not a serious danger. Constantius of Lyons tells how the visiting Germanus of Auxerre was present at the successful ambush of a barbarian raiding party: the fact that the barbarians turned and ran at a mere battle-cry (the Christian shout "Alleluia!") suggests that there weren't many and that they were not looking for pitched battles - and would the local Britons have invited the illustrious visitor to the battle, as if to a fine entertainment, if they thought the raiders dangerous?[2]

Why, if the lords of Britain claimed some sort of pretender emperorship, no British coins were issued in this period or later, is a question I cannot answer. The most suggestive theory known to me is over a quarter century old, but I do not think it has been superseded: it is that of Sheppard Frere in his Britannia. “Between 378 and 388 there was a very marked decline in the amount of new currency in circulation, amounting almost to disappearance. To some extent this was offset by the survival in circulation of earlier issues; but even coins of the house of Valentinian I are less plentiful in the majority of British sites than those of Constantius. Though coins of the period 388-402 appeared in somewhat larger quantity than those of 378-388, there are very few sites where they approach the proportions of previous decades; at these sites, however, the percentage of Theodosian bronze is very high. This indicates that except at a few apparently exceptional places, where business continued as usual, or where money was changed for the collection of taxation, the use of coinage for everyday transactions decreased very notably during the last twenty years of the fourth century, some time before supplies were interrupted for good. The reason may have been partly the inflation which continued serious at this time, and partly also the intermittent difficulty of obtaining supplies of cash: for both these conditions would favour the revival of barter. Indeed, this tendency can be observed in western Britain as early as the age of Valentinian I…”

“But another of the principal factors influencing the decreasing availability of coinage was implicit in the government’s own attitude to currency. The foundation of the fourth-century coinage was the gold solidus. These coins were used for the payment of government officials and the army, and it was a main preoccupation of the state to recover the gold thus issued. The bronze currency was used for this purpose: the gold was recovered by taxation (much of which had to be paid in this metal) once it had been exchanged by its recipients for the small bronze coins used for everyday transactions. In general, then, the government was concerned that enough bronze was in circulation to recover the gold. But in Britain from the time of Maximus the number of troops on the payroll was greatly reduced, and was shortly to be decreased even more drastically. This must have meant a greatly reduced dispatch of gold to Britain, and consequently a greatly reduced dispatch of copper too: for the government was less concerned for the general utility of the currency as a means of exchange than as a means of payment and taxation. It did not therefore interest itself unduly in the plight of provincials who found themselves unable to obtain sufficient currency for everyday purposes.”

“Sites in Britain yeld very few copper coins minted after 402. Gold and silver coins are, of course, very rare as site-finds, but finds from hoards make it clear that coins in these metals continued to arrive down to about 406 and, in the case of silver, rather later. It seems probable, then, that payments in gold continued to be received down to this date, but supplies of copper were judged adequate without reinforcement from 402. Silver may have continued to arrive, though in much reduced quantity, after 406, because of the importance of Britain as source of raw silver.”[3]

“There had been a reorganization of the western mints in 395, after which Trier and Arles produced very little bronze; but this reform did not have the catastrophic effect on British supplies of coin which was once imagined, since it has been established that the mind of Rome increased its output to counterbalance the reduction. Issues of the Rome mint in bronze down to 402 are found in some quantity in Britain, but thereafter the supply ceased. Though Constantine III did issue coins, these are very rarely found this side of the Channel, and the later issues of Honorius are virtually absent. From 407 Britain was in effect without new coins of any kind. Thereafter the existing coins continued to circulate, getting more and more worn; but increasingly few people found it necessary to use them. They were hoarded instead…”

This picture raised few problems as long as people thought - basing themselves on Zosimus 6.5.3 - that Roman government collapsed in Britain after 411. I, however, am certain it did not; and therefore the lack of coinage is a problem. To issue coins was a cherished prerogative of an emperor and a regular step for any pretender[4]. Perhaps the British authorities did not want to irritate the Western Emperor. Certainly they did not have moneyers; the mint of London had closed long since, and Constantine had to seize the ones in Trier and Arles before he could issue coins for the standard donatives to his men[5]. Perhaps, too, a pragmatic decision was taken that minting was a luxury that a new state with long and difficult borders could do without.

