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

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Chapter 5.1: Saxon settlement and rebellion

Fabio P. Barbieri

The revolt of the Saxons, dated to 442 by the Gaulish Chronicle of 452[1], is our next firm date after the arrival of Palladius to Ireland.  Posterity sees the settlement and subsequent rebellion of one or more North German tribes as the dominant feature of "Vortigern"'s reign, partially or totally forgetting the Pelagian crisis; and Gildas' report of the Saxon war, which is revealing beyond his own expectations, is probably the most famous part of all his book.

In spite of its Ambrosian allegiance, The ruin has little of what we might call the black legend of Vortigern.  Later generations never tired of blackening the king's character, so that by the time of William of Malmesbury his evil extended systematically over the Dumézilian three functions, "a man calculated neither for the field [second function] nor for the council [first function][2] but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice, a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and unquenchable lust [third function][3]".  But in Gildas' time, when credible if biased records were available, he was not remembered as very wicked.  Even E, in the middle of a ferocious controversy entailing nothing less than the future of the island, had not felt able to ascribe malignitas to him - only nequitia.  And Gildas' judgement is of a piece with this.  Though he had overthrown Ambrosius' father and forced, or tried to force, the pro-Pelagian compromise on the British church, Gildas blames him not for deliberate wickedness, but for stupidity - a stupidity shared by the whole ruling class[4].  His blindness was the instrument of divine punishment over a wholly corrupt order of society.

According to Gildas, the call to the pagan tribes followed a great plague.  The plague is probably alluded to in E's description of illness (admittedly moral) seeping among the country, the first part of which is a quotation from Isaiah.  "Filii... sine lege, dereliquistis Deum et ad iracundiam prouocastis Sanctum Israel.  Quid adhuc percutiemini apponentes iniquitatem?  Omne caput languidum et omne cor maerens; a planta pedis usque ad uerticem non est in eo sanitas."  Sicque agerint cuncta quae saluti contraria fuerint, ac si nihil mundo medicinae a uero omnium medico largiretur: "'lawless children, you abandoned God and provoked the Holy One of Israel.  Why should you be struck to such a point, and still add iniquities?  Every head is enfeebled, every heart in mourning: from the sole of the foot to the crown there is no health in him.'  And so they would do everything that conflicts with health [or: salvation], as if no medicine had been given by the true Healer of all to the world".  It is worth noticing that the last sentence, which does not come from Isaiah but is an editorial comment, deliberately adds to the prophet's medical metaphor, underlining his core message of spiritual and physical decay.

It has been said that the fifth century was not an age of great plagues.  We certainly do not hear of disasters to match the Justinianic plague of the 540s, but then we do not know enough to exclude the possibility of one such in Britain alone.  Indeed, if I am correct in reading allusions from two separate sources in Gildas, then we have two separate indications that such a plague took place, one of which - E - sounds like it had been written while the plague itself raged. The Spanish chronicler Hydatius mentions a major pestilence in Spain about 440.  This is at least eight years out and cannot be the same, but it does show that it is at least possible to envisage one just as devastating in Britain.  The Chronicle of 452 speaks vaguely of Britanniae usque and hoc tempus uariis cladibus eventibusque latae, "the Britains, condemned until this time to different kinds of chances and calamities", which does sound as if it might refer to plague as well as war (and also as if the writer wanted to be deliberately vague - I wish I knew about what).  The Mild King's dethronement might also come under uariis euentibus, different kinds of chances.  That they were "condemned", latae, to all these various disasters suggests a connection with the Roman tradition of the wickedness of Britons; according to Ian Wood[5], the Chronicle may have been written by a Briton, Faustus of Riez, and therefore this might reflect a native view - parallel to E's and later to Gildas' - of God's wrath against British sin[6].

