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

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Chapter 5.2: Gildas' sources and Ambrosian propaganda

Fabio P. Barbieri

I would now like to draw attention to the number and variety of sources we have found reason to suspect in Gildas.

A) A legendary history of Britain until the third Pictish invasion.  This is also the source of Nennius ch.30, and both Nennius and Gildas have altered substantial parts of it, but comparison between the two allows a fairly coherent idea of its original structure.  Practically the only historically credible part of it is the account of the last great Pictish invasion; on the whole, this is a thoroughly legendary account of indubitably Celtic origin.  Since Nennius knew it independently from Gildas, it must have been a written text; and since Nennius and Gildas use similar Latin expressions in similar contexts, it must have been written in Latin.

B) Some extracts from Continental historical or annalistic sources.  Comparison with Nennius' version of A suggests that Gildas modified his original by making his Romans send to Britain not one but two major military expeditions against Picts and Scots in the period between the "usurper Maximus" and 410.  A must have had one such expedition, but probably not two.  Gildas' modifications on A also indicate that he knew, at least by allusion, that, in spite of its "British" turf appearance, the Wall of Antoninus in the far North was a Roman construction.  However, he knew nothing of its date and may have known little about the Roman expeditions.  He was aware of the Rescript of Honorius and may have read its original text.  He had also found somewhere a sentence such as that of the Narratio de imperatoribus...: Britanniae Romano nomine in perpetuum sublatae, to describe the end of Roman rule in 410, on which he worked a fine literary conceit on the end of "the name of Romans".

C) Gildas had access to one or more genuine Roman army training manuals, and expected them to be well known to his public, since he used them to make a point.

D) British sources about the Pelagian crisis.  Whether or not Gildas knew of the great religious crisis of the reign of "Vortigern", whose policy of religious toleration for Pelagians angered hard-line Catholics and provoked the visits of Germanus and the mission of Palladius, at least one text from the period, perhaps two, reached him.  The text quoted in 92.3 may or may not be by the same author as the source of ch.21.

E) He had access to one or more polemics (probably at least two), written by a disaffected churchman on behalf of a king of Britain who was overthrown by legal means and who must have been Ambrosius' father.

F) He had almost certainly read the original wording of the summons sent by "Vortigern" to the British senate to discuss the threatened Pictish invasion, since the language he uses is typical late-Roman bureaucratic: initur namque consilium quid optimum quidue saluberrimum ad repellendas tam ferales et tam crebras... gentium irruptiones praedasque decerni deberet.

G) This may have been quoted in his most substantial, or at least most closely quoted, source: a rancorous anti-Vortigern tract recounting the Saxon settlement and revolt, along with the British attempt to starve them out, in thoroughly unfair and biased fashion, but with revealing detail.

H) He quotes directly from an important document otherwise unknown to history, the Letter to Agitius.

I) Continental Christian writers.  Gildas had read at least some passages of Rufinus, Sulpicius Severus, John Cassian, Prudentius, Jerome and perhaps Orosius, as well as

J) British Christian writers: a British martyrdom of St.Alban and at least two or three other British Christian writers, including a poet and possibly a known Pelagian tract[1].

K) He had read at least one Roman treatise on agriculture.

L) And though he seems to make little use of it, we have seen reason to believe that he was familiar with a history of the Saxon war written by someone he regarded as a great master against whom he may have been expected to measure himself ("As it was not given to me to describe the danger of the bravest soldiers in grim war...").

For a man with a reputation as no historian, this is no bad haul.  Add up this list, consider how deeply Gildas seems to have absorbed its stylistic and intellectual lessons (think, for instance, of the beautiful and creative use of agricultural metaphors taken from K in his description of Constantine of Dumnonia) and you will conclude that Gildas did well deserve his nickname sapiens, the Learned; and we must bear in mind that these are only the sources whose presence may be established.  Clearly he had access to a considerable fund of written documents.  By "a considerable fund of written documents", however, I do not mean "a sufficient fund".  The items I listed, plus the one or more I have shown reason to suspect, add up to a pretty hodge-podge: allusions in other documents, a legendary early history, a pamphlet or two about the overthrow of a king, another denouncing taxation and the admission of Saxon settlers, two or three official documents one of which (the Letter to Agitius) is so isolated that Gildas misses its context, some army training manuals, and a number of religious tracts.  Historians more prepared than he would not find this a promising haul; and, worst of all, it does not seem to have contained anything to teach him chronology.  But, apart from the error about the Letter to Agitius, Gildas' overall picture is on the whole reliable and historical - or, at least, based on reliable and historical documents - from 406AD onwards.

