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

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Chapter 3.3: The religious crisis

Fabio P. Barbieri


The overthrow of Ambrosius' father was connected with religious matters. The very name Ambrosius suggests parents not only religious, but with an unusually submissive attitude to Church authority. It is not a common name before the time of the great bishop of Milan, St.Ambrose (374-395), who left an indelible mark on the Catholic Church with his victorious resistance against the emperor Valentinian II and his mother Justina, who wanted to impound a Milanese church - even the Cathedral, it is said! - for the use of Arian heretics, and his near-excommunication of his successor Theodosius for ordering a massacre in Thessalonica. No Catholic bishop had ever dared so openly and successfully to subject the supreme temporal power to religious sanction; to name the son of a royal couple for him seems to me almost a direct statement of support for the subjection of State to Church[1]. In spite of the Saint's prestige, not a single European or Byzantine monarch bore his name[2]; perhaps royal houses down the centuries did not care to place their children under the protection of someone who faced down two Emperors and an Empress. However, the parents of Ambrosius named him after that mighty bishop, and this at a time when his deeds were recent and no doubt widely debated history.

This is hardly our sole indication that Mild King was religious. In E's description, the Mild King's closeness to "the truth", that is his strong belief in a particular doctrine which he shared with E, makes a telling contrast with the relativism of E's targets. Omnia quae displicuerunt Deo et quae placuerunt aequali saltem lance pendebantur, si non gratiora fuissent displicentia, "Everything that had displeased God and that had pleased Him used to be of equal weight [with them], if indeed the things displeasing were not more welcome".

The grammar of that sentence is to be noticed, especially as it risks being diminished in any English translation. The author is using the historical perfect, speaking of things that "had [already] pleased or displeased God" - already, in the past, as the events described were taking place. Placere is a verb for a final sovereign decision - "it hath pleased the Emperor"; used of the ultimate King of all kings, it can only mean that God had passed sentence. Up to that point, Gildas had been using the imperfect, describing things that "used to happen", ongoing, in the time he describes; now he breaks into the perfect, clearly stating that God had already rejected the things the British were welcoming, before they ever welcomed them. His condemnation is passed and done - that is the meaning of the perfect: something that is finished, completed, done - by the time the British had begun to welcome the things that "had" displeased Him.

It is compromise we are talking about; the charge against the national leadership is indifference, not heresy. E despises a culture that rushes to judgement on matters of worldly wealth and pride but is incapable of, or unwilling to, take a firm line on what is to him an incomparably more essential judgement. He is speaking of the clash of two or more separate and incompatible doctrines, one of which “has pleased God” while the other or others, which contradict it, cannot. The Mild King must have taken one of these doctrines very seriously, since, whatever his flaws, he was "closer to the truth" (ueritate propior) than the ruck of British noblemen; his fall meant the triumph of relativism, the acceptance of all parties on an equal footing, while Church authorities turned their eyes away and wasted their energies in worldly lawsuits and mutual hatreds[3], seeking judgement against each other when that judgement (once again) made no real distinction of right and wrong[4]; the judges were as corrupt and relativistic as the judged.

God's enemies are abroad in Britain, welcomed and treated as friends while the partisans of the "right" side are shunned, even hated: odium ueritatis cum assertoribus amorque mendacii cum suis fabricatoribus, "hatred of Truth with its assertors and love of the Lie with its forgers" is the climax to the list of British sins in ch.21. And the presence of this Lie is no less than that of the Evil One himself: susceptio mali pro bono, ueneratio nequitiae pro benignitate, cupido tenebrarum pro sole, exceptio Satanae pro angelo lucis: the reception or acceptance (notice the word) of evil in place of good, the worship of nequitia in place of kindness, the lust for darkness in place of the sun, the reception (from outside, exceptio) of Satan in place of the angel of light. In other words, it is nothing less than an assault on religion - the sun, the angel of light, goodness itself.

A peculiarity attracts our attention: while malum is certainly the opposite of bonum, tenebrae of sol, and Satana of angelus lucis[5], it cannot be said that benignitas, kindliness or generosity, is the exact opposite of nequitia, wickedness or worthlessness. A better word would be malignitas. And the two terms, alone of the list, describe personal individual features rather than cosmic universal realities - in English: Good, Evil; benevolence, worthlessness; Sun, Darkness; Satan, the Angel of Light. Of them, the three pairs of cosmic realities - malum, tenebrae and Satana, bonum, sol and angelum lucis, are perfectly and easily matched; while the human qualities, benignitas and nequitia, do not quite fit each other. I conclude that the author was trying to place the conflict between two persons endowed with these particular qualities in a more universal context. Now, does not benignitas apply particularly well to a king; and does it not remind us of the Mild King? Clearly the benignitas replaced by nequitia is that of the Mild King himself, and the word nequitia is used in place of a more specific opposite because E could not honestly call his successor malignus, malevolent, actively willing and working the evil of others (we remember that he had allowed his predecessor to live). The evil implied by nequitia is not so active: it is the quality of any person who does a wicked thing (such as dethroning a legitimate sovereign), and may be read as "folly, stupidity", at least "culpable stupidity" – reminding us of Gildas' superbus tyrannus in his folly. Behind the generic universal concepts, good and evil, light and darkness, we read in filigree a picture of the political, religious and moral consequences of the usurpation; and it follows that the man guilty of nequitia, and his followers, were, in our author's view, guilty of the exceptio, the reception from outside, the admission into Britain, of this Satan - an evil that had until then been kept "outside" the British institutions, and perhaps the island itself.

Now, it is well known that some time before 429 a major crisis struck the British church. Twenty years earlier, when Britain was still a part of the Empire, a brilliant British-born writer, Pelagius, had clashed head-on with the great St.Augustine of Hippo on the matter of Original Sin. Pelagius believed that man, after Jesus' resurrection, was free from any taint of sin and actually capable, with sufficient discipline, to live without sinning; Augustine, taught by bitter experience in the whirl of North African events, believed that the darkness of the human soul was inescapable, and that human strength was not enough to be wholly good without the grace[6] of God - a grace that had to be given again and again, to respond to the repeated temptations and falls of human life.

Though Pelagius was British, we know nothing to suggest that he or his supporters had a particularly close relationship with his land of birth. We hear nothing of him before he came to Rome, where the difference between his teaching and Augustine's was first recognized; afterwards he taught, travelled and argued around the Empire, and he disappears from history's gaze in 419 somewhere in Palestine, or perhaps Egypt. Nothing much suggests that Pelagianism in his lifetime might have been as strong, let alone stronger, in Britain, than in Rome, Italy or Syria, where Pelagians were active and vigorous[7]. Indeed, B.R.Rees, author of an excellent and accessible study of Pelagius, feels that he should not even be identified with the origin of the heresy, which may be due more to his friend Rufinus the Syrian[8]; hardly a British heresy, then.

But ten years after Pelagianism had been officially condemned in both halves of the Empire and driven underground, unpleasant news from Britain reached the Catholic Church. Down the ages, the Church has always dreaded heretical or schismatic bodies with specifically national dimensions. By the fifth century, the mixture was already familiar: the Montanists were "the Phrygian heresy", the Donatists were specifically North African, and the Arian heresy, after a relatively brief period of empire-wide success, had become the tribal creed of Germanic Christians. And now history seemed to be repeating itself: originally an empire-wide fad, Pelagianism had suddenly resurfaced in the home of its most famous promoter.

Two continental writers, Prosper of Aquitaine and Constantius of Lyons, give accounts of the course of events. Prosper was a contemporary polemist and historian, well acquainted with some of the participants on the Catholic side; Constantius wrote the life of a key figure, the bishop St.Germanus of Auxerre, fifty years after the events, but with apparently fairly good sources, at least, for Gallic events.