However, if E is speaking about the plague, this means that he seems to regard it as punishment in itself.  It is a visible manifestation of social and religious unhealth that has led the British to rebel against God and the king both.  Gildas does not tie up E's polemic, which he has embodied in his ch.21, with the plague; ch.21’s description of a diseased and tottering state of society does not lead into the next chapter’s mention of the plague at all.  Rather, ch.22 starts describing it ex novo a few lines later.  It is clear that Gildas regards the plague not as the end of a cycle, the cycle of treachery and legal sophistry described by E, but as the beginning of another: pestifera... lues feraliter... populo incumbit, quae in breui tantam eius multitudinem - remoto mucrone - sternit, quantam ne possint uiui humare: "a murderous plague struck the people ferociously, and in little time struck down such a huge number - though the sword was far [from them] - as the survivors could not bury".  Those two words, remoto mucrone, hint at worse punishment yet: the sword, though at present far away, was yet to come.

Then a terrible piece of news reaches the court: the Picts, hammered into the ground a generation earlier, are arming for a return engagement, and have called their friends in Ireland to join the party.  In a sentence whose wording smells of late-classical Rome a mile away (initur namque consilium quid optimum quidue saluberrimum ad repellendas tam ferales et tam crebras... gentium irruptiones praedasque decerni deberet - the word order may be Gildas', but such adverbs as quid optimum quidue saluberrimum taste of official Roman correspondence), Gildas describes the summoning of what he regards as the king's advisers, the consiliarii or council-men.  I don't think we would be far wrong if we saw this as a sarcastic quotation of a real and well-known document; indeed, Gildas follows it up with his own editorial comments, in which the words hebetudo, idiocy, and insipiens, ignorant twit, feature prominently.

It was natural for people of Gildas' time to see plagues as God punishing wicked ages (though if He did, exactly how many plagues would our century have deserved?), but Gildas is clear enough on the sequence of events for us to draw our own conclusions.  The Picts, savagely mauled a generation before, had recovered their strength, and the plague meant that Britain had in its turn suffered severe depopulation.  Its long lines of defence, that included both shores as well as the Wall, needed men of fighting age to man them; and the plague had destroyed them before an enemy had had time to raise a sword (remoto mucrone).  The decision was taken to summon settlers from North Germany ("Saxons").

Gildas is best understood as saying that the superbus tyrannus, at the suggestion of his consiliarii, decided not to hire swordsmen who could be sent home once their term of service was done, but to settle a permanent population.  This strongly suggests that the native population was substantially reduced, lending yet more credibility to Gildas' story of a devastating plague.  Iubente infausto tyranno, at the order of the evil-starred tyrant, grex... in orientales partes insulae... terribiles inflixit ungues quasi pro patria pugnaturus, the herd dug its terrible claws in the eastern part of the island, as if it was going to fight for a fatherland.  They were there to stay (their "claws" were not to be dug out of the island's soil), to settle on the eastern shores (when, later, Gildas wants to underline how far the war had spread, he says that the tongues of its flame were even licking the western ocean) and to fight for the country as if it was their own - to make it "as if" their patria.

Gildas' carefully chooses his words to show that the responsibility was exclusively the usurper’s.  Although he mentions a council twice before he brings in the superbus tyrannus, he hardly describes it as a sovereign body.  It does not even seem permanent: summoned in an emergency, Gildas insists that its task was to give advice - and it gave bad advice.  The comparison with the silly princes of Isaiah 19.11-15, giving bad advice to Pharaoh, leaves no doubt as to who are the advisers and who Pharaoh.  As later kings of the island were to find, there is a world of difference between a council of advisers and a sovereign senate or parliament, but this particular British king, says Gildas, definitely took advice on decisions he made himself.  The Saxons were settled by his and nobody else's authority, iubente infausto tyranno (23.4).  The council does not iubet anybody, the tyrannus does.

Why then the emphasis on the council's activities?  Although Gildas denies it any decisional power, he is at least as savage about them as about the tyrannus himself.  An answer may be found by looking at the suspicious stress on the enormity of the Saxon demands for annona (a general word for food dues) and epimenia (monthly contributions; annona is doled out in epimenia).  First reaction is that of course national hatred would forbid Gildas, as it would forbid anyone else, to admit that there was anything to be said for the Saxons.  But the whole passage is notably defensive in tone: the Saxons, it admits, had multo tempore, for a long time, received regular payments with which they had been content, when the trouble began.  Gildas, who had been telling the story in the historic perfect, suddenly breaks into a dramatic present: item queruntur non affluenter sibi epimenia contribui, "likewise they complain that the monthly payment is not offered in sufficient abundance".  (The word "likewise", item, is interesting, as we will see.)

