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

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Chapter 3.4: The survival of Pelagianism

Fabio P. Barbieri

Modern historians have often doubted or rejected outright the testimony of both Prosper and Constantius, who, however much they might disagree on other aspects, agreed that Germanus and Lupus' visit to Britain succeeded in defeating the local Pelagians. Their reason to think so, apart from a well-proven tradition of Pelagianism in Ireland (three copies of Pelagius’ Commentary on the Letters of St.Paul, with their author proudly mentioned, survived the ban and found their way to continental monasteries founded by Irishmen) appear to be mainly that, being Catholic, Prosper and Constantius are inevitably factious, triumphalistic and mendacious. This prejudice is usually expressed in more refined terms, but there can be no doubt of what is meant. Hagiography, we are told, is not history; Constantius did not mean to write a substantive account of Germanus' life, but an exemplary story; as if the two goals excluded each other; and as if Classical historians, with their insistence that the study of noble lives and exemplary characters was a spur to areth or uirtus, ever did anything different! And within a few lines of saying - or rather implying - that, at least one historian I have read goes on to speak of the precision of Constantius' language when describing the peoples and institutions of Gaul when compared with his vagueness about Britain! His point seems to be that Constantius' account of Britain is unreliable; but is there a little bit of self-contradiction here, or what?

The reverse side of this is the widespread scholarly prejudice in favour of heresy, of whatever stripe or nature. In our field, this has taken the form of aggressive promotion of the idea that the British church was largely or wholly Pelagian in the sixth century, Germanus’ mission having failed; an idea which, apart from the supposed Pelagian quotation in Gildas (which any Christian would recognize as thoroughly orthodox), has no supporting evidence save wishful thinking. True, Professor Dumville has shown that Pelagius' Commentary was circulated in Powys and Brycheiniog (Brecknock) in the seventh or eighth centuries[1]; but unlike the Irish glosses to St.Paul kept in Würzburg, in which at least two separate glossators quote Pelagius fluently and without the least inhibition, the Welsh manuscript (now lost) was probably anonymous. What is more, evidence for Pelagius in Britain in the seventh or eighth centuries does not prove that his work had survived Germanus' thunder in the fifth; it may have been, and probably was, reintroduced from its secretus Oceani in Ireland, as with the Continent - not by missionary monks, but by conquering adventurers. Brycheiniog, where Professor Dumville thinks the Commentary circulated, began its political history as an Irish colony; and it was in Dyved, a country ruled by an Irish dynasty and scattered with Ogham stones, that St.David made his triumphant stand against a revival of Pelagianism at the Synod of Llandewi Brefi.

Let us therefore make a revolutionary, impious, thoroughly unscholarly suggestion. Let us suggest that, in writing as they did, Prosper and Constantius recorded what they knew; that their statement that Germanus defeated the British Pelagians, and Constantius' statement that Britain in his day was reliably Catholic, were the truth as they knew it (can anything be more fantastic than the suggestion, seriously advanced by Thompson, that Constantius was not aware of conditions in Britain, even in a general way, because there was no communication between Britain and Gaul in his time? - no communication between Britain and Gaul; just think about it); let us suggest that Germanus and Lupus' visit to Britain really had been the epic, defining event they make it out to be. Let us suppose that the authors of the Lives of Genevieve and Lupus, which I date to the next century[2], had good reason to remember it as comparable in importance to the invasions of Attila the Hun. After all, Constantius would not have believed that the demons tried their best to stop his hero's journey, unless he thought they had reason to dread it. And if Constantius made up, or at least over-emphasized, the actions of the Gallic Church's synodus numerosa, it must be that something was there worth claiming for the Gallic Church, that Germanus' actions in Britain were regarded as glorious.