In spite of some faults of temper and ideology; of a striking unwillingness to follow some of his own excellent conclusions to the end; and of a fallacious view of British events (he is unfortunately one of the many who take Zosimus 6.5.2 literally) which kills his last chapter, as far as I am concerned, stone dead; it is impossible, since the publication of E.A. Thompson's Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the end of Roman Britain, to treat the matter except in the light of his treatment of Constantius. It is an object lesson in how to read a source. He has looked at how Constantius treated his material, what that material amounted to, and what his viewpoints and knowledge were, and I have no doubt that he is correct in everything he reads in the Life of Germanus, not excluding the site of the Alleluia victory.

Constantius and Prosper agree that the Pelagian crisis compelled Germanus, the outstanding Gallic bishop of his generation, to make a journey to Britain in 429, forcing a debate with the Pelagian leaders which he is reported to have won; Constantius also reports a second journey, a few years later (Thompson dates it at 437), in which he procured the expulsion and exile of some Pelagians. By the time of Germanus' second journey, Prosper had left Gaul for Rome and may have been unaware of it; anyway, he does not record it. Two more documents mention the visits. The anonymous Life of St.Lupus of Troyes, Germanus’ companion in his first journey mentions only the first one, in which Lupus took part. Both visits are central to the anonymous Life of St.Genevieve of Paris, which claims to have been written twelve years after the Saint’s death, that is in 520. Curiously, the two Lives have a number of features in common, in particular that the heroic journey of Germanus - 429 - is immediately followed by Attila’s invasion of Gaul. No date is given for the latter, and while in the Life of Genevieve it seems clear that it is the great invasion of 451, in that of Lupus it could be any of the many occasions from the twenties to the fifties in which the Huns intervened in Gaul. What this testifies to is a common way of thinking about fifth-century history, in which the great Pelagian British crisis was followed by the terror of the Huns - clearly a popular rather than a learned picture of history, conveyed by word of mouth rather than by annals. The two Lives must have been written in roughly the same period, subject to the same popular picture of fifth-century history; although they do not seem to have influenced each other, their credibilities stand or fall together[9].

Both Lives, especially that of Genevieve, are the products of popular cults and subject mentalities rather than the work of educated upper-class writers. That being the case, the fact that both Lives place Germanus’ journeys to Britain on the same level as the Hunnish invasion, as central historical events, clearly signifies that these journeys had left a deep mark on popular memory.

Neither the Life of Genevieve nor that of Lupus ask any questions about the origin of the two missions; political manoeuvres, institutional avenues, correct and incorrect administrative action, are beyond its range. Nothing is more typical of the popular rather than learned origin of the Life of Ste.Genevieve, than that, when Genevieve wants to build a church to St.Denis, she just goes to a local priest and asks. On the other hand, Prosper and Constantius were educated, high-ranking churchmen, who both gave accounts of the origin of the mission and the institutional channels through which it was decided; and they contradict each other flatly. Prosper says that Germanus was sent by Pope Celestine at the suggestion of the deacon Palladius; Constantius, by a Gallic synod of bishops summoned in answer to an appeal from British Catholics[10].

Constantius’ picture of a Gallic church unaware, until the legatio ex Britanniis directa, of its neighbours’ troubles, and then suddenly rushed into action, is unrealistic, but easily explained by Constantius' fifty-year distance from events. It is exactly the way that a fundamentally unimaginative writer, unable to enter mentally the world he is describing, would deal with someone else's inevitably summary account. Britain's troubles are only mentioned when they impinge on Gallic episcopal business, that is when the legatio begs the Gallic episcopate for help. That things must have taken a while to come to such a pass, Constantius does not realize; nor does he ask himself how, exactly, they had - they had, that is all that mattered, and were just one more of the many troubles a conscientious bishop such as Germanus had to cope with.

Thompson, however, does not believe that such a synod ever took place. He points to the vagueness of Constantius' account, from the synodus numerosa to the triumph of Germanus’ mission, to suggest that - unlike some of his later episodes (such as the clash between the Saint and the Alan king Goar) the author had no eyewitness account, and that the otherwise unrecorded synodus numerosa was his way of accounting for the mission in the first place[11]. If Constantius does not think of the Pope, as later churchmen would have, that does not surprise Thompson too much: there is not a single mention of any patriarch of Rome in the whole writings of his contemporary Sidonius Apollinaris. Clearly, the Gallic Church of the later fifth century was somewhat isolated and tended to look to itself alone. Thompson believes that, in this at least, Prosper - a contemporary, authoritative and close to events - must be the better source. And his considerations about the nature and status of the Pope's mandate deserve quoting at length:

"Prosper reports one remarkable fact which he can hardly be suspected of inventing... Pope Celestine sent Germanus to Britain 'as his vicar', uice sua... in the Late Roman period, the Popes appointed papal vicars from time to time... to deal with important and urgent problems... which could not await the long delays of communication with Rome. But in two ways the appointment of Germanus as a vicar was exceptional. In the first place, this was the only occasion, as far as we know, when a Pope sent his vicar to Britain. Indeed, it was the first occasion in which a Pope is reported to have sent a bishop uice sua to any place. And it was almost the only occasion when a bishop was appointed vicar from another province than that in which had arisen the problem which he was appointed to resolve[12]... we have no hint either in Prosper or in Constantius of the precise nature of the crisis which demanded this unusual remedy. We can only infer that it was important and... urgent".

Thompson is disposed to credit the reality of the legatio directa from Britain, giving some weight to Constantius' report that "help from Gaul... must be sent as quickly as possible, quam primum". This does seem to agree with the nature of succeeding events, and we may perhaps even accept a modified version of the synodus numerosa, not in the sense of a formal assembly, but of hurried consultations among prominent ecclesiastics in Gaul and Rome. In reality, Gaul must have been aware of developments on the other side of the Channel; but bishops were bound by discipline not to interfere in each other's dioceses, and could hardy have decided, without scandal, to intervene without superior authority. Pope Celestine may have had strong opinions about bishops interfering into other dioceses, which certainly had been a bit of a cause célèbre in the time of his predecessor Siricius. To quote Bishop Hanson: "Some authority wider than the merely diocesan or metropolitan was necessary in order to obtain sanction for an action which could have been represented as interfering in the affairs of other bishops, a misdemeanour for which [Bishop St.] Victricius of Rouen had received a Papal rebuke about 30 years earlier. Celestine's own Fourth Letter gives the impression that one of its aims is to prevent bishops meddling with episcopal elections in sees where they have no business to do so."[13] Interfering with episcopal elections would certainly be one of the aims of Germanus and any Catholic campaigning to keep Pelagians out of the Church; and it hardly seems likely that an authority lower than the Pope's would dare.

Following Thompson, then, we accept that an authorized mission (legatio directa) reached the Continent from Britain. There were British Catholics, cohesive and organized enough to send an official legatio; and for it to be official, it is likely that at least one of its sponsors was a bishop. But the fact that they called for help means that they had no answer to the success of Pelagianism. On the other hand, they believed that help from overseas Catholics would be enough to reverse the situation, which means that they did not feel that the situation of Catholicism as such was hopeless. So, what help did they reckon they needed? We will not charge them with stupidity without reason; we will assume that they assessed the situation and reckoned their needs accordingly. And to judge from what the Pope actually did, sending the outstanding bishops Germanus and Lupus, what they wanted was outsiders of recognized stature to argue for them. This, it seems, would be enough to "rescue the Catholic Faith"; the mere public appearance of two men of such spotless reputation and intellectual ability would be enough to swing public opinion back to the Catholic side. But it had to be done urgently, before the Pelagians could consolidate their position.