Affluenter, in this context, is a deliberately misleading adverb.  In Latin it has the connotation of enormous profligacy and waste, but the context proves that the Saxons were complaining that they were being stinted the agreed measure, affluenter meaning "with proper abundance" rather than "with excessive abundance".  The Saxons are not setting up a howl for extra rations, much less for what Gildas implies is the Roman equivalent of lobsters and champagne; they are complaining about specific incidents - occasiones de industria colorantes - in which they were denied what they felt was their due as fighters.  And we notice that there is no indication that the Saxons had not fulfilled their part of the bargain; in fact, from the moment they appear on Gildas' stage the Picts and Scots disappear[7].  He describes the Saxon claim that they were magna... discrimina pro bonis hostibus subituris, there to undergo great dangers for their good hosts, as a lie (mentiebantur), but events show that the Saxons must have seen off the immediate threat.  In fact, if they hadn't, the British would not have dared try and stint them the annona.

The main complaint against the Saxons is that they brought in, uninvited, some extra drafts: genetrix, comperiens primo agmini fuisse prosperatum, item mittit satellitum canumque prolixiorem catastam, "the mother (that is the mother country, the barbara leaena), discovering that the first advance party had done well, likewise sent a more extravagant heaping-up of satellites and dogs..."  We will not pay for anything except the first draft, the British were saying.  There is a further elaboration of refusal in the form satellitum canumque, which implies that the second draft was of inferior quality, made of camp-followers, "satellites", and low-grade "dogs": that the Saxons had sent over to Britain not the best but the dregs of their own society.

One can only envy Gildas' incredible mastery of the Latin vocabulary of abuse, but I have to say that the rhetorical fireworks here remind me of those points where Churchill would jot a pencil note to himself on the margins of a speech: "weak point - shout".  They are there to cover poverty of thought.  The fraudulent nature of the whole contention is clear when we realize that the British seem to have made no complaint for all the multo tempore in which the Saxons lived in peace with them, fought their wars, and died for them.  To raise the question of uninvited later drafts after such a long residence was clearly a pretext.

The particle item, in this sentence, not only ties this second draft of troops to the first, but also looks forwards to that second item at the end of the paragraph.  Item refers to something that was done before and is repeated again: "likewise".  So where is the corresponding item?  Gildas, we know, thinks in paragraphs rather than sentences; his grammar and vocabulary are of crystalline purity; he is the last man in the world to leave an unanswered dangling item.  Therefore the otherwise inexplicable item in item queruntur non affluenter sibi epimenia contribui - what does it mean, since the Saxons had not made such claims before? - can only refer back to the item about the arrival of extra numbers, not only of canes, but of satellites,without permission: item, mittit satellitum canumque prolixiorem catastam... item, queruntur non affluenter sibi epimenia contribui...  Gildas is trying to make this tendentious couple of "likewise" say that the Saxon demands resulted not from any British obligation, but from the presence of later drafts to which the British had never agreed, and which were part of a pattern of deception and conquest by stealth that had started from the moment the children of the leaena barbara had first set foot on the patria.  "These demands - he is saying - excessive and fraudulent as they were, were part of a pattern of prevarication and extortion practised by the Saxons from the beginning; nothing new had been added to the balance (such as for instance new British unwillingness to pay or attempts to cheat the Saxons); and therefore the Saxons had only themselves to blame."

This sort of polemic has a certain kind of dirty fingerprint all over it: it is typical of the feelings of a selfish moneyed class that feels that the world demands a living from it and that the State is hell-bent on making the recipients of its bounty live in luxury at its expense.  Gildas, or rather the British landowners whose polemic he repeats, describe the Saxons in exactly the same terms as modern pub philosophers speak of welfare mothers.  But it is also typical of the late Empire, when taxation and payment for mercenaries were two notorious sore points.  If the British state had decided to hire Saxon mercenaries, it must also have decided to appropriate the means to pay them.  If the active men of this population are to be soldiers, then someone else has to feed them, and feed them well.  Today’s armies would call it combat pay - it is not fair to ask someone to shed their blood for you without proper reward.