The same is true of the repeated and untypically elaborate claims to the protection and auspicies of Germanus, made in the Life of Ste.Genevieve for the heroine. Germanus intervenes in Genevieve’s life three times. Firstly, visiting Paris on his way to the first British journey, he notices the seven-year-old girl among the crowd (with that kind of special vision for prospective holiness, that Saints show in a number of hagiographic legends) and consecrates her, with her consent, to God. Secondly, crossing Paris on his way to Britain again, he meets her at fifteen and confirms her consecration. Thirdly, in the time of Attila, when Germanus is already dead, his deacon visits Paris and stops a plot to murder the Saint by a mere mention of Germanus’ high regard for her. The word of the dead bishop is enough to change the plotters’ minds at once and completely. This shows, first, that Germanus, to the Life’s author, was a name to conjure with; and, second, that the journeys to Britain were regarded as the greatest of his deeds, so that Genevieve gains especial lustre by being associated with them - her consecration to God, with all that followed, was a part of Germanus’ journey to Britain. Why should these journeys be so highly regarded - unless Germanus was known to have succeeded?

To follow on: let us suppose that Germanus succeeded in his goal of having the Pelagians expelled from the Church in Britain; and add that to the evidence of enduring Pelagianism in Ireland. It seems natural to imagine that the defeated of 429, at least the most visible among them - the ones that the British Church and government must make a show of punishing, whatever their actual intention, to satisfy the law they are supposed to respect - would flee the country and take refuge where the emperor's writ never has run and never will. It is even possible that this would be the "exile" prescribed by their own legal bodies, to kill two, maybe three, birds with one stone: adhere to accepted Roman law such as the Sacred Rescript; protect a group of influential local aristocrats, and possibly their friends from abroad; and extend the influence of Britain, and in particular of its ruling group - the usurping Proud Tyrant and his party - in Ireland.

The evidence of Pelagian settlement in Ireland consists in a flowering of funerary monuments with mostly Ogham inscriptions that name the dead person and his father - “X son of X”. These Oghams are found practically only in Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Dyfed: there must be a reason for their geographical limitation. Typological study of grave markers in Britain, Gaul and elsewhere in the Christian world has established that theirs is a very peculiar type, quite different from the majority type of Christian funerary monument which reached Britain from Gaul and the Rhineland. tandard early Christian practice was not to name the deceased’s parents, because Baptism meant that they had been reborn and that their true parent was God. Pelagian denial of Original Sin implied a downgrading of Baptism, and incidentally meant that children are not "born in sin" and that therefore it is legitimate to mention their physical parents on tombstones.

This may seem a very slim kind of argument, but the folkloric writing of the Life of Ste.Genevieve shows that Pelagianism was remembered, at a popular level, exactly for its effect on the doctrine of birth. Its extraordinary account of the heresy is: “It claimed that the child of two baptized parents did not need Baptism”. He has nothing more to say about it. Is that all? Clearly, its author had not studied Pelagianism in the documents of condemnation issuing from the imperial court or from Church councils. That for which we remember the controversy today, the whole titanic battle about free will and grace, which had shaken Emperor and Pope on their thrones, had been completely forgotten by, or even gone unnoticed among, the populace of Lutetia Parisiorum; they remembered it purely as a struggle about the sacrament of Baptism, and it seems to have been won and lost on that ground. The Parisians would not give up the consolation of Baptism for their little children for some airy-fairy presumption that they would inherit from their own selves a purity which they certainly did not feel in themselves.

This is not only a useful corrective to the political emphasis of most historical writing, showing that the battle for or against orthodoxy may be won and lost on altogether other grounds than those recorded on conciliar or imperial decrees; it is also a direct support to the theory that the Ogham “son of…” stones are witnesses of Pelagianism. For the doctrine of inherited Baptismal purity described by the author of the Life of Genevieve is exactly what would justify the evidently Christian but just as evidently untypical stones in question; the parent is celebrated not only because he is - in pagan terms - the source of his son’s rank and honour, but also because he passes on to him his own baptismal purity. From this point of view, it is more than interesting that one Coimagnus son of Vitalinus is celebrated in a Pelagian-type ogham in co.Kerry that may quite possibly date from the fourth or fifth century[3] - and Vitalinus, as we will see, is without a doubt a family name of the man we know as Vortigern[4]. In other words, we would have the interesting situation of a Pelagian burial stone bearing the name of a relative of Vortigern, the defender of Pelagianism in Britain, just where I postulate the most prominent Pelagians must have fled or been exiled after Germanus' mission. And this man, in Ireland and with an at least half-Irish name, did nevertheless want to celebrate, on his own funeral stone, both his Pelagian convinction of inherited purity and his kinship with the Romano-British usurper[5].