The disparity between the factual quality of his account of independent Britain and the completely, unbrokenly legendary nature of his "history of Roman Britain" is particularly telling.  Gildas knows nothing whatsoever about anything in Britain before 406 except for the semi-legendary tale of St.Alban and a few snippets of Continental accounts.  Evidently the establishment of a British government meant a qualitative leap in the gathering and preservation of local writing, giving a new interest in preserving records of official transactions and events.  It is interesting that there seems to be no continuity between whatever provincial and local government records existed before 406 and the pseudo-imperial government established after 410; in other words (and here is another blow at the literal reading of Zosimus 6.5.2) the government of Britain between 410 and 442 did not develop out of the provincial or ciuitas level, but was a new level of organization, whose documentary record - which is the heart of government and administration - had a definite beginning in time.  The list of Gildas' materials has a distinctly official and/or political look about it: we have two diplomatic items (the Rescript of Honorius and the Letter to Agitius), two or more items of political polemic (the "can't pay won't pay" pamphlet and probably at least two items by E, the loyalist of a fallen king), army training manuals, and the text of the summons of the fateful Council/Senate session that called in the Saxons.  Of his sources, only A, I and J do not have direct political relevance; and John Morris, in one of those maddeningly insightful passages that alternate so frequently with sheer nonsense, has found good reason to suggest that the cult of St.Alban may have had serious national and political implications[2].

There can be no doubt that what Gildas had was only a fraction of what must have been available earlier: for instance, the dethroning of Ambrosius' father, a severe crisis that involved the whole of Educated Britain, must have generated a good deal more polemic on both sides than just the loyalist items of E - and what about the minutes of the tribunal (probably a judicial Senate session) which dethroned him?  This being quite a Roman set-up, it is hardly likely that that memorable legal occasion was not written up somewhere.  The Saxon war may have destroyed many archives, but it is not necessary to suppose that all had been lost.

We are however bound to suspect that the survival of Gildas' documents was the result of policy.  A good few, D, E, G, have a strong pro-Ambrosius, anti-Vortigern flavour; they look like a slanted dossier selected for public consumption by the victorious party.  E' may even have been preserved only in the house of the fallen king, being a personal defensio very hostile to the new political order, which may have not been welcome in post-usurpation official archives.  These, let us not forget, were late-Roman aristocrats, with the typical mindset of the age and the culture; and impartial truth in historical accounts had become a dangerous and indeed deadly habit since the rise of the monarchy, to the point where already Tacitus considered that the breed of great historians had died with the republic.  One has only to read Velleius Patercolus, the liar of Augustus, to see what he meant.  By the fifth century, honesty to a defeated opponent of the current emperor had become unimaginable; we remember what convolutions of mendacity and doubletalk Ammianus Marcellinus used to cover up the murder of Valentinus - and yet Ammianus was, by the standards of his time, an honest man.  The infaustus tyrannus allowed the deposed Mild King to live, which is a favour that late-Roman usurpers rarely extended to their victims; but the habits of his time make it almost inconceivable that his government would have preserved the Mild King’s defensiones.

What seems certain is that Gildas is entirely dependent on the Ambrosian version of history.  Is this because of deliberate policy, or because only Ambrosian-oriented documents survived the tempestas?  Despite the plausibility of the first alternative, I think the second has points to commend it.  Gildas' dramatic picture of hosts of well-born Britons crossing the sea "singing psalms in place of sea shanties", and, more importantly, taking their scriptorum monumenta, written memories (4.4), with them, must be overdrawn: the Saxon blitzkrieg certainly struck the central organs of government, but archaeology shows that many important British communities found a modus vivendi with the enemy - Verulamium is known to have gone on as a functioning Roman community until the 470s[3].  Gildas himself suggests that a considerable amount of local British power survived: alii.. uitam suspecta semper mente credentes in patria licet trepidi perstabant; "others... always dreading for their lives in their minds, stayed in their fatherland, however terrified"; and we have to assume that he is painting the Saxon devil as black as he can.  It is quite possible that the dicionem Saxonum of which the Chronicle of 452 speaks preserved a considerable amount of space for Roman institutions[4]; at the very least, a good few Roman noblemen, surviving the first assault, must have remained in their place, though under watchful Saxon eyes.