After all, it does not seem to have hampered their trade. Gildas, indeed, describes the period that followed the victory over the Picts as one of prosperity such as no previous age had known. Archaeology confirms that, in spite of the end of organized coinage, the Rescript was followed by a marked economic recovery: "Evidence now indicates that, although these [military] shipments [from the continent] ceased arriving at the [Roman army on the] frontier by the beginning of the fifth century, shipments of Mediterranean fine wares and amphoras reaching Britain (as well as Ireland) in the later fifth century actually revived." Fifty years later, Constantius remembered the Britain of Germanus' time (429-437) as "very prosperous"[6].

An important point could be that the most politically important use of money in the Empire was to pay the army. Now it seems possible that the independent Britanniae's armed forces were paid in kind; certainly that was what the authorities offered the Saxons when they settled - Gildas speaks of annona (food dues), Nennius of cibum et vestimentum, food and clothing.

This may have had something to do with the peculiar history of the northern frontier, as hinted at by A. What A suggests, both in terms of implicit assumptions and of explicit narrative, is that, after Constantine III, the chief burden of defence fell on the semi-independent tribes beyond the Wall. In terms of assumptions, A, reflecting the views of a later age, saw the tribes beyond the Wall as the natural defenders of (Roman) Britain against the Picts; in terms of narrative, A describes them as suffering the brunt of the Pictish invasion. If the Picts mauled them as badly as A says, with crowds of starving refugees, armies hiding in caves and woods, the most infamous famine in history, then they had no option but fight or die. They would need no payment to do it; and once the war was won, the first thing they would need would be large quantities of food. This might set a precedent; and the government might have found it less difficult to set up regular food collections than to go to the trouble of minting money to pay for food that the fertile south-east of Britain could grow, and which could be directly collected by government tax agents. Trade by exchange and unminted bullion might have turned out to be simply more practical, even assuming that buyers and sellers could not lay their hands on ready stores of coin from the emperors of Ravenna and Constantinople at need - the Hoxne hoard suggests they could.

It is probably a related point that the underlying economic realities of the British frontier were very different from most other Roman military borders. The Rhine and upper Danube were already becoming what they have been ever since, Europe's central trade routes, and a money economy had prevailed across the Empire's Asiatic and African borders since long before its rise. But the money economy in highland Britain was quite artificial, resulting entirely[7] from military payments; if these ceased, the country might find it neither hard nor painful to revert to a barter economy.

Understanding that the burden of the defence of what was still a Roman Britain shifted, after the 410s, from an organized and waged Roman army to a forward line of Christianized Celtic tribes bound to the Romano-British state by semi-feudal bonds and links of mutual interest is essential for the understanding of the archaeological records. Extensive and laborious study of all Roman fortifications shows that they ceased to be used by 425; which, of course, would spell disaster - and not “unprecedented prosperity” - if it was held to show that no defence system existed in Roman Britain by that time. But what it does show, in fact, is simply that those particular defences were abandoned; that is, that the Roman state had settled upon a different scheme for defence. And A, as I have said again and again, tells us what that scheme was: reliance on, support of, the tribal militias immediately beyond the Wall, who had their own reasons for hating and dreading the Picts, and needed only a little encouragement to fight them.

Certainly the "unprecedented prosperity" of ch.21 has nothing to do with the terrible four years 406-410, during which Constantine III's ostentatious minting activities had not prevented what archaeologists call "lawlessness and pessimism... conspicuous clipping and hoarding of coins"[8]; and the fact that Coroticus, who probably reigned in or near Strathclyde, is treated by Patrick as not just a Roman citizen, but a member of the Romano-British state, even suggests some territorial expansion - that Pictish victory again?

Gildas' extremely impressionistic language appears therefore to agree with other records. I already pointed out that ch.21, where the "plague" of prosperity is denounced, sounds exactly like a recasting from some earlier religious writer inveighing at the mores of his day. It describes the period before the first Saxon rebellion with a confidence and detail that would be out of place unless Gildas had a contemporary source.

