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

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Chapter 9.1: Saint Gildas reconsidered

Fabio P. Barbieri

Arthur had two successors. Not in the realm of war or politics – at least, not of practical politics. Each claimed a different part of his mantle - of his attitudes, of his intellectual and moral heritage; and one of them is already known to us.

Let us ask a question: Arthur’s radical rejection of the obsession with Romanity had led to a new political culture, Christian and Latin-speaking but based on Celtic categories, capable of astonishing sweep and broad organization. Does this remind us of anyone? It does. It is the political equivalent of Gildas’ literary art, with its combination of non-Roman culture with Roman Catholic faith, its ability to arrange arguments with a scope and depth unknown to Continental contemporaries, its altogether new conception.

We remember that I argued, from the suggestion of Auerbach, that Gildas’ style and construction cannot have been the result only of individual genius, however much that was present, but of a whole culture; and we have since found here and there evidence of similar high culture.  It is there in the inventive and penetratingly insightful use of the two Gospel scenes of banquet and temptation in O; in A’s analytical account of royalty; and in Nennius 48’s fragment about Vortigern, with its elegant Latin antitheses and conclusion: Postquam exosi fuerunt illi omnes homines gentis suae pro piaculo suo inter potentes et impotentes, inter servum et liberum, inter monachos et laicos, inter parvum et magnum, et ipse dum de loco ad loco vagus errat, tandem cor eius crepuit et defunctus est - non cum laude.  These are the fragments of an once brilliant and original tradition of Latin writing, of whom Gildas may have been the highest instance.  But where did he draw his breadth of vision, his insight, his long-range literary art?  From contemporary society?  Hardly.  The chronic and pervasive short-termism of his contemporaries, incapable of seeing beyond their own immediate interest, is exactly what he raises his vast rhetorical talent, what he hurls the resources of his intellect, against; in the name of a vision beyond the mere family feuds, beyond the miserable greed of individual kings whose incapacity to learn even from their own mistakes, let alone from the great patrimony of a culture whose store of high examples, insight, morality and knowledge Gildas so values, drives him to despair.

We have asked implicitly, when examining the majesty of Gildas’ literary art, where such a solid, mature and bold approach to writing could have been developed and learned, in the tribal narrowness of the Britain he describes.  There certainly was no resource in contemporary Continental literature, where the best is but chronicling (Gregory of Tours) and the worst is dead rhetoric badly applied (Cassiodorus)[1].  But now our research has led us to conceive of a political leader with the same bold and solid approach to politics, if nothing like the humanity and Christian sense of values: the Arthur who, in his middle years, came to look at all the countries surrounding Britain, from the Scandinavian outlands from which its pagan settlers – and perhaps his own mother’s father – had come, to the Spanish sea route which looked towards the mighty and terrible Empire of the East; and had conceived plans to use this vast range of political problems and conditions not as a threat but as an advantage, rejecting the ossified and irrelevant remains of Roman ideas in favour of a uniquely bold new design whose enormity and baroque complexity resolved itself, like Gildas’ great literary work, into a simple, vast conception with the fascination of inevitability – do away with the failed Roman order; neutralize the external dangers, Scandinavia, Ireland, Byzantium; master the more threatening barbarian entities; and above all, master Gaul, claiming for yourself both the heritage of the Celtic ancestors still remembered by learned Romans such as Ausonius and that of the Latin and Catholic West.  Like Gildas, Arthur saw the point and stuck to it.

And Arthur himself generated, it seems, a good deal of literature: generous to bards, fond of being praised, he was the direct cause of the writing of L and probably of A, two fundamental texts[2].  It was to L, and to a lesser extent to A, that Gildas was reacting throughout his book, and it follows that he must have taken L very seriously, as a work of literature, and as a presentation of values.  As we have seen the correspondence between the kind of mind displayed by Arthur and the literary art of Gildas, here we have the connecting link: it was by reacting to the claims, the justifications, the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the Arthurian revolution, that Gildas reached the peak of his genius – like the American and French Revolutions stimulated swarms of writers of genius on both sides, from De Maistre to Carlile to Michelet to Herzen and up to the towering peaks of Toqueville.  And if a man of Gildas’ genius – for we cannot ignore, when all is said and done, his sheer natural talent, which would have made him an artist in words whatever the form and level of literary art he happened to be born in – regarded A and L as important stimuli, and constructed an awesome rhetorical structure in reacting to them, it follows that A and L must have been literary work of some merit.  They must have reflected the intellectual and spiritual impulse of the Celticizing revolution, which, by consciously and elaborately breaking with Roman ideas, released a flood of new vision which, though it ultimately failed, must represent the brightest moment – lost, alas – of a very dark century.  No wonder that Arthur loomed so great across the generations to follow!