There is however one noble house that must certainly have taken to their heels with as much as they could save from the enemy: the one whose paterfamilias, we know from an unimpeachable source, had been particularly targeted by the Saxons - but which was not altogether destroyed, since a son of the paterfamilias was to come back for vengeance[5].  Certainly, later accounts had Ambrosius coming back from across the sea, and plausible historical conjecture agrees; it is hard to imagine that he would remain in Britain, whose new masters had sought his father's blood.  And if the flight of the Ambrosiads was, as seems likely, the template for a picture of wholesale flight and slaughter[6], then the detail that they took their scriptorum monumenta with them must have belonged to the same picture.

Ambrosius' triumphant and avenging return set the stage for a cycle of wars that did not end until the time of Gildas' birth, about the turn of the century, and in the course of which British culture suffered what Lidia Storoni Mazzolari would call "a genuine genetic mutation", from the late-Roman world of Patrick, E, and Pelagius to the resurgent Celticism of Gildas and A.  The scriptorum monumenta that are likeliest to have survived this are the ones held by the ruling house as tokens of its legitimacy; and these I would identify with those among Gildas' odd congeries of sources that were not common to all Gildasian culture - A, J, L and perhaps F - or among the odds and ends of acceptable Roman history - B and I - some at least of which must be the result of his appeal to overseas correspondents for information.  There are three or four sources - D, E, and G - which seem peculiar to Gildas alone, unknown to Nennius or later sources; and, as it happens, they are all fiercely pro-Ambrosius.  These I would call "the Ambrosian file", documents specific to the ruling house[7].  I have already suggested that E at least is unlikely to have been preserved in the official archives; but, as a text of their own articles of defence, and their claim to royal legitimacy, it is very likely indeed to have been kept by the Ambrosiads both before and after 442.

The presence of A among Gildas' otherwise Ambrosian and Romano-British historical library shows that this sort of document was among the fundaments of Gildasian-age culture.  At some point early in the sixth century, there was a sudden quickening of the country's intellectual life, beginning with Celtic north-British ideas, but cast in Latin.  This may have been to reconstruct a written culture that the victorious British party was all too conscious of having lost; but the historical traditions they had, though written in Latin and in a Christian context, originated in the narrow borders of Britain over the Wall.

It is probable that A was created to fill the gap that we already noticed, the lack of documents for British history before 410.  The fact that the learned of the new Britain had become conscious of this gap means that they had begun to take cognizance of such Romano-British and Ambrosian documents as Gildas knows: the problem of previous British history must then have posed itself almost immediately.  More or less everything that Gildas says after 410 is historical, but more or less everything he says up to then is legendary.  The educated classes knew that they had no written documentation for before independence, but, unlike their predecessors of Vortigern's time, they had lost contact with Roman realities.  They wrote down what they thought they knew[8].

A disastrous loss is that of the document I have called L, the history of the Saxon wars.  If we don't admit L, The ruin of Britain makes less sense.  The fact that, after so much of history and "history", Gildas says almost nothing about the war which he wanted his people to resume and fight till the enemy is exterminated - a war, or rather a cycle of wars, that lasted for decades; the fact that in spite of that, Gildas connects this event, and this alone, with the will of God, Who brought it on as a punishment for British sins and then as an opportunity for Britain to purge itself and emerge purer and cleaner - Gildas does not claim to see the Lord's hand in any other previous or succeeding event; the fact that Gildas laments that he has not been allowed to write about "the dangers of the most valiant soldiers", and that therefore, faced with the inevitable fact that he would have to write about desidiosi, poltroons, he had refused (like Jeremiah) to utter the word, to his own great agony - all point to the existence of a famous account of the wars.  It must have been a contemporary, eyewitness account, since the only account Gildas could write which would compare with it would be an account of the cowardice and villainy of his own day - that is, the original writer had composed an account of his own days; and in spite of the curious blunder about magna discrimina, it must have been regarded as a classic, whose brilliance faced Gildas like a reproach.