I will call this source E.

Ch.21 (E) follows straight on from A's epic victory over the Picts, but there is nothing epic about the state of society it depicts. It does not look back on a moment of glory in the distant past; it has the feel of a moralistic sermon and clearly depicts situations actually known to the author, beginning with a sexual scandal. Gildas' purpose in quoting E is to give a credible account of the reasons why post-Roman Britain collapsed; but it is worth noting that the chapter itself does not look forwards to it. It works itself to a natural climax in the description of a diseased state of society, supported by a quotation from Isaiah (21.6, quoting Is.1.4-6), and there is little to indicate that the author saw worse evils ahead. In ch.21, the diseased state of society is itself the punishment of British evils. On the other hand, the following ch.22, states that its plague, not metaphorical but terrifyingly real, is not the end of a diseased state of society, but the premise to the long Saxon disaster, whose description, I intend to show, comes from a source quite different from E. In other words, I believe, and intend to argue, that E wrote before the Saxon revolt, perhaps even before their settlement in Britain; and that ch.21 is a summary of E’s writings, surrounded on both sides by accounts culled from other sources.

Chapter 21 has a sentence that absolutely begs to be explained in terms of known events: ungebantur reges non per Deum sed qui ceteris crudeliores exstarent; et paulo post ad unctoribus non pro ueri examinatione trucidabantur, aliis electis trucioribus: "Kings were anointed not through God but for standing out as crueller than the others; and shortly afterwards, they were slain by the anointers without an examination of the truth, others still more grim having been elected." This is in my view the only piece of British history in Gildas earlier than the Rescript; and what it is, is a strikingly appropriate description of the British "year of three emperors", 407AD, with the quick enthronement and equally quick murder of the pretenders Marcus and Gratianus municeps (some sort of civil servant) and the temporary success of Constantine III. We don't know whether his government might indeed be called trux, grim, and crudelis, cruel; but there is evidence that his four years of rule - as I have said - were terrible, a time of "lawlessness and pessimism... conspicuous clipping and hoarding of coins". The "anointing" had certainly not been per Deum[9]: the army had simply acclaimed a pretender in the old historical manner typical of so many Roman usurpations.

However, Gildas places the fate of these Grim Kings, anointed without God's blessing and murdered, somewhat later than the Rescript, and together with a quite different sort of usurpation. The text goes on seamlessly: ... aliis electis trucioribus. Si quis uero eorum mitior et ueritati aliquatenus propior uideretur, in hunc quasi Britanniae subuersorem omnium odia telaque sine respectu contorquebantur ..."...others still more grim having been elected. If, indeed, any of them appeared milder and in any way closer to the truth, the hatreds and weapons of everyone would turn towards him without consideration, as if he were the overturner of Britain..."

The answer to that is in two parts. First, what Gildas delivers in ch.21 is indubitably a brief summary of far more extensive work; not, for that matter, an organized history or even pseudo-history such as A, but a quite different sort of document, the kind of moralistic polemic known to us from Salvianus, St.Jerome, and indeed Gildas himself. In such a polemic, historical cohesion might or might not have a place, but there is no a priori reason to expect the kind of care of a properly historical account; and Gildas, ranging over it in search of telling points, cannot have been as careful to keep discrete items, such as descriptions of the author's present and of the recent past, as cleanly apart as a modern scholar would like.

And there is a difference in tone between the Grim Kings and that of the Mild King. The former are historical rather than current: ch.21 speaks in the voice of someone looking back over a past, however recent, of usurpation and military violence, looking at it as a whole: "kings", in the plural, "used to" be anointed and slain - again and again. The immense unpopularity and eventual overthrow of a particularly mild king, held, because of his mildness, to be the ruin of Britain (hunc quasi Britanniae subuersorem), on the other hand, is a far more present and immediate matter. Even through the medium of Gildas, a note of personal indignation cannot be missed. It seems almost as though the Grim Kings were invoked to illustrate the injustice of the Mild King’s fall; they, at least, got what they deserved; the Mild King did not.