As for the use of Oghams and Irish language and names - whatever the origin of Oghams, there is a frequent dynamic in the late-Roman world in which the final break of a heretical community with the majority Greco-Roman religion is followed by their rejection of Latin or Greek, and the rise of a national literature. Nestorians and Monophysites both started abundant vernacular literatures in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian and Persian, translating Greek Christian classics whose versions have been found as far as China. A similar national emphasis, if without the promotion of a local vernacular, can be read in the history of the Germanic Arians and of the North African Donatists. There is no reason not to think that Pelagian exiles settled in an Ireland which they found more welcoming than the Roman Empire, and with whose interests they may have tended to identify themselves, would not adopt Irish names and an “Irish” script; they probably did not realize that Ogham was derived from the Roman alphabet.

These Pelagians seem to have been able to establish themselves permanently and peacefully; which suggests close relations between at least some parts of Ireland and Roman Britain. The Pelagian leaders were quite rich, and of course money talks: but they would never have considered settling in the barbaram insulam unless they had felt able to do so safely - unless, that is, they, as rich and highly-placed British Romans, perhaps with the benevolence of the British Emperor, had a stable and reliable relationship with at least some Irish tribes. But in the time of Stilicho, and in St.Patrick's youth, Ireland was notorious for large-scale piracy and slaving. This suggests, either that the tribes with which the Pelagians settled were different from those that raided the greater island, or else that the British government had done something to put an end to these raids and establish different relationships with at least a part of it. Settling exiled Pelagian communities in Ireland might also be part of a policy of British control/penetration of the island.

This is not a mere hypothesis. We have written fifth-century evidence for the spread of Pelagianism from Britain to Ireland in the 430s. These are the words of Prosper, contemporary and unimpeachable, in his funeral oration for Pope Celestine: Nec uero segniore cura ab hoc eodem morbo Britannias liberauit, quando, quosdam inimicos Gratiae solum suae originis occupantes etiam ab illo secreto excludit Oceani, et, ordinato Scotis episcopo, dum Romanam insulam studet seruare catholicam, fecit etiam barbaram christianam. "Nor, indeed, did he show less concern in freeing the Britains from the same disease, when he excluded certain enemies of Grace [=Pelagians], occupying their land of birth, even from that secret place of the Ocean, and, having ordered a Bishop of the Irish, as he works to keep the Roman island Catholic, he also made the pagan one Christian."[6]

This can only mean: "in the course of his struggle against Pelagianism in Britain, he ordered a Bishop of the Irish, and, as a by-product of his defence of Catholicism in one island, introduced Christianity in another". The flow of the sentence is clear and orderly, not without a late-Classical elegance, informed by Prosper's intense politico-religious passions; and it introduces the new diocese purely as a part of Celestine's British campaign. Is it not the case - remember, these are words to be spoken aloud - that the mere flow of the sentence points to the formation of an Irish diocese as part of the struggle against Pelagianism in Britain? Prosper's public was the city of Rome, still attached to its ancestral memories and eager to go back to their forefathers’ worship (as the sudden resurrection of pagan practices under the usurper John showed): Augustine first, pope Leo I the Great in Prosper's own time, had to remind them that they had, in St.Peter and St.Paul, two patrons far greater and more admirable than the rebel Remus and the fratricide Romulus, who had - there is the bottom line - extended Rome's spiritual rule to regions which Rome's military power had never reached. Hence Prosper's mention of Ireland (and his insistence, as stout as any pagan historian defending Roman conquests, that the struggle with the Pelagians had been a just war, and that any spiritual conquest that followed from it was simply God's blessing on Roman [spiritual] weapons).

The sentence clearly implies that Pelagianism had spread to Ireland; and that it has done so on account of the conflict in the Britains. Why else should Prosper follow mention of the Pelagians’ exclusion from Britain - which he announces as an accomplished fact - with mention of the establishment of a Catholic diocese in Ireland, in pursuit of the same goal, and only incidentally to Christianize the wild Irish? And he sums up the facts, mind you, by allusion, as a man who expects his audience to be familiar with the events; for all the world as if the introduction of Christianity, heretical and orthodox, to Ireland, were a matter of common talk in the streets of Rome. (As indeed, perhaps, it was, since the successful introduction of a Roman bishop in that distant, fabulous and feared country, would probably be a nine days’ wonder.)