What this means is that the British Augustinians must have been unpopular, discredited among the public, as persons. Their estimate was that the public was not particularly in favour of Pelagianism, but that it was against them: put them in front of genuine living saints like Germanus and Lupus, and they would change their minds. What is more, the picture of haste strongly suggests that whatever had happened to discredit the British Augustinians in the eyes of British public opinion had happened quite recently, and that he situation had not had time to consolidate.

This is quite close to E's picture, where the representatives, assertoribus, of the Truth, are "hated", and the forgers, fabricatoribus, of the Lie, mendacii, are "loved". The stock of the British Augustinians must have gone down catastrophically, as it would have if they had been associated with a sovereign who, like the Mild King, had been rejected by the fury of the whole country. The Pope's actions suggest that no British Catholic, even with the strongest endorsement from Rome, could be trusted to make headway against the general feeling. There probably was at least one committed Catholic bishop; but instead of nominating him as his vicar, Celestine called in Germanus from outside. And the Pope was so worried about Britain that he was willing to bend church rules almost double, granting Germanus unprecedented plenipotentiary powers to interfere in another province, in order to turn back the tide. We may therefore suggest that E's "truth" and "lie" are words for Augustinian and Pelagian doctrine respectively, and that the Mild King and E were Augustinian. There can hardly have been more than one religious crisis in the immediate post-Roman period of British history; and the fact that the Mild King was on the losing side agrees with the sudden and desperate need for help experienced by the Catholic party.

In some things, especially the existence of a legatio, Constantius' account seems to agree better with Gildas' sources; his legatio directa argues that the British Augustinians were still fighting, as we can gather from E, and as we could never conclude from Prosper alone. Prosper is on the whole closer to the facts, but, writing brief entries in a chronicle or a panegyric of Pope Celestine, he had no reason to mention the British mission. No doubt it was Celestine who took the ultimate decision on Germanus and Lupus' proposed mission; and no doubt Palladius was a prime mover in the arguments that led up to it. Prosper cannot have attributed to a noted contemporary like Palladius beliefs and interests Palladius did not have; Palladius must have been insisting, publicly enough for Prosper's public to know it, that something must be done about those heretics. It is possibly his focus on Palladius as the enemy of the Pelagians that makes him neglect the resistance to Pelagianism in Britain itself, and possibly in Gaul as well.

Prosper had good reason to personalize the struggle against the heresy in this way. Writing a few years after the events, he already knew that Palladius would soon take up the cudgels himself. In 431, two years after St.Germanus' first journey, Palladius took the newly-created title of Bishop to the Irish; and Prosper, in a speech in honour of Pope Celestine, clearly implied that his mission was part of the struggle against the heretics in the "Roman island" - not Ireland, but Britain. So Palladius left the civilized world to take up a difficult and dangerous missionary position in a distant non-Roman country notorious for piracy, and at the same to beard the heretics in their lair. Irish documents claim that he died early in his mission; which would make him a martyr - the sort of person any Christian would want on side in an ideological struggle[14]. No wonder that Prosper wanted to present him as the enemy of British Pelagianism. But we would never know from Prosper that there was a Catholic party in Britain, much less that it was still fighting for its faith; and then it would be much more difficult to interpret E's picture of doctrinal conflict.

There is another reason for Prosper’s personalization of the struggle around Palladius: he wants to oppose him to another leading figure, who had a role in the rise of the heresy which Prosper sees as equal and opposite to Palladius’ role in its downfall. Prosper ascribes the success of the heresy in Britain to the activities of a single man, Agricola. He was the son of a Pelagian bishop, Severianus, but it is not at all clear that this corrupter of the British church was a churchman himself. Prosper's wording, Agricola pelagianus Seueriani episcopi pelagiani filius, "the Pelagian Agricola, son of the Pelagian bishop Severianus", opposes the father as a bishop with the son, who, by implication, is not. Since Agricola was prominent in the late 420s, his father must have been a normal bishop who opted for Pelagius during the great controversy, which had lasted from 408 to 418. As a normal bishop, he was almost certainly an aristocrat. Probably a man of rank, and certainly of education - was the son of a bishop to be an illiterate? - Agricola must have carried Pelagianism on like a family feud when his father, like Pelagians everywhere[15], was forced to abjure or be sacked; ten years later, he was influential enough to "corrupt" through "insinuation" the churches of Britain with his dogmas (ecclesias Britanniae dogmatis suis insinuatione corrumpit).

When Prosper describes Agricola's activities as insinuatione, he has a particular meaning in mind, which becomes clear in the very same sentence. He repeats the word: ...sed ad insinuationem Palladii diaconi papa Caelestinus Germanum ... mittit "...but, at the insinuationem of Palladius the deacon, Pope Celestine sends... Germanus" to oppose the Pelagians. Insinuatione against insinuationem: what Agricola and Palladius are doing is the same kind of action, one for evil, the other for good. What is insinuatio, then? In the case of Palladius, we are told: Palladius had convinced the Pope to act by his insinuatione. In other words, Prosper's insinuatio means the persuasion of a supreme figure, able to decide, by a trusted adviser or minister[16]. In his view Palladius exerted the same power with the Pope as Agricola did, convincing the Pope to undertake a major effort against Pelagianism in the distant and now independent island. And to extend the parallel, it seems likely that Agricola had convinced by insinuatione someone as high in his own sphere as the Pope - shall we say, the king of Britain?

Another factor was almost certainly at play. There is evidence to suggest that the Pelagian leaders were persons of high status. When Constantius describes Germanus' confrontation with Pelagian leaders in a public debate, he never mentions a single ecclesiastical rank among them, but lays great emphasis on their splendid dress and crowd of flattering followers. Whether or not they styled themselves bishops, the most important thing about them was not their ecclesiastical rank but their wealth and nobility. (Constantius stresses the Apostolic simplicity of the Catholic bishops, but it may be that the ostentation of the provincial heretics was also a reaction to the rank and fame of Germanus, a former head of the Gallic civil service whose character and sanctity had given him Empire-wide renown and a direct line to the Empress Galla Placidia; in the eyes of the public, they may have ended up looking not only swanky but ridiculous.) And Constantius' words for their public argument - suasione iniqua - suggests a rhetorical set-piece[17], a forensic[18] speech composed according to the rules of late-Roman rhetorical art; Constantius, a skilled writer himself[19], would no doubt pay some attention to this aspect of Germanus' British adventure. Rhetoric was an important part of an aristocratic late-Roman education[20].

More evidence for the aristocratic nature of the British Pelagian movement comes in Gildas 92.3, one of his few explicit quotations from sources other than the Bible. He quotes an unknown, almost certainly British author: optabiliter cupimus ut hostes ecclesiae sint nostri quoque absque ullo foedere hostes, et amici et defensores nostri non solum foederati sed etiam patres ac domini habeantur; "we would wish, as most desirable, that the enemies of the church should be our own enemies too, without any pact of alliance, and that that our friends and defenders should be not only our allies but also our fathers and lords". John Morris misunderstood this as speaking of a foedus, a pact or treaty, with the Saxons; but the words hostes ecclesiae, enemies of the Church, cannot be made to mean only "the pagans" - at the very least, they cover heretics and atheists as well. What is more, they imply active hostility towards church institutions, which may not always have been the case with heathen Saxons, but certainly was with native heretics. And the author's earnest desire that these hostes ecclesiae should be denied the rank of patres ac domini nostri, our lords and fathers, proves abundantly that he was not referring to the Saxons, since it is surely unimaginable that any Briton, let alone an ecclesiastic, could ever imagine Saxon pagans as "our lords and fathers"!