However, Gildas carries over from the Grim Kings immediately, with no break in continuity, to the Mild King's fall; the first impression, despite the indignation, is that the Mild King is only one of many anointed and slain at the same time, the time of the Grim Kings.

There is no clear warrant for this in Gildas' words, but I believe he may have warped E's time sequence by stressing the connection between the fate of the Grim Kings and that of the Mild King. From a literary point of view, Gildas' one sentence about the Grim Kings leads up to, and underlines, the rather longer and considerably more passionate treatment of the Mild King's undeserved fall; which, in turn, leads in to a wider picture of the triumph of evil over good. ...sine respectu contorquebantur; et omnia quae displicuerunt Deo et quae placuerunt aequali saltem lance pendebantur, si non gratiora fuissent displicentia. Taking the passage as a whole, there is a clear progression from the anointing and murder of the Grim Kings, through the rejection of the Mild King, to the complete triumph of relativism and - implicitly - of plain evil: "(1) Kings were anointed not through God but for standing out as crueller than the others; and shortly afterwards, they were slain by the anointers without an examination of the truth, others still more grim having been elected. (2) If, indeed, any of them appeared milder and in any way closer to the truth, the hatreds and weapons of everyone would turn towards him without consideration, as if he were the overturner of Britain; (3) and all the things that had pleased God and all the things that had displeased Him weighed equally in the balance, unless indeed the displeasing ones pleased them more..."

Indeed, the whole chapter forms such a progression. Gildas starts from a description of a diseased state of society, brought about by excessive prosperity, in which sexual sin is indulged shamelessly. Other sins are equally rampant, but the foremost of all (praecipue) is an intellectual sin: the genuine, Satanic revolt against the good and true, the preference for wickedness and corruption - so he describes it - and the positive welcome to evil, admitted into the country on a footing of equality with good. It is at this point that the Grim Kings are brought in, as the first of three steps to universal dissolution. The second step is the overthrow of the Mild King, as we have seen; and the third is the triumph of universal relativism - things pleasing and displeasing to God being treated as exactly of equal value. This implies not only an ideology, but a definite succession in time. The Grim Kings, ruling in an atmosphere of moral provisionality and terror, are the first stage on the road to ruin; but the decisive stage is the overturning of the Mild King, and it is after he is overthrown that relativism celebrates its public orgies. After this comes the climax of the chapter, which, typically for Gildas, takes the form of an extended quotation from Isaiah denouncing the moral and material diseasedness of Israel; and after this the despairing note that the Church, from which one ought to expect relief, is sunk in torpor and drunkenness, and far too concerned with greedy legal quarrels ending in most dubious judgements - a dreadful picture of worldly, indifferent prelates concerned only with their own wealth and status, allowing the one king who was "closer to the truth" to become the butt of the whole nation's hatred.

It follows that E was committed to the Mild King and regarded his overthrow as a disaster for "truth". We have to regard the whole polemic as a defence of the Mild King; his undeserved fate must be the centrepiece of E’s denunciation of British society. The centrality of the values of loyalty and disloyalty to E’s polemic suggests one reason to bring in the Grim Kings: E may have used the awful history of the British year of three emperors, whose horrors, though a few decades away, must have been present to everyone's minds, as a fitting instance of the "British vice" of rebellion and treachery (an argument that would appeal to Gildas) and of the evils that follow it; and for this reason may have stressed the British element of the usurpations, even to the point of not making it clear that the kings in question were in fact Roman imperial pretenders. On the face of it, the parallel is clear: an a fortiori argument that, just as Marcus and Gratianus had been killed for being – shall we say – “soft”, so the current king had all the hatred of the country for being milder and "closer to the truth" - more religious - than the average.