Here then, we have the origin of that stubborn strain of Irish Pelagianism that troubled the slumbers of Pope John IV in 640, and was still manifest and confident in Würzburg in the age of Charles the Great. A good deal of clandestine Pelagianism may well have gone on in Britain: then as in the case of Recusancy and Puritanism twelve hundred years later, the support of local lords will have done much, in a gentry-ridden island, towards keeping officially suppressed cults alive. But we have no evidence. St.Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus charges British church leaders with creeping schism and heresy, but we cannot be certain that the heresy he means is Pelagianism - it is only a reasonable possibility. Britain's official bodies had made their choice, under pressure from Rome and - it would seem - their own plebs, roused to near-violence by Germanus' preaching; and after Germanus' second journey, there was, as we will see, not much time to change their minds.

In reconstructing the religious crisis, we have been able, for the first time, to establish a historical narrative with presentable sources and dates. From 411 to the Pelagian crisis, we have no historical account whatever, save for the semi-legendary Third Pictish Invasion. When the curtain rises with the Mild King's overthrow, we find a hard-line Augustinian party decidedly aligned with him; a vast majority of Britons who want him out and who are, doctrinally, for compromise; and, among the supporters of "Vortigern", at least one outstanding Pelagian. We find that the Mild King's power is anything but absolute, and when (on top of what seems to have been an irresolute foreign policy unsuited to the times) he decides, driven perhaps by his conscience or perhaps by the Italian success of Galla Placidia and the Greeks, to tighten the screws on the local Pelagians, public opinion (meaning almost certainly the nobility first and foremost), legal authorities and the Army join forces to overthrow him. The Mild King's overthrow is followed, with a rapidity that dismays the Augustinians, by Agricola's visible favour at the new king's court, and possibly - if we take the source of Gildas 92.3 seriously - by a formal foedus readmitting Pelagians to the British Catholic Church.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has seriously challenged the dating of Germans and Lupus' visit to 429. It follows that the Mild King must have been overthrown one year earlier, two at most. Gildas 21 shows that E - who, I believe, wrote both before and after the Mild King's overthrow - identified the new king's accession with relativism and toleration for heretics; if any of his polemic against relativism dates to before the Mild King's fall, he may well have seen it coming even before the Proud Tyrant was enthroned. Certainly Gildas' interpretation of his work shows that he diagnosed spreading relativism and favour for "Satan" over "the angel of light" as soon as nequitiam had conquered beneuolentiam.

There is no reason to think that the new king was a Pelagian himself, or that the Pelagians formed more than a part of his support: from beginning to end, compromise is what he and his followers seem to have sought. He wants no break with Rome, but does not intend to throw to the wolves his Pelagian friends, whose persecution has been one of the factors taking him to the throne, and whom he may like on a personal level (as suggested by Prosper's use of insinuatio for Agricola's activities). It is perhaps for this reason that E is so eagerly committed to the Mild King, for whom, as a person, he cannot summon up much enthusiasm. But the overthrow of the Mild King is one and the same with the abandonment of true religion; once he is gone, E can see that the way of the relativists, the compromisers, the couldn't-care-less-ers, will lie open before them. That, exactly, was what turned E's stomach: he charges most of the British ruling classes with the taint of relativism and impiety. The majority was for compromise. Most of the new king's supporters are not Pelagian but relativist or indifferent to religion, and it seems clear that all he wants is to allow both parties to exist undisturbed. The suddenness with which the crisis, according to Constantius, forced itself on the Gallic episcopate, tells the same story: there is a definite cut-off point, after which, suddenly, the Catholics are on the defensive and the Pelagians are forging ahead - and it is hard not to identify it with the success of nequitiam over beneuolentiam, of the Proud Tyrant over the Mild King.

