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

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Book III: The uir modestus and the superbus tyrannus

The documents are silent about Britain for almost three decades after 410; it comes back to the fore - not only in surviving Roman documents, but also in Gildas’ sources, teased out of his writing by quellenforschung - in 429, when the Pelagian heresy seems for a while about to take the island over. This book contains a wholly historical analysis of Roman, Gildasian and other sources, giving not only an account of the Pelagian episode but also of the broader British-Roman politics about 430.

 

Gildas’ ch.21 is based on contemporary fifth-century accounts of British politics, which imply that a king or emperor, famous for personal mildness and religious faith, was overthrown. I call this document E, and argue that it was written by a supporter of the overthrown emperor. I also argue - from Gildas’ account - that Gildas had no skill in chronology and was unable to reckon successive dates, and that this flaw affected the way he told his story, even though he had several written sources.

The Mild King of E is identified with the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus or Aurelius Ambrosius, the hero of Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth; he was overthrown by legal means, but was allowed to live on. His overthrower is the man who entered legend as Vortigern. I also propose the beginnings of a chronological scheme

The Pelagian episode, I argue, is clearly alluded to in a couple of sentences in Gildas’ ch.21. The success of Pelagianism coincided with the overthrow of the Mild King and was certainly bound up with his opponents. Pelagianism was a largely upper-class fad. The Pelagians were condemned under Honorius’ Sacred Rescript of 418, which shows that Roman law still obtained in Britain (these points owe a lot to E.A.Thompson’s study of St.Germanus of Auxerre). This allows us to date the overthrow of the Mild King to 427/428.

Some at least of the Pelagians fled to Ireland, where they established a church structure of their own; it was to react to this that Pope Celestine sent Palladius to Ireland to establish a Catholic diocese. At the end of this chapter, a chronological scheme up to 437 is proposed.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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