L was probably written at or towards the end of the cycle of wars; Zosimus' notice suggests that it contained an overview of the wars from the beginning.  This seems to place it close to A and the Genealogy of Zosimus 17, early in the sixth century.  Between the age of Patrick and 500-510, no British writing whatever is discernible, except possibly for G; Gildas' other sources date to both sides of this period of darkness. The only historical source I know for the state of Britain between 468 and 500-510 is Constantius' note that, as he was writing the Life of Germanus, Britain was Christian and Catholic.

Latin seems to have been preserved, even at a high level of purity.  L may have been written in slightly rough-and-ready Latin, to judge from his famous misuse of discrimina; but A included a clever little pun between iugum and ius/iuramentum that not only draws our attention but expresses an important idea, and that indicates some writing ability.

This suggests different authors and contexts.  If L's Latin was clumsy, and if L was a record of the author's times, then the author may not have been primarily a writer trained in classical Latin, but perhaps a man of action resolved, at the end of a turbulent time, to write down (to suggest a reconstruction) magna in truci bello fortissimorum militum discrimina; the heroic deeds and terrible dangers of which he had been a witness, and in which he had perhaps taken part.  A, on the other hand, written cleverly and intelligently, is the work of a man who is a writer first and foremost, and it reflects, not on recent events, but on what the author regarded as ancient history.  He shared with Gildas an ability to analyze a whole long course of events in terms of one central idea, namely that expressed in the pun ius/iugum, that the "law" is also a heavy "yoke" which the British find hard to bear; but, more optimistic than Gildas, he concludes his account with a definitive and final victory, achieved when the British have offered themselves, of their own free will, to another yoke - the "easy yoke" of God.

However, though much artistry and intelligence can be perceived in A, one thing is clear: the classical skills of historical writing, both as an art and as chronography, were lost.  Gildas, a writer of great power and tremendous ability, has none of the devices of the classical historian: none of the set speeches, of the digressions, of the ethnic descriptions.  As it has been pointed out[9], his writing is far more closely related to the conventions of the legal speech, a skill that - as we have seen - was well rooted in late Roman Britain.  In some way, it lived on: even such a small hint as the ius/iugum pun must suggest that A's author had it, since the suggestion of motive by verbal consonance is a typical rhetor's device.  But the skill of writing history in the manner of Thucydides and Tacitus was lost; even his excerpts of Rufinus and Orosius could not teach it to Gildas.

But the fact that he did not write history like a classical historian does not mean that Gildas did not write history.  His historical writing is best understood as the result of two factors to both of which I have given a good deal of weight: a comparatively large but peculiar amount of written texts, and a striking inability to understand chronology.  Other factors, such as his frequently discussed homiletic and political purpose, are far less to the point; after all, Thucydides and Tacitus are hardly without their homiletic and political purposes either.  What shapes Gildas is the extremely peculiar mix of tremendous rhetorical skill, intelligent (if often misguided) historical thought, very uneven access to sources, and absence of proper time reckoning.  As every historian knows, he got the date of the Letter to Agitius wrong, although it has not always been understood that his intellectual scheme of historical interpretation was a contributing factor.  It is also very possible that he may have made a mess of the chronology of his predecessor E, jumbling together two different usurpations separated by thirty years.  But as events get closer to him, his narration, though impressionistic, becomes firmer: though he has missed the proper date of the Letter to Agitius, there is nothing in his account of the Saxon war and Ambrosius' revolt that can be seriously challenged, and a good deal that can be enlarged, confirmed, and even dated, by other evidence.


[1] Gildas’ attitude to Pelagianism - the data are confusing and contradictory - will be discussed in book 9.