Now I suggest that the annona was the reason for the summoning of the council.  Annona in such quantity could not be skimmed off neighbouring villages or squeezed from smallholders; food in abundant and regular amounts, to feed a whole population, demands the support of large managed estates.  Surely it was to agree on this measure, that would have affected every landowner in the island, that the superbus tyrannus summoned a council; behind the "advice" they were supposed to give him lay the need for taxes or contributions in grain and other produce.  Whatever the powers of king and council, it would have been suicidal to proceed with such measures without the taxpayers' consent.

In a climate of crisis when the wolf seemed to be at everybody's door, such contributions will at first have been accepted as necessary.  But even if the government of Vortigern (so to call him) had suffered from no internal opposition, this is still the sort of thing that would eventually have run into trouble when raiders had been warded off and invaders sent home or pacified: the owners of the land no doubt felt that they had better things to do with their own produce than to give it for free to a bunch of barbarian swordsmen far away (most of Britain would never have seen a Saxon up to that point, settled as they were in a restricted eastern area).  The well-practised British legal agility of which E complains was therefore brought into play; reasons were found to cut down the irksome payments, and suddenly the secondary drafts of Germanic immigrants became an issue.  From a neighbour's land to the dethronement of an undesirable king, it was the way of Romano-British aristocrats to use the law to get what they wanted.

This, it leaps to the eye, is not legend.  The sound of actual legal quarrels, the problems of taxation and consent, the poverty and selfishness of the arguments offered by Gildas, the obvious evasions, ring with real politics; we must regard it as a party political version of genuine events[8].  And bearing in mind that 120 years (442-561) and a long war or wars separated Gildas from these debates, there is no alternative but to accept that he had a written source.  I already postulated a pre-disaster British source for his ch.21, E, but the source of this account must be distinct; it is later in time and different in spirit.  E comes from the last age of pre-Saxon British prosperity, from the last days of Ambrosius' father and the first of "Vortigern"; the account of the origin of the Saxon war comes from after its outset, but close enough to have a direct if self-serving memory of its political origins.  The former is a prophetic denunciation of the upper classes of Britain, coming from a supporter of a fallen king; the latter is a self-righteous whinge from a rich man, probably a layman (probably but not certainly; the Church owned land too).  To the source of ch.21, everything in Britain was wrong beginning with its elites; to the source of the Saxon account, the British elites were wholly in the right and there could be no question of them quibbling or trying to wiggle out of agreed obligations on spurious legal grounds, a kind of behaviour that E placed among the worst British vices.

It is striking how comprehensively Gildas' usual jaundiced eye for British failings fails him.  It is not only possible, it is very easy, to prove from his words that the Saxons were deceived, used and left to starve[9], by selfish British landowners who hoped that once they found that Britain held no more easy pickings, they would just go back - and that wasn't the deal.  The ugly echo of modern greed, modern prejudice and modern selfishness comes back to taunt us from the doomed British aristocracy of fifteen hundred years ago, led to destruction by their own unwillingness to pay what they had agreed.

Why can Gildas not see the cemeterial rich man's selfishness in their behaviour, why does he take them at their word with no qualm or doubt, when he was so ready to find bad reasons (and not without cause) for everything else they did?  We have already seen that Gildas, elsewhere, gave a very different view of proper Christian behaviour to pagans: his first fragment (typical of him in his powerful rhetorical cadence, built on an echoing sequence of -non... non.. non..) goes through the whole of Genesis and Exodus to prove that it is not wrong for a Christian to talk, eat, work, even fight, side by side with pagans and excommunicates, culminating in the example of Our Lord eating with publicans (i.e. extortioners) and whores. When Gildas wrote the First Fragment, he was actually willing to bend the evidence in favour of toleration; Bible-soaked as ever, he made a deliberate selection, excluding all the passages (and they are the majority) that disagree with him, from Phinehas slaughtering the Jews who had married Gentiles, to Elijah butchering the priests of Baal, to St.John demanding that nobody should so much as break bread with an excommunicated heretic.  On the other hand, the mentality of The ruin of Britain is exterminating, and Gildas displays a complete lack of sympathy with any legitimate Saxon claim.