In other words, this is a call to purge the ruling British institutions of one of the contending parties of the Pelagian crisis; and it belongs in the atmosphere of religious contention testified by both E and Constantius. Mention of a foedus with hostes ecclesiae allowed to be patres ac domini nostri agrees with the ch.21 description of British religious indifference, where "things pleasing and displeasing to God weighed the same in the balance, unless indeed those displeasing weighed more", and in which the manufacturers of the Lie are welcomed while the assertors of the Truth are hated. What is more, neither E nor the author of 92.3 (if they are different persons) seem to see the British episcopate or any notable ecclesiastic as a threat. For 92.3, the enemies of the Church are among Britain’s "fathers and lords", political leaders, not ecclesiastical; for E, the Church is not so much denying doctrine as distracted by internal rows and "drunkenness", while British public opinion - almost certainly upper-class public opinion - inclines to relativism and compromise. Neither passage does anything to prove that the ecclesiastical structure itself harboured "the Devil's party", or at least that it was their main resort; my impression is that the author(s) dreaded not clergymen committed to heresy, but political leaders, and - at worst - worldly prelates disposed to follow them.

It has long been seen that Pelagianism, born in the salons of Rome to which Pelagius was constantly invited and in which he was heard with delight, was inherently aristocratic. "...Such detail as has been noticed [about the surviving Pelagian writings] points to the senatorial world of Rome and the central Mediterranean area... Pelagian missionary work, at Rome at any rate, was directed at men and women in whose families the holding of public office at some time of life was normal...[21]" (what a sweetly embarrassed way not to have to say "rich, senatorial, land-holding, slave-holding dynasties"!). And if "Pelagian missionary work" - if you want to call it that! - was aimed at Rome's rich and powerful, why not at those of Britain? Quite a few of them were likely to be the same anyway, or at least close relatives, given the wide spread of senatorial landholdings in the late Empire; it is even possible that individual rich Pelagians who found Rome's air too hot for them after Honorius' condemnation may have resorted to British property still belonging to them. And even if the actual individuals were not the same: if Pelagianism had such an appeal to the upper classes of Rome and the Empire, then for the same reason it must have appealed to the British upper classes, still Roman in culture and attitudes.

For this there is a reason, which people who do not take theology or philosophy seriously will miss. To propose that people can achieve righteousness by their own free will, without (or as good as without) God's miracle of Grace, and without falling back into sin, tends to divide society into the inevitably few people disciplined enough to achieve it, and the vast majority who cannot. Pelagians were perfectly conscious of this, and their words positively reek of the ancient caste arrogance of Athens and Rome, in which "the many", hoi polloi, are inherently mindless and abandoned to their foolish and evil passions, and only the Few are capable of virtue and self-sanctification[22]: "we must", says a Pelagian letter, "keep away from vices, nor follow the example of the many, who live without a rule, obey no discipline whatever, and are guided not by reason but by instinct...[23]" - a kind of defamation of the "mindless crowd" (the more mindless the more it is a crowd, so that you don't have to bother to treat them as individuals and value their individual moral value) that could be matched from almost any pagan philosopher. They are, in fact, a heathen cliché, repeated without any great insight, intellectually fallacious even before it is theologically so.

For God, the God we Catholics worship, has a particular sympathy with the mob. The words of Institution state that God's Blood was "poured out for you and for hoi polloi, the many", the very dumb crowd to which high-minded pagans liked to feel superior. "I thank thee, O Father Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes"; "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and...the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, yea, and things which are not..." It was Pelagian arrogance, as much as anything, that got up the imperial administration's nose, as shown by a striking outburst in the "Sacred Rescript", Honorius' definitive condemnation, of 30 April 418: the members of this sect, it says, consider it vulgar to agree with anyone else and regard bloody-mindedness as a virtue[24]. Augustinianism, by contrast, places all men morally at one before the Creator, seeing in each the shadow of a mysterious failure - call it Original Sin, call it anything else you want - that makes the perfection we all desire ("be ye perfect, even as My Father in heaven is perfect") impossible for mortal moral strength alone ("for that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do"). It is only by accepting that each man is not only fallible but actually failed, that none of us - in the common but highly Augustinian proverb - is perfect, that we can begin to understand that men are, in fact, equal, and in particular equal before God. It took a long time for the Church at large to understand the issues involved; but once she did, she condemned Pelagianism, unanimously and lastingly[25].

What the authors of Gildas 21 and 92.3 tell us is that the British rulers had gone for compromise in front of a vigorous but perhaps not very large Pelagian aristocratic party. Favour may have been shown to individual Pelagians, and "Britain" as a whole certainly made what in the eyes of committed Catholics was a scandalous display of relativism. They must have done so because the Pelagians were patres ac domini, since 92.3 wants to see them excluded from the number of "fathers and lords". One such "father and lord" may have been Agricola, who "corrupted the church" by his insinuatione; this also corresponds with the mental world of Gildas 21, where the Lie's forgers are personally welcomed, welcomed as individuals.

On the Continent, the Pelagian crisis had been all over by 418 bar the shouting of unrepentant Pelagian bishops and their tenacious flocks; all that was left, as far as imperial writ ran, was to mop them up. We cannot be sure about the relationship of the British church to the Pope after the Rescript of Honorius, but the likelihood is that a vague but unchallenged communion continued until the great crisis faced the British bishops with the stark need to recognize Papal authority - and therefore take difficult and troublesome steps, condemning a teaching that the political authorities wanted admitted on an equal footing - or split from Rome. The fact that they seem to have ducked when the crown of the Mild King, whom they had anointed, started to totter, does not suggest that they were willing to defy heaven and earth for Augustinian orthodoxy, except for the loyal minority to whom E must have belonged. By making the eminent Germanus his proxy, his other self, the Pope had left them no way out: the message borne by Germanus could be taken to have the full authority of Rome.

Political developments on the Continent may have reinforced the Mild King's unfortunate religious intransigence. In 425 Greek troops bloodily overthrew the usurper John, whose popular government in Rome had allowed religious freedom for heretics, Manichees and pagans (many of the metropolis' citizens still hankered to sacrifice to the ancient gods, were they only allowed). They reinstated the legitimate child emperor Valentinian III, making his mother Galla Placidia Regent[26]. Galla, whose past marriage to an Arian Visigothic king had apparently made her distrusted among nationalists and Catholics, was in fact deeply Catholic and something of a mystic. Long before 425, she had first intervened in politics when she personally called on St.Augustine and other African bishops to be present during the riots that attended the election of the Pope in 419[27]: this had been an obvious act of support to the orthodox party, since Augustine and his African colleagues had been - apart from Jerome - the first and loudest to denounce Pelagius' teachings. What is more, she was now all but under the thumb of the Greek forces which had restored her son, and whose intolerant government must have pushed for the most persecutory policies. (There is an evil foretaste of Justinian in this first Byzantine intervention in the West, garnished as it was with the sauce of bigotry, violence, persecution and holy robbery.) As a result, her first acts as an almost-regnant Empress show fanatical hatred for heretics, including Pelagians, whose bishops were forbidden to reside within a hundred miles of Rome.

The West then witnessed a deceptive but impressive Roman recovery, due mainly to the demonic energy of two generals, Bonifacius and Aetius. The latter was an able turncoat who had managed to be absent from Rome on a diplomatic mission to Attila while his erstwhile Emperor, John, was overthrown and butchered, only to then become the mainstay of Placidia and Valentinian III, stabbing every rival (including Bonifacius) in the back to insure his position. For more than twenty years, Aetius' prime field of endeavour was Gaul, where he managed to maintain an Imperial power of sorts, thanks to the most tremendous stamina, the most despicable cunning, and hefty drafts of Hunnish allies[28].