As this is probably the most difficult and subjective argument in this whole study, I had better set out in clear my reasons to separate chronologically Gildas' Grim Kings and his Mild King:

a) my belief that that already examined first sentence - ungebantur reges non per Deum sed qui ceteris crudeliores exstarent; et paulo post ad unctoribus non pro ueri examinatione trucidabantur, aliis electis trucioribus - must be describing the year of three emperors, while we may be sure that E wrote somewhat later, in the post-Roman period. Gildas dates him for us, by asserting that his was a truthful description of the political and moral landscape after the defeat of the Picts, but before the plague and the Saxon settlement[10];

b) the different tone adopted in the description of the Grim Kings, regarded as one common massa damnata, treated in bulk and awakening more contempt than indignation, and the anger roused by the fate of the Mild King;

c) the curious phrasing of the sentence that follows: Si quis uero eorum mitior et ueritati aliquatenus propior uideretur, in hunc quasi Britanniae subuersorem omnium odia telaque sine respectu contorquebantur; "If indeed any of them [=contemporary kings] seemed more mild and closer to the truth, the hatred and the weapons of everyone were twisted against him without respect, as if he were the ruin of Britain". This does not describe an assassination, such as the Grim Kings suffered; rather, it suggests the placing of extreme political pressure upon the king by the mass of the nation, backed by the threat and perhaps the reality of armed revolt. It is not said that the Mild King died, only that he was universally hated. This is the more significant since Gildas, and certainly E before him, is trying hard to assimilate the fate of the Mild King to that of the Grim Kings; the fact that the Mild King is not said to be murdered leaps to the eye and demands explanation.

d) Following from the previous point, there is the matter of a completely different mental landscape. The Grim Kings live in an atmosphere of usurpation and violence, in which the solution to an inadequate king (or at least, a king perceived to be inadequate) is to cut the so-and-so's throat; the Mild King lives in an atmosphere in which political pressure is used to force him off the throne - an atmosphere of law, if not of order. This agrees with the atmosphere E describes within the Church. The law is the dominant feature; lawsuits, he says, are everywhere; everyone, including the church, coveting everyone else's land and property, makes up spurious legal claims to it. In the world of the Grim Kings, it would not have been necessary to bring any political pressure on the Mild King; but he lives in a world of politicking and immoral manipulation of documents and claims - in other words, a world of peaceful and settled order.

If, therefore, the Grim Kings and the Mild King belonged to separate periods, this raises again the question of Gildas' treatment of sources. E comes to us through the medium of Gildas, who has to connect him with A, the Letter to Agitius, and a few other sources; does he have the instruments to make proper connections, or do we have to look at each of his sources with the suspicion that he may have placed it out of order and made false connections? In at least two cases, we know that this is exactly what he has done. He has connected - though probably not without encouragement from A itself - A's notice about the arrival of Christianity in "Britain", after the Second Roman Invasion, with the rise of Christianity itself in the reign of Tiberius, thus backdating the event A actually described by more than three hundred years; the point here being not so much that he should have known better - since he had no way of understanding the real origin of A's legends - as that he had not scrupled to impose an arbitrary synchronicism on two separate strands of material, thus making Christianity reach Britain, under Tiberius' supposed imperial protection, at a time when Britain was not even conquered (which also led him to placing the martyrdom of St.Alban in Diocletian's time, a dating which most church historians doubt). And as Morris and Sims-Williams point out, he has misdated the Letter to Agitius.

Gildas quotes a fragment from "letter to Agitius", a diplomatic missive in the formal style, sent from an unidentified group of British leaders to Aetius; and his use of it proves that he was not able to deal with quite simple and ordinary Roman chronological data. Every scholar since Bede knows it: the Letter is addressed to Agitio ter consuli, "Aetius three times a Consul", which meant that it cannot be dated earlier than his third consulate (446). Anyone able to interpret Roman consular list would have understood this as a matter of course. It is not just a matter of not having access to a consular list: Gildas, who claims to have been in correspondence with overseas centres of learning in pursuit of historical data, could easily have procured what was, after all, one of the most basic tools of Roman scholars. It is that Gildas simply had no idea of it, and therefore, being unable to read what was in front of his eyes, he "dated" the Letter, if anything so vague may be described as dating, to the "third" Pictish invasion of A - when Aetius was a child.