One possible answer is that, in The ruin, Gildas adopted the views and attitudes of his listeners, to prompt them to act as he hoped.  We have seen that his purpose was to stimulate a crusade against the Saxons, to forestall a dreaded Byzantine intervention, and to bring the nobility of the island together in one Christian enterprise.  Addressing them, he can castigate the past away to his heart's content, but can argue no point that would tell against the project of a Crusade.  Also, one of his chief addressees is the house of Ambrosius; and the more he condemns their present degeneracy, the more he has to play up their ancestor's greatness.  For that matter, he may not even have known any different.  It is quite clear that what he is repeating here is the Aurelian version of British history, the accepted version.  The venom with which Vortigern’s policies are described is personal, not to Gildas, but to what might be called the anti-Vortigern party.  This is the talk of a faction.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the various victors' histories, from the "Whig interpretation of history" to Trotsky's history of the Russian Revolution - spiteful mixes of special pleading and the cruel belief that all the suffering of the past was justified by the victorious group's conquest of power and all the wondrous things this would lead to.

It becomes clear that at some point what was left of the Mild King's supporters had come together with the "can't pay, won't pay" party in opposition to annona-raising.  Taxation must have brought many rich people to oppose Vortigern's policies, and the deposed king's party will have found the declining popularity of his enemy an irresistible attraction.  In that madly law-minded society[10], the assault took place on legal grounds.  The anti-tax party attacked the legitimacy of consilium and tyrannus to show that their decisions did not have the value of law.  Of course, an attack on the legitimacy of the tyrannus would have been music to the ears of the deposed king and his supporters.  Only a few years had passed[11] since the legal authorities of post-Roman Britain had overthrown him.  Given the nature of the governing classes, the people who took part in the Mild King's overthrow must have been closely allied, or indeed the same, as the consiliarii who approved the Saxon settlement.  The Mild King's fall may have been accompanied by a purge of his supporters; after which purge victims would be apt to regard the current governing institutions as a rump deprived of legal authority.  The Ambrosian party would have been glad of an excuse to delegitimate them.

The evidence is in Gildas' vocabulary, which is calculated to delegitimate both "Vortigern" and his council.  He does not use the right terms for a legally constituted government.  92.3 - which, remember, is a direct quotation - gives us a name for the aristocrats who were paltering and compromising with religious truth: they are patres ac domini, fathers and lords.  To any Latin-speaker the word patres in this sense must suggest the Senate of Rome - patres conscripti; and every corporate governing body or appointed parliament in any part of the empire could and did get called by the name of the great Roman body[12].  And now we see the point of Gildas' use of the vague word consiliarii - his vocabulary is always delicately attuned to every shade of meaning - as well as his statement (incredible in the light of the evidence) that they were only summoned to deal with the Pictish emergency and that the tyrannus alone decided.  What he or his source are doing is denying the Senate of "Vortigern" all legal status, reducing it to a mere group of hangers-on of the victorious usurper, legally unfit to reach any decision and not allowed to vote on any law, not domini, let alone patres conscripti, but only consiliarii - a word barely a step above his contemptous description of the friends of kings as commanipulares, people who went raiding together[13].  And their boss wears that opprobrious Gildasian word tyrannus, never used by the great writer except degradingly.

The truth is that there was collective decision-making in post-Roman Britain.  92.3's call to purge the ruling British institutions of a foedus with hostes ecclesiae allowed to be patres ac domini nostri shows that the Church regarded the presence of heretics among a British body of “fathers and lords” as a threat; they wouldn't be so menacing unless that position gave them power.  E makes it clear that it was not a king or tyrant alone, but the whole British upper class, that had gone for compromise, shocking committed Augustinians with a scandalous display of relativism; they are all charged with welcoming Pelagianism and deposing the Mild King.  Every word of E and 92.3, in other words, suggests collective decision-making, in sharp contrast with the picture Gildas gives of a superbus tyrannus taking advice and then giving his own orders (iubente).  And if the Mild King, with his religious scruples so alien to the rest of the country, was in fact Ambrosius' father, then the king who made the foedus was "Vortigern".