This was just getting under way as the Mild King fell; it seems quite likely that pressure from across the channel may have helped convince him to tighten the screws on Pelagians, though it probably coincided with his own inclinations. The fact that the Mild King's religious policies were so controversial, and for that matter the immediate success of Agricola's party and the mortal peril the Catholics felt, shows that a considerable Pelagian faction must have grown in Britain, not large enough in itself to be a political power, but more than enough to matter among the tally of the usurper's supporters. Now what the Pelagians wanted was not to be tolerated as a separate Church, but to be readmitted to the universal Catholic body; by 429, as the British Pelagian crisis was raging, the Italian Julian of Aeclanum, last Pelagian bishop on the continent, still bravely[29] agitating for readmission, briefly managed to persuade Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, the second-highest clergyman in the Church (and in his own eyes and Constantinople's, not even that), of his orthodoxy. In Britain, Agricola "corrupted the British churches"; in other words, he managed by political means the successful readmission of Pelagians (including certainly a few consecrated Bishops) into the British section of the Catholic Church.

This is the bad news that reached the Catholic continent and, one way or another, provoked Germanus' first visit, which Prosper dates to 429. It was quickly followed by the creation of the first Irish diocese; the coincidence in dates alone, and the interest in it of a cluster of interrelated figures - Prosper, Pope Celestine, Palladius, Germanus[30] - who were also prominent in the struggle against British Pelagianism, would be enough to suggest that the two were related, even if we did not have Prosper's clear statement that they were.

The situation was dramatic. As Pelagianism was breaking upon Britain, Nestorius, not content with shielding Julian of Aeclanum, was starting a heretical hare of his own[31]that threatened the very idea of Jesus as Redeemer; and the worst and most sustained persecution of Catholics since Diocletian was developing in North Africa at the hands of the Arian Vandals. Just as Germanus was being dispatched to Britain, the Pope managed to get the budding heresiarch to withdraw his protection of Julian; but the Vatican must have found Julian's work in New Rome frighteningly similar to that of Agricola in the Britanniae. If the Pelagians threatened to worm their way into imperial favour even in the devout East, that must have lent an extra urgency to fighting Pelagianism in the island, lest Augustinian Rome be caught between three fires, Pelagianism in Britain and perhaps Gaul, Pelagianism and Nestorianism in one unholy mixture in the Eastern capital[32], and the Arianism of the increasingly powerful Visigoths and Vandals. The two councils held in Ephesus in the same year, were singular in the whole history of the Church for the bitterness with which they were fought - and no wonder: the Catholics must have felt that they were fighting for life, surrounded by a monstrous congeries of Arians, Pelagians and new-fangled Nestorians, and they were not going to be too nice about their weapons. Altogether, 431 was a stormy and decisive year; though nobody, I imagine, would have thought that the erection of the first bishopric in distant barbarous Ireland would eventually turn out to be one of its most enduring and significant achievements.

No contemporary document speaks of actual schism in the Britains. This suggests that the British bishops may have tried to reassure Rome and Gaul about their continuing allegiance to the universal episcopate; but the documents look with dread at the activities of Pelagians and the yelding and compromising views of most British churchmen. E regards the British episcopal leadership as "drunken", probably in the Isaiah 56.9-57.2 meaning of the term - incompetent and corrupt; Gildas 92.3 dreads the influence of heretical patres ac domini nostri who had reached a foedus that threatened the integrity of the Church - surely the kind of accommodation which Julian of Aeclanum sought in Constantinople. But Britain wanted no break with Rome: the best interpretation must be that it was only trying to do what several prelates of unblemished Catholicism had already done, look for a compromise, try to see both points, and fail to understand why one must exclude the other.  After all, several pastors and synods, including, at first, Pope Zosimus, had not seen the point of Augustine and the African bishops' vehement denunciations of Pelagius, who had been absolved of heresy not once but twice.

Thompson's arguments - in spite of his mistaken views about Britain - are illuminating on an extraordinary number of points. He argues, from the dates, that there was a single climactic public debate, which St.Germanus won - in the judgement of the public - so decisively that the crowd could hardly be restrained from laying violent hands on the Pelagians. He shows that the whole mission started in winter[33] and was over by Easter 429, and therefore "it can hardly be said that [Germanus and Lupus] journeyed 'far and wide' to defeat the enemy... We might have expected [Germanus] to bring the heretics to debate not once, but several times. Yet, even when he reached Verulamium [where he paid a very public visit to the shrine of the national Saint, Alban, and took the extraordinary step of deposing relics of Saints from other countries in his tomb], according to Constantius' own view his work of propaganda was clearly over: he did not debate with any heretics there, and indeed there is no hint that there were any Pelagians in the vicinity of St.Alban's tomb... I think [it is] likely that the heretics' victory had been won in a single but crucially important centre, and that if the heretics were to win there permanently, the consequences of their victory would be catastrophic; whereas if they were defeated in that one place they would be defeated in Britain as a whole.[34]" Thompson does not spell out what he means, but what he is describing is clearly a national government, almost certainly monarchical, but with strong elements of public consultation and debate, whose decisions are binding on the whole Britanniae.

A stunningly telling series of remarks about the kind of government this must have been and the kind of law it must have enforced turn up earlier in his book - although, again, he does not dare to push his interpretation as far as it demands to be pushed, because ultimately of his misplaced faith in the literal reading of Zosimus 6.5.3[35]. "Another astonishing fact recorded about the second visit to Britain is the fate of the defeated Pelagians: they were sent into exile by the church congregations which had been listening to the debate between the champions of Catholicism and those of Pelagianism, omniumque sententia prauitatis auctores expulsi insula. Where else in the Roman world, or in what had been until recently been the Roman world, could a preacher's congregation send men into exile? Where else could civilians exile men because they thought them... heretics[36]? Whatever form of government existed in this place, it is hardly possible to believe that two overseas bishops, almost total strangers to the area, could have inflicted this punishment on natives of a realm to which they were, by invitation, paying a short and private visit..."

Then Thompson brings his deep knowledge of late Roman matters to bear. There is one law, one particular law, which does agree perfectly with what Constantius describes: "It is difficult to study this matter without recalling that law which Honorius enacted [on] 30 April 418[37]... the Emperor decreed that that men who were found anywhere in the act of conferring about the crime of Pelagianism were liable to be arrested by anyone whatsoever, brought to a public hearing, accused by anybody without distinction, sentenced, and condemned to inexorable exile... the British Pelagians had been doing precisely what the law prohibits when they debated with Germanus, and they met the punishment which the law prescribes. Is it possible that the Britons of this region had heard of Honorius' legislation? In fact, was Roman law still enforced in that part of the island?"[38]

It certainly is; it certainly was; and we remember that that other brilliant and flawed man, John Morris, had pointed out that the arguments used by the Pelagians during Germanus' first visit had taken the form of an "unfair" Roman legal argument, suasio iniqua. It was in terms of Roman law that the Pelagians of 429 publicly argued; and in terms of recent Roman law that the Pelagians of 437 - at least - were defeated. A particularly important fact pointed out by Thompson is that Prosper describes Celestine's actions in Britain - that is, of course, those of his uice, his proxy or other self, Germanus - in terms that point straight back to the same Sacred Rescript. The success Prosper describes - for the first, not the second, of Germanus' missions - is in terms of reaching out, arrest, and exile. This is the mission which Thompson and I, on quite separate grounds, propose to see as a reaction to the sudden favour of Agricola and his cronies at the political centre of Britain; which I identify with the court of the pretender emperor - the man who had received the throne after the high legal authorities of the state had deposed Ambrosius' father - the superbus infaustus tyrannus of Gildas, the Vortigern of later legend.