Finally, it is clear that the crisis over the Mild King had been brewing for some time before he was overthrown; E argued in his favour both before and after the overthrow, and those of his references that may be dated to before the final act - in particular, his plea for a court of law and his evocation of the horrors of the Year of Three Emperors - show that discontent and rebelliousness had been mounting for quite a while.

Therefore the date of St.Germanus' first British mission, 429, gives us, to within a year at most, the date of Vortigern's accession to the throne. Ambrosius' father was overthrown in 428; at the earliest, in 427. Though intriguingly close - which suggests that it was dated on something more than guesswork - Nennius ch.66's dating of Vortigern's coronation in 425 is impossible, and indeed a date of 428 would best suit the church's clearly urgent action, sending the best-known Gaulish bishops on a hazardous journey in mid-winter[7]. (If we take seriously[8] the Irish traditions of Patrick being trained and ordained at Germanus' hands, the bishop of Auxerre may have had a special interest in the British Isles already.)

There is a beguiling train of dates: 425, Galla's Catholic reaction begins and the Pelagians, among other sects, are expelled from Rome; 427-428, the Mild King is overthrown after a longish crisis for reasons which seem to have much to do with his devout Augustinianism, and succeeded by a government which tries in some way to compromise between Catholics and Pelagians; 429, Germanus travels to Britain and is said to have out-argued Pelagian leaders in debate; 431, Palladius comes to the British Isles as first bishop of Ireland, a mission which his admirer Prosper ascribes to the Pope's struggle to keep Britain Catholic, even as the struggle for Catholicism is moving to a climax both in Africa and in Constantinople; 437, Pelagian leaders re-appear in a particular region of Britain, and Germanus manages, with the help of an important local landowner and magistrate called Elafius, to arrest and exile them, which means that by 437 Roman law was still in vigour in the Britains.


[1]Late seventh- or eighth-century evidence for the British transmission of Pelagius, in Cambridge Mediaeval Celtic Studies 10 (1985), 39-52

[2]The author of the Life of Genevieve claims to have written eighteen years after the Saint’s death, that is about 520. A memorable battle of the books, which had not yet died down by the nineteen-sixties, developped around the attempt of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica editor, Bruno Krusch, to prove that this was a lie and that the book could not have been written before 786; but the argument eventually went against Krusch. As far as I am concerned, a number of literary intangibles about the book prove that it was written in an atmosphere where recent memory was beginning to turn into legend, that is - quite credibly - about twenty years after the heroine’s death. As for the Life of Lupus, as I said in the last chapter, the fact that it shares a common popular view of fifth-century history, dominated first by the visit of Germanus to Britain and then by Attila, shows that it comes from a period similar to that of the Life of Genevieve; their credibilities, I repeat, stand or fall together - including the credibility of their dating.

[3]CHARLES THOMAS, Christian Celts: messages and images, Stroud 1999, 127 and map 128.

[4]Cf. book 6 ch.6.

[5]British archaeology in this period has a habit of throwing up vague suggestions of connections, visible enough to be intriguing but not to prove anything: just as a "son of Vitalinus" turns up in Ireland in a possibly Pelagian context, so too the name Aurelius turns up prominently among the Hoxne hoard, a vast treasure – royally vast? - bearing the names of several different owners, which just might have been buried to hide it from the Saxons. The dates are compatible: the hoard could certainly date to the war of 442. Aurelius Ursicinus is the name most often found on the named objects; this could be the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom Geoffrey calls Aurelius Ambrosius. See Appendix V.

[6]Contra Collatorem, 21.

[7]About 425, the Franks were particularly troublesome on the Gallic borders, and a sudden blossoming of buried hoards with coins dated to that year, in the Frankish regions of the Rhine Valley and northern Belgium, shows that they raided and exacted ransom heavily. MAX MARTIN, Wealth and treasure, in WEBSTER & BROWN (eds.), The transformation of the Roman world, London, British Museum, 1995; see especially map on page 53. It may be that the crisis had died down by 429, but in such a threatening atmosphere, it is hard to imagine the leading bishops of the Gallic Church going abroad on any but the direst necessity. We will return to the events of 425 when discussing St.Patrick in the next book.

[8]Which I do. See next book.

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

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