This lends a lot of point to the two great pictures that frame Gildas' account of the Saxon war: on one side, the superbus tyrannus, surrounded by his gilded consiliarii, like Pharaoh of Egypt with the anger of the Lord hanging over him; on the other, Ambrosio Aureliano uiro modesto, the modest hero Ambrosius Aurelianus, standing alone except for a few resolute survivors and the simple, nameless ciues.  And this picture admits something that Gildas' sources would not: whatever might be made of "Vortigern"'s tyrannical character and illegitimate power, it is clear that he was in fact backed and surrounded by the aristocracy of the province in its corporate character - the patres ac domini nostri, the "silly princes of Zoar", the gilded, rich, doomed consiliarii.  By contrast, Ambrosius stands almost alone, with a crowd of ciues of no name or rank, clearly there to take orders, not to debate them, and only a few "survivors" of the aristocracy.  It is Ambrosius, far more than Vortigern, who suggests an authoritarian ruler.

To the Ambrosian party, the power of the Senate did not exist in law; it was a mere outgrowth of the illegal power of the usurper, a bunch of councilmen (consiliarii) summoned at will; and, as Gildas says, their decisions are not their responsibility, but of the "evil-fated tyrant" (iubente infausto tyranno).  But the evidence contradicts him.  Personal authority seems associated with Ambrosius, if not with his unhappy father, and collective decision-making, with its allied features of compromise and quarrels over taxation, with Vortigern.  And the bitterness against the consiliarii does not agree with the notion that they were helpless courtiers: every word in Gildas implies their guilt on the same level as the sovereign.

Gildas' account (or rather, the account of his source) is mendacious in another way: it was the opposition, not the government, that provoked the catastrophe.  I cannot emphasize this too much; it is one of the clearest points in the entire dossier.  The "guilty men" are to be found among the "can't pay won't pay" party; it was they who provoked the Saxons to war.  But such people always find ways to lay the blame on their opponents anyway.  Did not the superbus tyrannus and his consiliarii call in the Saxons?  Well, then!

The rise of the "can't pay won't pay" party must have been a feature of the later years of "Vortigern"'s reign; earlier, all our records suggest that its main political problem was the Pelagian issue.  Nor were the "can't-pay-won't-pay" necessarily the same as the other opposition groups, Catholics and supporters of the overthrown Mild King; they must have included quite a few of the same religious indifferentists who had worked to overthrow the Mild King and enthusiastically supported the readmission, exceptio, of the Pelagian "Satan".  How hard-line Augustinians reacted to the call to the Saxons we cannot know, but, if their hope lay in the Mild King, then they must have aligned themselves willy-nilly with the "can't-pay-won't-pay" people, though their motives were somewhat less than saintly; at a time when the Church was threatened by not one but three formidable heresies, Catholics were not going to be nice about allies (a ruinous strategy that commended itself to Catholics in trouble down the centuries, and always caused worse disasters than those it tried to avert).  There is little doubt that the house of Ambrosius did align itself with them, since Gildas’ Ambrosian sources embodied their polemic.  (One wonders whether Ambrosius' father made much headway; too many of the very people who were now opposing his successor's policies must have been among those who, not long before, had made up their minds to force him out at all costs.  He may have achieved no more than to find himself a prominent and damagingly visible member of the anti-Saxon party.)   Hostility from the remnants of Ambrosius' father's party; distaste of hard-line Catholics for the doctrinal laxitude of his government; hostility to taxation from many of the rich; all tended to undermine Vortigern.