Born in 516/7, Gildas was still a boy when Arthur slew his mighty brother Hueil, and grew up in the shadow of successive triumphs by the enemy of their house.  It is possible that he was placed in a monastery (the monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Lancarfan agree that his family chose a religious life for him) to keep him out of the way of trouble and of Arthur’s suspicions.  Even so, we are told that when he came from Armagh to Britain, the monastery in which he lived somehow ended up being besieged by Arthur, until he (?) and its abbot pacified the king.

He was barely adult when the impulse of Arthur’s conquests finally spent itself; and the king’s power began to decay as Gildas’ prodigious literary talent was manifesting itself.  Gildas was 24 or 25 when Arthur died.  I have to assume that Gildas was aware of the memory of his mighty brother, since an echo of Hueil’s praises can still be heard even in Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Life; and one cannot imagine that he looked back on his killer with any affection.  He did, however, speak with praise of the victory at Mount Badon – in which Hueil took no part – if only to underline that he was born at its time.  I doubt whether, as Gerald of Wales was told, he actually hated the king for killing his brother and therefore suppressed all mention of his great deeds.  The Ruin of Britain treats L as a representation of a glorious recent past, disciplined and victorious, even though it is trying to demolish the results of the revolution by encouraging the “good” party to take a more thorough control of affairs in the country – that is, inevitably, to centralize power; which is the opposite of Arthur’s policy.

Gildas claims he has seen the evils grow worse and worse in his own lifetime, indicating that they represented a fairly recent development in British society.  Already by his thirty-fourth year, he had resolved that what the age needed was severe condemnation and a call to repentance, written in the kind of Latin he could best produce; but he did not have the nerve - Quia non tam fortissimorum militum enuntiare trucis belli pericula mihi statutum est, quam desidiosorum; silui, fateor, cum inmenso cordis dolore, ut mihi renum scrutator testis est Dominus - spatio bilustri temporis uel eo amplius praetereuntis.  It took him ten years to work up the courage to speak - but “if not now, when?  If not us, who?  If I am silent, who will speak?”  Who, if not Gildas, could have mobilized the Latin language and the Christian religion and culture of his country in the cause of obvious right?  Certainly, to his contemporaries (auctor Giltas) he stood alone[3]; even to his enemies, as we shall see, he was the one voice of an age they believed they had silenced.

But the only reality known to Gildas, as we have seen, was the Celto-British reality in which he was born.  One certain fact about him, repeated in both of his medieval Lives (which have otherwise very little in common) is that he was the son of Caw of Prydyn (Pictland), a Highland king whom various faded traditions make the father of a variable number of saints.  The Life of St.Cadoc locates him beyond the Campsie Fells.  That is, Gildas may have loved the Latin language, but his father’s kingdom lay far beyond any permanent Roman border ever reached.  This seems symptomatic of the changes that had taken place in post-Roman Britain, with the advance - mainly military - of the Christian border tribes into the unsettled North[4]; and it is possible that even in Gildas’ time, some Latin-born Briton from the lowland south might have been more in touch with ancient Roman realities than this enthusiastic but naive outsider, fed only on libraries, helpless when he did not have Roman books to consult.

One Roman book he did not read was clearly a digest of Roman law; as we have seen not only by his ignorance of the meaning of consul, but also by his misapplication of purely Celtic political categories to the Roman world, in Britain and outside.  And this reflects on his political project.  He wants to see the Ambrosiad high king rule, that is – in modern terms – he wants a more centralized and effective State; but he does not even know where to begin.  The only central institution he knows are the all-purpose rectores, tax collectors, judges, political envoys; a more sophisticated legal mind would realize that of course one person in one place could not fulfil so many offices at once – of course quia inclinati tanto pondere sunt pressi, idcirco spatium respirandi non habent.