I believe that Gildas could not reckon years chronologically. There is not so much as one definite date in all his work; I mean an absolute date, rather than one relative to another, as when he claims that Badon Hill took place 44 years and one month before, because he was born then. What is more, he was not alone. Some contemporaries had heard of consular dating, but it can be shown that they had no idea of the skills involved. An inscribed stone at Penmachno in Snowdonia is dated In tempore Iustini Consulis - about 540, Gildas' time; but its formula is doubly unorthodox, first because it mentions only one consul, and second because the expression in tempore... for a consulate is unusual and too vague (it might even suggest that the scribe did not know that the Consulate was annual). In other words, this is not the product of a correct Roman reckoning of years in the proper manner and with the proper formula, but of someone who had heard the name of the year in a language other than Latin - either in proto-Welsh or, more probably, in Greek - and translated it back into Latin as his language of government. The Penmachno Stone's language is described as "magniloquent", influenced by Byzantine models[11]; it suggests, in other words, an education not unlike that of Gildas. And yet the scribe of Penmachno had not learned the ordinary Latin usage for consular years; he had had to re-learn it from Greek visitors who still had Consuls in their New Rome. Gildas' education did not help him to understand the meaning of Agitio ter consuli, and while his fellow-Educated Briton in Penmachno could have given him a pointer, he was only a little further along.

Gildas' ignorance of chronology cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Where the habit of chronicle-writing and time-measuring has taken root, it is bound to affect the whole cast of mind, bubbling up in all sorts of casual remarks and unexpected connections. In his mobilization of the Latin language, Gildas leaves no literary device known to him unused; notice, for instance, his brief but telling burst into interlinear Biblical commentary in 62.2-5, where he starts on a line-by-line interpretation of the opening words of the Wisdom of Solomon, both to show that he could do it, and to point out how far short of the ideal of a Solomonic good prince his contemporary kings fall. A man who makes such sharp rhetorical use of a rather dry scholarly procedure is not going to pass up dates and places; but he never mentions them. He knew Rufinus, a historian in the classical manner; he may have known entries, at least, of chronicle historians such as the author of the Narratio; but he virtually ignored the chronological element in both. Like Nennius failing to understand the actual meaning of Roman power over British wealth, these things were not part of his mental landscape, and he simply failed to see them for what they were.

This underlines the importance of such people as Nennius and his predecessor, the author of the Annales Romanorum. As I pointed out, these Dark Age Welsh scholars took upon themselves to reconcile Classical and native traditions; I believe that can be explained by the impact of the annalistic tradition, finally registering on the consciousness of the Welsh monastic communities - possibly long after Gildas was dead. Gildas’ writing shows evidence of a very high cultural level, but no evidence of annalistic skills; but in 830, Nennius, though in many ways less learned than Gildas, is absolutely dominated by the chronological frame of mind. The Historia Brittonum is framed by a series of chronological calculations, so much so that one almost gets the feeling that the narration is an excuse to mention people and things involved in its time-reckonings. As for his nameless predecessors, the name alone of the Annales Romanorum, let alone the obviously annalistic source from which it drew its properly Roman material, suggest that its Welsh author was conversant with annalistic time-reckoning.

There is an alternative possible explanation, to do not with time but with place. Welsh tradition uniformly made Gildas a son of Caw of Prydyn, a king in Strathclyde. Now, there is at least one lost document that originated almost certainly in Strathclyde, written more than a century after Gildas, which also shows evidence of ignorance of chronology: the so-called “Northern memoranda” from which Nennius drew his “North British section” a probably reliable account of North British history, covering material from about 550 to about 685, and written no later than 780. Its defining feature is that it was reliable as a narrative but without chronology, so that Nennius hardly tries to harmonize them with his other time schemes – and when he tries, he fails (e.g. with Eata Glynmawr). Professor Dumville insists that these were in fact annals; but, if they were, they must have been so clumsily written as to deny Nennius any hook both in the rest of his Welsh historical knowledge and in the Anglo-Saxon annals to which he also resorted. I think it is easier to imagine that they amounted to a number of historical items, with no clear dates except perhaps for a certain idea of their succession[12]. They come to an end in the memorable year 685, in which the Northumbrian rule over north Britain collapsed and Strathclyde recovered her independence, which suggests that they were originally written down shortly after and with some sort of apologetic or propagandistic goal in mind (not unlike Gildas himself), and may perhaps not have paid much mind to the niceties of time-reckoning; but what their existence seems to show is that more than a century after Gildas, it was possible, in Strathclyde, to produce some sort of historical writing that did not involve any chronology – unimaginable to anyone whatever involved in the study of history anywhere in the post-classical tradition. Strathclyde was both the last surviving part of the British old North, where I have suggested Gildasian-age culture came from, and Gildas' own homeland.