What follows is guesswork, but I think it makes good sense.  The Saxons can hardly have ignored the powerful among their employers.  They no doubt made their own study of the internal politics of their boni hospites, especially as they concerned them, and were surely fascinated spectators of the growing success of an anti-tax, anti-Saxon party: they must have been, to say the least, quite interested to see the deposed king, or at least his party, trying to take the leadership of the very people who wanted to starve them out.  For years they had lived in Britain, not as mercenaries, but as residents raising families, "fighting for the island as if for a fatherland", paid to defend the British by land and water.  They knew where their friends and kinsmen lay, lost at sea, or buried or burned on battlefields where Pictish and Irish hosts had been met, turned and slaughtered.  If they thought even more of their role than was their due; if they would not perhaps consider or much respect native British troops elsewhere; if they happened to think, in fact, that the island had no better defenders, maybe no other defenders, than themselves - that would have been quite natural.  And now they were told that they had to leave Britain or starve.  Possibly "Vortigern" himself, in spite of later legend, was not altogether overzealous in defending them, now that the plague had gone, the enemy was subdued, and new drafts of native Britons were available.

There is nothing in seven continents more dangerous than to openly try to cheat an army with its weapons still at hand and recent fighting experience.  The Roman-educated aristocracy of 430s Britain ought to have remembered what had happened when the Empire had tried the very same game with the Goths.  In John Morris' crisp sentences[14]: "The government of Valens admitted the Visigothic refugees, but corruption let them keep their arms, and at the same time assured that they were fed at outrageous famine prices.  Life was intolerable for a people unprovided with coin, whose sole marketable commodities were their children.  When the scared Roman general tried to assassinate their leaders, and bungled his treachery, the starved and indignant Goths rebelled, destroying the army and the emperor of the East at Adrianople in 378."  That had been the beginning of the end of the West - within living memory.  Truly, the stupidity of the Britons' pub-philosopher selfishness was unfathomable.

The Saxons took their own measures.  Gildas describes a blitzkrieg, a sudden onslaught without warning or previous negotiation; a fact that tells its own story.  Throughout history, lightning campaigns have been the reaction of smaller groups who saw larger powers aligning themselves against them and felt they had to strike first or be destroyed: Frederick II of Prussia in 1756 and Israel in 1967 are classic examples.  The Saxon blitzkrieg against their former boni hospites shows clearly enough that they felt they had to do or die.

The plague must have taken place after St.Germanus' first visit; Constantius says nothing of it, and had it preceded or accompanied Germanus, he could hardly have failed to mention such a divine sign.  It cannot have been much later either, since time must be allowed for the plague, the coming of the Saxons, the defeat of the Picts and possibly the Irish, and the "long time" that followed before the Saxons revolted in 441-2.  It is even likely that the sudden death of Palladius in Britain - according to Irish records - may have been due to it.  Palladius, after all, must have been fit enough to undertake a long and dangerous journey, as the Lord's athlete going to wrestle the enemy down; yet (if we trust the Irish texts), within a year he was dead.

The call to the Saxons followed the plague - 432-34 approx., up to ten years before their rebellion.  According to Nennius ch.66, which, though "certainly corrupt" (Dumville), preserves pre-Nennian traditions otherwise lost, they settled in Britain in the fourth year of Vortigern's reign.  This would give us a chronology somewhat like this: 426/27, crisis of the Mild King's rule; E writes his first defence, asserting that no king should be overthrown non pro ueri examinatione; 427/428, the Mild King's downfall, "Vortigern"'s coronation; 429, Germanus' journey; 431, Palladius comes; 431-432, plague; E writes again, describing Britain as sick from top to toe; Palladius dies; 432-433, the Saxons are called to settle in the East of the island; 441-442, the Saxons, with the choice between fighting and starving, take up weapons.

The sequence is tight but hardly impossible: the plague should have been of extraordinary swiftness and violence - as indeed Gildas describes it - enough to stampede "Vortigern" and the British Senate into calling the "Saxons" to defend the depleted country; and their settlement must have been dated to the actual decision of their calling (although, as we have the misfortune to see in our own day, ethnic transfers can take place with extraordinary swiftness, a few weeks sufficing for whole populations, if there is good or bad enough cause; just ask the Kosovars and the wretched East Timorese).


[1]MOMMSEN, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: chronica minora, 1.9: Chronica Gallica a CCCCLII.