Now Prosper is a better source than Constantius, very close to the events and the people concerned; and Thompson has given very good reason to believe that there was a good deal of interpretation in Constantius' account, especially in what seems to have been his invention of the synodus numerosa. Therefore when we find that Prosper tells us, though Constantius does not, that Germanus' first mission, the one of 429, ended in the arrest and exile of Pelagian leaders according to the Sacred Rescript of 418, we must take his testimony seriously. As for why Constantius did not state this, it may be that he did not know it, or it may be that he decided that he did not need two exactly similar scenes of arrest and exile in his work so long as he could truthfully say that the two journeys of his hero had resulted in the final condemnation and expulsion of the Pelagians, so that the British church of his time was untroubledly Catholic. There is no reason to doubt, as Thompson - so strangely timid in the face of his own brilliance! - does, that in 429 Germanus procured the arrest and exile of a number of prominent Pelagians.

This tells us all we need to know about the British polity in 429 and 437. Not only did it practice Roman law, but it accepted as binding the most recent continental enactments. It was a principle of late-Roman jurisprudence that a law enacted in the Eastern Empire was valid in the Western and vice versa, so that laws passed by Honorius in Ravenna, were valid from the Atlantic to the Persian border. But Honorius' Sacred Rescript against the Pelagians had been enacted in 418 - eight years after the legal separation between the Britanniae and the continent, enacted by the same emperor. And yet not only Constantius, but - as Thompson points out - Prosper too, who was much closer to the facts, speak as though it was an obvious and well-known fact, needing no explanation, that the Sacred Rescript applied both sides of the Channel.Many historians, including even Thompson - again unable to take his brilliant arguments to their logical conclusion - put Germanus' victory into doubt because there is no record of a British synod or of any properly ecclesiastical condemnation of Pelagianism; the point is however that, if Germanus could count on British acceptance of laws from the rest of the Empire, he did not need a synod! All he needed was for the local authorities, from the British "Emperor" on down, to apply the law they themselves accepted as valid. No doubt this is the stranglehold that he put on the superbus tyrannus; for, as Thompson (again) revealingly points out with the bitterness of a born left-winger, "the [Pelagian leaders] were rich men, well dressed [rather more than well-dressed, according to Constantius] and accompanied by numbers of fawning toadies... precisely the sort... we should expect to find closely associated with whatever government existed... Yet no government stepped in to support them, although they escaped violence in 429 - as far as Constantius was aware - [and] they or some of them were forced into exile on the second visit.[39]"

In other words, Britain, until that point, regarded itself as a part of an undivided Roman Empire and accepted without argument legal enactments passed by the legitimate governments of other parts of the Empire; the relationship of the British polity to the Empire was no different from that of Carausius, when he minted coins representing him as the "brother" of the reigning emperors Constantius Chlorus and Maximianus[40]. No difference in law or citizenship between Rome and Britain was recognized, and the argument which seems to have forced the tyrannus - much against his inclination, to judge by E - to condemn the Pelagians, is the validity of Honorius' Sacred Rescript. As for any synod, the problem, to judge by this and by the other allusions in E, was not with the church; it was entirely with government. The author of Gildas 92.3 feared the political, not the ecclesiastical leadership.

Notes


[1]It was, however, not likely to have been intended as the name of a future king. As we will see in Book 6, there is reason to think that Ambrosius was the Mild King's second son. Even so, to name a son for that scourge of Emperors, Ambrose, was a clear statement of principle.

[2]Perusal of Dynasties of the world, ed.J.E.Morby, Oxford 1989, reveals not a single king or reigning prince, duke, or count. On the other hand, the Vatican-published Bibliotheca Sanctorum (Rome, 1962) lists no less than fourteen saints Ambrogio, beginning with a friend of Origen's. Clearly a name for churchmen rather than kings.

[3]The suggestion of drunkenness among high ecclesiastics in the same passage is difficult to assess; it could refer to self-indulgent living, but may also allude to Isaiah 56.9-57.2, describing the rule of incompetent or villainous princes over Israel – Gildas’ own theme in this and the following chapters. Gildas, or E, quotes Isaiah (22.12-13) almost immediately after. Isaiah 56.9-57.2 and 22.12-13 are actually by different authors, but E and Gildas could not know that.

[4]As E quoted ICorinthians 5.1 about some contemporary scandal, it is worth noticing that going to worldly courts of law against each other is the very behaviour that Paul condemns shortly afterwards in the same letter, 6.1-8.

[5]According to a theologically careful view that God has no real opposite term, and that to treat Satan as His enemy tends to the heresy of Dualism; in this view, Satan is properly the enemy of the angels, specifically of Michael - cf. in particular the Epistle of Jude. For this reason, as C.S. Lewis points out, in Milton, "There has never been any war between Satan and God, only between Satan and Michael... there is no war between Satan and Christ. There is a war between Satan and Michael; and it is not so much won as stopped, by Divine intervention. The criticism that the war in Heaven is uninteresting because we know beforehand how it will end, seems to miss the point. In so far as it is a war, we do not know how it will end; nay Milton's God says it will never end at all (VI 693)." A preface to Paradise Lost, London 1940, 97, 131f. This shows that E was instructed enough in theology to want to avoid a natural enough way of speaking whose flaw only a theologian would feel; perhaps, given that Manicheism - the most dualist of all heresies - was still very much in people's minds in the 430s, he specifically worked to avoid any suggestion of dualism.

[6]It has been pointed out that, before the Pelagian controversy, the word gratia had suffered a real eclipse, becoming a legal term for the crimes of corruption, concussion, peculation, and private interest in public business. For about 30 years (390-419) gratia seems to have come to mean, in law, the arbitrary and corrupt exaction of payment from public officers to perform their duties. Even Gildas used it in that sense once or twice. Pelagianism may have involved a protest against the very notion of God as giving arbitrary grace, which may, in that sense, have sounded corrupt and tyrannical. J.L.MYRES, Pelagius and the end of Roman rule in Britain, in Journal of Roman Studies, 1960, 21ff; J.H.W.LIEBESCHUETZ, Did the Pelagian movement have social aims?, in Historia, 1964, 227ff., and Pelagian evidence in the last period of Roman Britain, in Latomus 1967, 436; quoted in LIDIA STORONI MAZZOLARI, Galla Placidia, Milan 1975, 260ff. and note 231.

[7]There is however the shadow of a suggestion that Pelagius and/or some of his fellow leaders may have been in Britain. What is "loved" in E’s corrupt Britain is the Lie cum suis fabricatoribus, with its forgers; it is apparently not only followers of the Lie who are present, but its very makers. By contrast, those who are "hated" are "assertors", assertoribus, of the truth. This means of course that the Truth has always existed and need only be "asserted", while Lies are newly "fabricated"; but what that fabricatoribus seems to say is that, just as the assertors of the Truth are personally present and hated, right now, right here, so too the original Forgers of the Lie are present and popular - the emphasis seems against a mere literary popularity, as someone would say that they "love" Dickens or Virgil. The indication is really too slender, but Bishop Hanson arrived at the same suspicion on different grounds: "It is perhaps significant that it is only in the later part of the third decade of the century that Prosper places the spread of these doctrines in Britain; i.e., after the exile of Pelagius decreed by Honorius... Pelagius left Italy, but it is not known where he went...It is not impossible, especially in view of the later history of Pelagianism, that the place he went to on being banished from Italy was Britain. Not only are there several instances of exiled victims of imperial displeasure going to Britain [e.g. the Priscillianists banished by Magnus Maximus to the Scilly Islands, and the case of Valentinus] but he would in Britain, at this time, have been beyond the reach of Honorius' arm" - HANSON, Saint Patrick: his origins and career, 39, 47. B.R.Rees calls the proposers of this hypothesis "romantics" (REES, Pelagius the reluctant heretic, page 2), an astonishing remark: what is so "romantic" about proposing that Pelagius, defeated throughout the Empire and outlawed, may have sought refuge in a land where Imperial writ might be supposed not to run, and where his family was almost certainly prominent? (The children of peasants and common people did not get sent to Rome to complete their education, nor were received in the best circles once they got there.)