To us, ignorance of chronology is a wholly alien condition: we have had a sequel of certain and inarguable dates drummed into us from the moment we first learned to read, so that the skill of chronology is as familiar as the alphabet. We cannot easily imagine the condition of a powerful and elaborately educated mind with no chronology. Yet nothing is more important to understand Gildas' picture of history. That mind so large, so brilliantly articulate, so capable of able and elaborate writing, had no space for the measured passage of time. It is not that he has no notion of stages in the past - this came before that which came before the other - so much as that he has no instrument, except for his own reason and the various teachings handed down to him, to properly arrange his information.

Many scholars have failed to appreciate the point; and if it vitiates some of the arguments of such a learned and careful man as Dr.Snyder - who cannot break himself of the habit of speaking as if Gildas was a late Roman with Aurelius Victor and the Codex Theodosianus in his blood - on the other hand it leads John Morris to fatally underestimate his value as a witness.Morris speaks as though Gildas knew nothing else than oral accounts of the past and could only be trusted with matters within living memory; a theory contradicted, if nothing else, by Gildas' knowledge of the Rescript of Honorius and the Letter to Agitius, two first-class historical documents, the latter preserved by no other historian. Ch.21 is recast from a written source; Gildas had read somewhere that in 410 Britanniae sublatae nomini Romano in aeternum fuerunt - read it, not heard it; and he was familiar with several other pieces of British writing, some of which indubitably went back to the previous century.

When we realize that Gildas, taking into account the legendary nature of some of his sources, is trustworthy in most things except in time reckoning, we are almost home. We can picture him sitting down to write with several scrolls and/or codices in front of him, all open at various points, and his beloved Bible in the middle - drawing up schemes for the succession of events, not in the manner of a historian establishing a time scheme, but of a novelist designing a plot; or rather, of a lawyer setting out an argument. This was his skill; chronology, alas, was no part of it. Therefore he built a scheme more ideological than chronological, placing events at the stage where they seem to him to make the most sense (and to come most tellingly together to prove his theses). For instance, he knew of two Pictish invasions stopped by the Romans after heart-rending British appeals for help; what is more natural than that he should place the Letter to Agitius, an unquestionably authentic such appeal, at the third Pictish invasion - the one that the British eventually repelled by themselves, trusting to the Lord? The sequence teaches an instructive lesson about military courage, national self-reliance and trust in God: the British prayed to Rome for help against their eternal enemies; Rome refused; then, on the brink of enslavement and destruction, they prayed to God - and began to prepare for battle; and as everyone knows, God helps those who help themselves. It only happens to be, alas, as factually wrong as so many other schemes of intellectual interpretation of history, up to and including our current orthodoxies. It was not from the Picts that the British sought protection from Aetius, it was from the Saxons.

I conclude that there is nothing to deny that E was referring to the "British year of three emperors". Gildas used his narration, visibly closer to events, to follow the more distant and "historical" narration of the Three Invaders of Britain and the Three Pictish Invasions. In the process he produced a chronological mess, yet another, placing the "year of three emperors" later than the end of Roman Britain, which has misled readers ever since; and making it contemporary with another story of usurpation, a political coup against a mild king, which in my view took place much later and in a changed state of society. We must get used to Gildas making havoc with dates because of inadequate information, no chronology, and a too intense interpretative imagination.


[1]Wars 5.24.36.