[2]Contrasting the council room with the battlefield in terms of first and second function is a specifically Germanic, perhaps even specifically English development of the Indo-European tripartite ideology: cf. in particular Beowulf's summary of "all men of free birth" (who did not know where the boat carrying Scyld Sceafing's body ended up): men ne cunnon/ secgan to soðe,/ sele-rædende,/ hæleð  under heofenum,/ hwaþæm hlæste onfeng: "men [in general - third function] did not know/ how to say for a truth,/ men of words in the hall [king's counsellors and elders - first function],/ brave men under the heavens [outside the king's covered hall, in the field - warriors - second function]/ who received that ship-burden."  Beowulf 50-52.

[3]WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY, The kings before the Norman conquest, tr. Joseph Stephenson, (reprint), Llanerch 1989 p.7 (1.4).  Lust and avarice are third-function vices, while pride is not only generic but - as a vice - a specifically Christian idea, and therefore not connected to the ancient Indo-European tripartite ideology.  But other than that, the trifunctional character of William's condemnation is obvious, and seems to derive from a standard view of the bad king.

[4] It must be said, however, that we will find out towards the end of this study, that, though Gildas used the anti-Pelagian polemic of E as a source, he himself may well not have understood the difference between Pelagian and orthodox.

[5]In GIORGIO AUSENDA, ed., After empire: towards an ethnology of Europe's barbarians, Woodbridge 1995, p.210

[6] Faustus himself seems never to have lost interest in the country he left as a young man, to judge by the fact that, already old, he took part in the spiritual care of a colony of Britons whom Sidonius Apollinaris, in a letter to him called Britannis tuis, "your" Britons.  SIDONIUS APOLLINARIS, Letters and poems, Loebs 1936, 9.6, p.157

[7] Irish annals remembered the first Saxon raid on Ireland as taking place immediately after Patrick's arrival; the presence of Patrick, in other words, seems to have been a marker for this particular memory.  Though the annals were not started until more than a century later, this sort of coincidence is more likely to stick in memory, whether oral or written, than precise dates.  The raid must have been heavy enough to be remembered, and it seems likely that it was directed by the Saxons' boni hospites in Britain, to give the Irish a good hint of what would happen if they started harbouring any bright ideas about plague-depleted Britain.  But this particular subject is so dubious that I dare not make much use of it.

[8]The specialized vocabulary of annona and epimenia, long noticed by scholars, may also be evidence that, within its own limits, this account is based on late-Roman reality; though Gildas also had access to technical war vocabulary from a Roman army manual, as I pointed out, and might have got those two words from them.

[9] Whatever their bad qualities.  As we will find out in Bk.7, the Saxons were not nice people and their methods of war were very unpleasant indeed.

[10]This is another curious parallel with the early United States of America, indeed with America at all times: the most law-obsessed society in the modern world.  It is possible that the collective identity of a remote society surrounded by "barbarians" or "savages" would be apt to focus with great intensity on the law, which, by comparison with the "primitive institutions" of their neighbours, may come to seem the very spirit of a "civilized" society.

[11]The terminus post quem for the rise of the can't-pay-won't-pay party is 432, the terminus ante quem 442; the Mild King was overthrown in about 428.  Most of the British ruling classes must have been physically the same people who overthrew him.

[12]See for instance the reference of the Younger Pliny to the "local senates" of his province of Bithynia in official correspondence with the Emperor himself.  Letters of the Younger Pliny, Harmondsworth 1963.

[13]Without having done a thorough search, it seems to me that compound words with com-, cum-, con-, tend to have a negative meaning in Gildas, implying complicity, participation in contemptible or vicious activities.  I am thinking in particular of the throno constuprato, the gang-raped throne of Vortiporius, and the detestable commanipulares of British tyrants, who are themselves the commanipulares of the worst Biblical kings (40.2).  Gildas may have chosen consiliarii for its assonance with words implying criminal common purpose.

[14]I quote his version of events not because it has any especial authority but for the sheer beauty and precision of his periods; the story could not be told more briefly and yet more cleanly.  Morris was a questionable historian, but a marvelous stylist.  The age of Arthur, 21.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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