[2]The age of Arthur, pg. 344 and notes.  As for the incredible depths of nonsense he manages to utter in one and the same breath, just look at the top of the same page.  "Germanus found in Britain the same active hostility of the poor towards the rich that Fastidius and the Sicilian Briton knew, and turned it to his advantage" - apparently Morris has forgotten that his own (unacceptable) interpretation made "active hostility of the poor towards the rich" the motor of the Pelagian movement, and now wants to make Pelagianism a movement of the rich alone - this only ten years after its defeat in Rome!  And immediately after this follows his reading of Germanus' extraordinary actions in St.Alban's shrine, in which he obtruded relics of other saints; which Morris excellently reads as an attack on the nationalistic and separatist use of the Saint's cult - a reading which holds even if we accept Thompson's view of Germanus' mission (which otherwise largely contradicts that of Morris and is in my view infinitely better), since, whether Pelagianism was a major national movement and the mainstream of the British church, or whether it was an upper-class fad largely confined to the court of the usurper, Germanus would need to underline the supranational nature of Christianity and the Church.  With such wild veering between sense and nonsense, is not this writer to be called maddening?

[3]SNYDER op.cit. 146-149 and notes.

[4] Nor should we disregard the possibility that the Gallic Chronicle itself may have been influenced by the view of exiles such as the house of Ambrosius, which would have their own reasons to underline as much as possible the power of the Saxons in their own mother country.  Ian Wood has recently suggested (in G.AUSENDA, editor, After Empire, Woodbridge 1995) that the Chronicle was written by Faustus of Riez, a British Roman of aristocratic lineage (he became abbot of the aristocratic monastery of Lérins, which no commoner would have).  There are reasons to think that Faustus had some contact with both “Vortigern” (whose dynasty, we will find out in Bk.6 ch.5 below, preserved an independent memory of Faustus as a house saint of theirs until the eighth century) and the house of Ambrosius; when a British military settlement sent to Gaul by the Ambrosiads and with its own bishop (Bishop Rigocatus) became stranded as a result of Visigothic conquests that isolated it from Britain, Faustus helped Rigocatus with the pastoral care of its members.

[5] See Appendix III.

[6] Of course, the Ambrosiads would not be the only ones to flee: members of their party (probably associated with them in Saxon hatred), dispossessed or fearful citizens, and Christians who wanted no compromise with the heathen and brutal Saxons (whose ordinary tactics, according to Sidonius Apollinaris, included human sacrifice), would also have left.  But all of these would amount to a few thousands at most, including slaves and dependants, and could hardly be said to make up a massive migratory movement, of which Continental sources show no sign.  Incidentally, this is our first reason to doubt the ordinary picture of British colonization of western Armorica (Brittany) as starting from mass flight from Saxon assault.  I will deal with the subject in Book 8.

[7]The few early documents in Nennius, in particular the genealogy of ch.17 and the jumbled account of A, do not add very much to Gildas' account; but it may be significant that, while Nennius knew two such indubitable Gildasian-age survivals (and I will argue that he knew L), he had nothing whatever of the Ambrosian file.  Why is that?  One would not expect such a complete loss.  Is it (1) that the pro-Ambrosian documents of Gildas were lost with the collapse of the Ambrosian house, while differently orientated items such as the Genealogy and A had survived in places not connected with them?  Or that (2) the Genealogy and A were part of the same document, and that alone survived by pure chance?  Or (3) that, conversely, the lost documents were part of a compilation produced for public consumption by Ambrosian supporters, and so bundled together that they could all be lost at once?  I incline to (1); but we cannot be sure.

[8] It is probable that the lack of information about the pre-406 period depended largely on a feeling among post-Roman Educated Britain that such things weren't needed; the earlier period belonged to an Imperial past well recorded by dozens of historians from Livy and Polybius to Aurelius Victor and Rufinus, whose scrolls will have graced many a well-born man's library; and, for that matter, the identity of the new state was not primarily British, but rather that of a claimant to Imperial Roman unity.  It was their descendants and successors six decades later, finding themselves in a country without a written history, who will have urgently felt the need of one.

[9]Fascinating recent studies of Gildas' style include FRANCOIS KERLOUEGAN, Le "De excidio" de Gildas: les destinees de la culture latine dans l'ile de Bretagne au VIe siecle, Paris 1987; M.LAPIDGE, Gildas' education, and NEIL WRIGHT, Gildas' prose style and its origins, both in DUMVILLE &·LAPIDGE (ed), Gildas: new approaches, Woodbridge, 1984.

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

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