[2]E.A.Thompson (op.cit.82-84) makes a strong case, whose weight he understates, for the "Alleluia" victory taking place in Kent, between Richborough and London, where, he reminds us, Theodosius the elder, sixty years earlier, had mopped up barbarian raiding parties such as this one. Even the mountain landscape described by Constantius is not hard to explain: though not mountainous, Kent is often hilly and dramatic, very unlike the soft plains of central England; full of steep valleys and hidden dells any of which would supply an adequate site for an ambush such as Constantius describes.

[3]SHEPPARD FRERE, Britannia, London 1974, 415-16.

[4]That even in later years people were conscious of the difference that the end of monetation meant may perhaps be argued from the already-discussed legend of the Taking of Wealth in A. Its author knew that an autonomous Britain did not coin metal, and that the Roman Empire did.

[5]It is also a possible, though slightly unlikely, reason for the fall of Marcus and Gratianus before Constantine: by refusing, or at least delaying, to invade Gaul, they made it impossible to seize the mints and therefore issue the expected donatives to their men.

[6]C.A.SNYDER op.cit. 243; CONSTANTIUS OF LYONS, Life of St.Germanus, 18.

[7]Or almost entirely. The British wool trade, which was to become so central in succeeding centuries, was already of some importance in the later Empire - "the high quality of British wollen cloaks [was] attested... by Diocletian's Edict of Prices", STUART PIGGOTT, Native economies and the Roman occupation of North Britain, in I.R.RICHMOND (ed.), Roman and native in North Britain, Edinburgh 1958, p.27. But it is difficult to maintain with any confidence - what Piggott suggests rather nervously - that its benefits reached as far north as the Borders; good sheep country could be found much farther south, in safely Roman country with good short communications to large market towns such as York, Chester, Cirencester and Gloucester. It is only in the age of St.Cuthbert, centuries later - as Piggott honestly observes - that we have good evidence for commercial sheep rearing in the North.

(It is interesting, in terms of the underlying ideology, that the editor of this collection speaks of "Roman and native", and Piggott of a supposed "Roman occupation of North Britain", about something that had lasted four centuries and shaped the whole sense of nationhood of the country. This invention of a supposed underlying British nationality, occupied but not affected by Roman military power, has little to commend it historically; even its beginning was among a Celtic culture, a deeply hierarchical culture which recognized as a matter of course the existence of supreme kings and higher ranks of sovereignty, and which would therefore view the Emperor of Rome as simply the highest of high kings. This visibly misapplies the nineteenth-century category of nationalism, but also, less obviously, the equally recent and European idea of the sovereign single state. We should never forget that few previous ages thought of states as independent, separate and equally sovereign; far more often, they were seen as local emanations of a higher legal and political reality. That was certainly the case with both Celtic and Roman mentality, whatever their differences; and therefore the quickest and easiest way to completely misunderstand everything that was going on between Romans and Celts is to think of the Roman Empire as of a nineteenth-century colonial empire, and of its opponents as twentieth-century third world nationalists, with perhaps - as in the work of E.A.Thompson - a dash of revolutionary communism. This way of thinking, alas, is hardly dead yet.)

[8]SNYDER op.cit. p.241.

[9]Indeed, Orosius, a contemporary writer, treats Constantine's summoning of his son Constans from a monastery to be Caesar, heir-designate, as an outrage against the Church. OROSIUS, Historia aduersus Paganos, 7.40.

[10]The clearest statement that 21 is a drawn from contemporary sources is 21.3: ...ita ut competenter eodem tempore dicereteur, "so that it was rightly said of that particular time..." - that the fornication then indulged in was unheard-of even among pagans. There is also a possible allusion to contemporary report at the start of the chapter: Moris namque continui erat genti, sicut et nunc est..."It was the constant habit of the nation, then as it is now..." How could Gildas claim to know what the mos, the habit of the time, was, and convince his public, unless he had evidence?

[11]Early Christian monuments of Wales (ed.Nash-Williams), p.53 and note 3, quoted in SNYDER op.cit. 300 (note 49).

[12]HUGHES: "The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and related texts, in Proceedings of the Royal British Academy 59 (1973), 233-58; DUMVILLE, The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists, in Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), 23-50.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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