[8]Pelagius was only the most visible, and the most prolific, of a clutch of religious leaders holding similar views, of whom Rufinus the Syrian, an old enemy of St.Jerome, may have been the most influential, and Coelestius the most extreme. If De uita Christiana is by him, as most scholars believe, then he himself claimed not to be as good a teacher of religion as an unnamed but highly respected person, probably Rufinus, telling the addressee that she has to make do with him till the better man comes along. Nevertheless, B.R.Rees' conclusion is that there is nothing wrong with naming the heresy after Pelagius, given his stubborn and loquacious advocacy of it. He was more visible than Rufinus and older and more prestigious than Coelestius, and his moral character had drawn the admiration of some of Augustine's friends.

[9]ANON., Vita Genouefae, Bibliotheca Teubneriana, Leipzig 1910; Vita Genouefae (a different version) and Vita Lupi episcopi Trecensis, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingiarum, Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum, vol.III, ed. Bruno Krusch, Hannover 1896.

[10]Eodem tempore ex Britanniis directa legatio Gallicanis episcopis nuntiauit Pelagianam peruersitatem in locis suis late populos occupasse et quam primum fidei catholicae debere succurri; "in that same period, an embassy sent from the Britains announced to the Gallic bishops that the Pelagian perversity had broadly taken hold of the peoples in their lands, and the Catholic faith needed immediate rescue." Ob quam causa synodus numerosa collecta est, omniumque iudicio duo praeclara religionis lumina uniuersorum precibus ambiuntur, Germanus ac Lupus... "For which cause a large synod was gathered, and the two [who] in everyone's view [were] the outstanding lights of the Faith, Germanus and Lupus, were sent by the prayers of all..."

[11]op.cit. 83.

[12]Thompson adds: although in 508 Caesarius of Arles was vicar not only in Gaul but also in Spain. I add: but Thompson no doubt expects us to notice, first that this was almost eighty years after Germanus' first mission to Britain and in completely changed political circumstances, and second, that the nature of this mission is different, extending his reach as Primate of the Gauls to stretch across the Pyrenees, rather than placing him in an entirely foreign area. Nevertheless, Germanus' mission may have served as a precedent, Church law being mostly case law.

[13]HANSON, St.Patrick: his origins and career, Oxford 1968, p.54.

[14]Although the only document I know which actually makes Palladius a martyr is the highly fabulous Life of St.Patrick by Bishop Tirechan. Still, the Bishop claims ancient authority for the statement: ut tradunt sancti antiqui (56), which is rather unlike the rest of his eminently fictitious account.

[15]Prosper explicitly says that Severianus was a Pelagian bishop, Severiani pelagiani episcopi. The only bishops who, to my knowledge, pushed their support for Pelagianism as far as excommunication were eighteen Italian prelates led by the remarkable but self-righteous Julian of Aeclanum. If Severianus was originally an Italian bishop, then his son - and possibly he himself - were in Britain as exiles; this might tend to support the possibility that Pelagius himself and/or some of his leading followers had ended up in that secretus Oceani, as Prosper rather romantically calls it - and would give Agricola an impetus to carry on Pelagianism in the same way as a family feud.

[16]He may be thinking of the Gospel scene of the Beloved Disciple resting his head on Jesus' bosom - in sinu Domini - to convince Him to reveal who was to betray Him. John 13.23-27.

[17]As John Morris pointed out. The age of Arthur, 344.

[18]There is a strong though unprovable suspicion that Pelagius may have been trained in the law before turning to the Church. This is to do with the legal tone of his writings, and with his probable identification with an unnamed monk mentioned (in no friendly terms) by Jerome in his Letter 50. The law, of course, was very much a gentleman's trade in Roman culture, and legal training would show that Pelagius was well-born; caste divisions were increasing, rather than decreasing, in later antiquity. Augustine says that when Pelagius first heard Augustine's own famous prayer to Omnipotence and Perfect Goodness - "give me what you command, and command what you will" - he was so shocked he nearly took to court the man who had read it to him! - AUGUSTINE, De dono perseuerantiae 20.53.

[19]Constantius “was the dedicatee of Sidonius’ first collection of letters; he had composed verses to be inscribed in a church dedicated by Patiens of Lyons; and Sidonius had found his preaching to be at least momentarily effective in raising the morale of the people of Clermont during the Visigothic siege” - IAN WOOD, The end of Roman Britain, in DUMVILLE & LAPIDGE, op.cit., 9.

[20]It is interesting that some of Patrick's high-born opponents are dominicati rhetores, rhetors rewarded with ecclesiastical benefices. The phrase dominicati rhetores has troubled translators, but I think it is easiest to read dominicati as an artificial past participle of the same kind as English "beneficed", from *dominicum. *Dominicum as "benefice, church land" seems to have given Old Irish domnach, a frequent place-name for extremely ancient Christian holy places; Irish Christianity grew from the British variety. It is also interesting that in England and in Scotland, as well as in Germany (much of which was Christianized by missionaries from the British Isles), the word for "Church" comes not from Greek Ekklesia, "Assembly", as in the Romance languages and in Welsh, but from Kyriakon, "place of the Lord", the exact Greek translation of *dominicum.

[21]J.W.H.LIEBESCHUETZ, Pelagian evidence in the last period of Roman Britain, in Latomus 1967, 438, 441, quoting G. DE PLINVAL, Pélage, Geneva 1943, pp.210-216. And if "the teaching was received in a much wider circle: for instance, eighteen bishops of small Italian towns eventually refused to sign the condemnation of Pelagianism", it is because those bishops, men of good family administering the church in the heartland of Senatorial aristocracy, were more likely than, perhaps, any other group, to be shot through with that aristocracy's ideas! Julian of Aeclanum was well-born, the son of a bishop, and had once been a favourite of the saintly Paulinus of Nola, who was the very archetype of a Christian aristocrat - and who, in his turn, was suspected of leniency towards Pelagians when the crisis came.

[22]The previous book has already dealt, by implication, with certain theories about the supposedly Pelagian and socially revolutionary nature of the supposed British "revolt" of 410 - which we now have no reason to believe ever happened. But it also goes without saying that I disagree with John Morris and Bishop Hanson's view of the socially revolutionary nature of the Pelagian movement. If any kind of social revolt developed around it, it can only have been in the unwarranted manner that the rebels of the Peasant War, of Munster, and so on, became attached to Luther's purely theological, socially conservative movement, backed by the German nobility. Luther rejected these rebels, and so, according to Morris himself (!), did Pelagius (Age of Arthur, 342). Any movement which seems to break with the orthodoxy of a given period will always draw the attention of anyone who is disaffected on any other ground, but that does not mean that the original movement has anything to do with the particular disaffections that use it as an excuse. Take for instance the instinctive yet ill-grounded alliance seen within our lifetimes between any amount of different and often incompatible heterodox movements, from Freudian analysis to Marxism to existentialism to liberation theology to Brecht's Nietzsche-derived cynicism.  Someone like Brecht or Sartre is just about as properly Marxist as my grandmother; but the fact that they hated society as they found it - including the normal code of morality - was enough to make them and Communism lifelong allies.

[23]Epistula ad Celantiam, in Patrologia Latina XXII.1204ff.

[24]"Sacred rescript" of April 30, 418, in Patrologia Latina XLVIII 379ff.

[25]I have taken some trouble with the Pelagian issue because there is no subject less taught and more disgracefully mistreated than theology, and this poisons the study of history. When a historian of the talent of E.A.Thompson speaks of Pelagians and Catholics as "tweedledum and tweedledee"; when Jennifer Laing, an author of no small attainment, seriously proposes to explain the rise of Christianity by the adolescent let's-shock-daddy nonsense of "Its value as a method of persuading the indigent and downtrodden to accept their lot has always been considerable"! - as if classical and Celtic paganism were not built on caste distinctions! -; when John Morris, who has done his very best work on Church history, pretends to explain Pelagianism, of all things, by the dreary old semi-Protestant polemic against "the priest coming between God and the faithful"; then it seems worth taking some time to explain how these people actually thought. To write like the scholars quoted betrays an unscholarly refusal to understand one's subjects, preferring to impose one's own categories on them in despite of the evidence.

[26]All my information about Galla Placidia comes from the romantic but well documented and beautifully written biography by LIDIA STORONI MAZZOLARI: Galla Placidia, Milan 1975. I read this lovely piece of Italian writing as a teen-ager, and its influence is with me to this day. To quote a typical - if climactic - passage: "Culture, law, economy, crafts, agriculture were decaying. Monuments were covered with moss and spiderwebs. Barbarians settled in empty and newly wild lands. Technology went back, not forwards. No literature or arts existed any longer, except of the edifying kind. And yet, in those years of apparent collapse of learning, in that genuine genetic mutation, the thread of theological thought, alone, span itself to vertiginous heights, throwing to the very stars its dazzling conceptions, its challenge to reason. Against the stubborn pragmatist sediment of the ancient world and the belief, a Platonic and Ciceronian belief, that the gates of Heaven open only to he who has well deserved of the fatherland, Augustine storms the highest peak of Christian thought, answering, with St.Paul: God, and God alone, knows those who belong to Him" (my translation). It may be overdrawn, it may be romantic: but he who has read prose like this in his youth does not forget it.

[27]STORONI MAZZOLARI, op.cit., 251.

[28]Long regarded as "the last of the Romans", Aetius was in my view - and not only in mine - a military adventurer whose methodical extirpation of all possible rivals deprived the Empire of desperately needed good staff, spread hatred and dissatisfaction, may have induced Bonifacius to betray Africa to the Vandals, and probably, in the long run, weakened what was left even of Gaul by his savage methods of warfare and his very narrow focus. E.A.Thomposon, op.cit. 64, mentions the disastrous effects of settling the destructive Alani nomads in northern Gaul; and Lidia Storoni Mazzolari, op.cit.321ff, makes the point that Aetius was almost wilfully the opposite of a classical Roman hero. Romans liked to think of themselves as upright, perhaps a little stupid, but plain-dealing and honest; it was the enemy - such as the Carthaginians - who were crafty, devious, stubborn, and whose word could not be trusted. Yet Aetius was all of those things, publicly and for twenty years, and managed to get himself praised for them, all but reversing standard Roman values. In short, I agree with Ian Wood and Roger Collins: "if Aetius was the last of the Romans, it was because he left nothing to his successors". WOOD, The end of Roman Britain, in DUMVILLE & LAPIDGE (eds.), Gildas: new approaches, Woodbridge1984, 19; COLLINS, Macmillan History of Europe: Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, Basingstoke and London 1991, 82.

[29]Being Augustinian, as the present author is, does not mean that one does not have to recognize in an opponent the courage it must have taken to defend a thrice-defeated heresy in the ferocious face of imperial armies and Roman law!

[30]I take Germanus to have been involved because of the Irish tradition that he trained St.Patrick, which I will defend in the next Book; especially because of the scene in the first additamentum to Tirechan’s Life, which I regard as historical, where Germanus is shown recruiting for the Irish mission, encountering resistance from Iserninus and meek acceptance from Patrick.

[31]There is a rather hideous irony in the fact that Constantinople, his power base, had bloodily retaken Italy no more than six years earlier in the name of orthodoxy, to destroy heretics and pagans by force - when its army's attention could be spared from sack and rape; and we remember that Justinian, that bloodstained self-proclaimed defender of the Church, persecuted the Pope for refusing to bow to his sympathies for the Monophysite heresy. Politicians, let alone tyrants, do not make the best defenders of religion.

[32]Catholics of the time perceived a certain kinship between the two. One is reported to have said that "the God of Nestorius made the man of Pelagius".

[33]The Life of Germanus and the Life of Lupus are unrelated sources; if one thing is clear, it is that the uneducated author of the latter, though he certainly wrote after Constantius, had never read him - if you want evidence, read his vague and stereotyped account of the mission (ch.4), including none of the characteristic incidents described by Constantius. Therefore, when the Life of Lupus says that the two bishops had sailed, unprecedentedly, in winter - temporibus hibernis - and when the Life of Germanus says that the Saint was not only already in Britain, but near the end of his mission, in Lent, then these two separate testimonies must be accepted: the two bishops were so eager to get to Britain that they took their lives in their hands by crossing the Channel in mid-winter - a thought to turn the stomach of anyone, even today, who ever met with a Channel winter storm. This is another indication of the importance and urgency of their mission: they had to get to Britain at all costs and as soon as possible.

[34]op.cit. 82-83.

[35]This is not just the result of common historical presumptions: Zosimus 6.5.3 plays a much greater role in Thompson than in any other historian's writings, and that is because of Thompson's own ideological fixations. He is a Marxist, obsessed with the class inequalities of the late Empire, furiously contemptuous of the social role of Catholic religion - though, to his credit, he never falls into the merely infantile cynicism of certain more politically moderate spirits - savagely negative about each and every aspect of politics, law and society, to the point where I find myself wondering why, if he hated the Empire so much, he inflicted on himself the lifelong pain of becoming a specialist in it, spending his life in the contemplation of the thing he loathed. He lays disproportionate emphasis on Zosimus 6.5.3 (and misinterprets the Armorican bacauda of Tibatto in the 430s) because he is simply desperate to find a social rebellion, any social rebellion, in late Rome. The appallingly anachronistic nature of these daydreams does not occur to him, brilliant historian though he is. With him as with Morris, it is very sad to see a number of invalid, unhistorical and unscholarly ideological hang-ups rip apart the texture of scholarship which, but for indulging in them, would be close to genius. Incidentally, it is astonishing that Morris, an old-fashioned Winston Churchill-type romantic Britain-worshipper to whom the United Kingdom was - as Rome to Georges Dumézil's Romans - "the highest reality accessible to the senses", should have indulged in an exactly similar daydream of social revolution in Britain.

[36]Thompson's note: Something of a parallel has been recorded from Spain. In 448 Antoninus, bishop of Merida, arrested a Manichean without reference to the civil authorities and caused him to be expelled from the province of Lusitania: HYDATIUS, Chronicon 138, in MOMMSEN, Chronica minora, 2.25. My addition: no doubt, again, Thompson expects us to notice that this arrest took place a good ten years after Germanus' second journey to Britain, and Antoninus may be following the precedent of two missions that seem to have swiftly become famous.

[37]See note 24, above.

[38]op.cit. 28ff.

[39]op.cit. 2.

[40]JENNIFER LAING, Art and society in Roman Britain, 78.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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