The rector is the one Gildasian element which does not seem to originate in Celtic ideas: a dependent of the high king of all the island, that is of the succession of Constantine III and Ambrosius.  The Irish borrowed the rechtaire from Britain along with Christianity.  Other than that, the very notion of salaried dependency is alien to Celtic law, since it implies personal independence in all things that do not have to do with salary; it is a relationship between legal equals, inconceivable to the Celtic mind.  The correspondence between rechtaire and rector is not perfect: the rechtaire does not seem to be delegated, like Gildas' rector, to represent the country's highest king - in all his functions - in the territory of lesser sovereigns, but merely to collect royal income.  This tax-gathering aspect, which Gildas seems to studiously ignore, is probably the aspect of the rector that struck most forcibly observes across the Irish Sea; and it follows that it must have been quite important.  It is even possible that it was imported directly by British invaders: in particular, if Arthur’s invasion of Ireland had any historical reality, it seems to me very possible that he would put in place, as any conqueror would, arrangements for the collection of tribute and the control of local elements[5].

However, as Gildas himself acknowledges, as a political institution the rector was a failure.  It did not manage to curb the wilfulness of local powers, much less to avoid ruinous wars and the unwholesome growth of the likes of Maglocunus.  In effect, the conflict between the principle of the sovereignty and independence of every sovereign "married to the land", however small his territory, and that of national unity and uniform administration, the one a Celtic principle, the other Roman, was irreconcilable.

Since Gildas was so completely ignorant of Roman law, which indubitably could still be encountered on the Continent, I incline to disbelieve the statement that Gildas went to the Continent in his youth to perfect his learning.  This is not impossible: before his 25th year, much of Gaul would have been held by Arthur, and there is evidence of direct British contact with Frankish (not Gallo-Roman) ecclesiastics about 535[6].  However, even the kind of surviving Roman learning known to Gregory of Tours would surely have been enough to correct some of the more bizarre Gildasian notions about the Roman Empire.  It is likely enough that Gildas died on the continent, in the monastery of Ruys that was later dedicated to him; but the legend in the Life of David suggests that he left Britain only after being defeated by David, which can only have happened late in his life; and that his departure from the island was a traumatic event with all the features of a personal tragedy.  The Life of David certainly distorts, and probably exaggerates, these events; but that does not mean that it cannot be taken as a hint, at least, of how they were originally perceived.

At any rate, even the statement that Gildas had anything to do with Ruys in his life is open to question, given the way in which the Life of St.Gurthiern places not only the death, but even the life and much of the activities of its patron in Brittany, where the historical Vortigern could never have gone!  Other Breton and Irish Saints’ lives show a similar habit of appropriating people who had died elsewhere, like for instance the two “Finnians”.  Later Welsh sources repositioned Gildas’ own father Caw in Anglesey, of all places; and we remember that we have suggested a similar post mortem destiny for Maglocunus, transferred from North Britain to Gwynedd.  One clue does suggest that Gildas might have been in Armorica in the late 560s: the summoning of the Council of Tours (567), which ruled against a scandal - irregular episcopal elections in Armorica - which he had denounced in The Ruin; this may suggest that he had managed to make his protest known to Gaulish church leaders.

I am committed to the date 561 for the writing of The ruin of Britain, in the shadow of the Justinianic wars and the peace with Persia.  It seems to have made Gildas a respected authority, whose opinion was sought in all sorts of things to do with Church life and general morality.  The largely legendary Life of Gildas by a monk of Gildas’ monastery in Ruys, Brittany, makes him be summoned to Ireland by one king Americus of Ireland to reform monastic life there[7].  This notice is credible on more than one ground.  Irish annals do mention a visit by Gildas in 565.  There was an Irish king Ainmire, not of all Ireland, but of Leinster, at the right time; he only lasted three years.  And it is notable that, while The Ruin was widely known both on the Continent and in Anglo-Saxon England, Gildas was known in Ireland mainly for his writings on monastic discipline.  It is in Ireland that long selections from letters on monastic discipline, and the “Penitential” - a collection of rulings on monastic life - were preserved.  And forty years after his death, Columbanus, an Irishman from Leinster, mentions him admiringly as an authority on monastic and ecclesiastic discipline.  Altogether, when confirmation flows from so many different sides, I think we may treat the notice of Gildas’ reforming journey as historical.

However, the visit to Ireland seems to have been intended to nip in the bud there a phenomenon which he had already met and fought in Britain.  Along with the writing of The ruin of Britain and the visit to Ireland, the best established event about Gildas is his clash with the monastic movement of St.David, the future patron of Wales.  There is a well-known and long-since-noticed verbal correspondence between the severe rule of St.David, reported by his biographer Rhygyvarch, and two of Gildas’ “fragments”.  Rhygyvarch: iugum ponunt in humeris; suffossoria vangaque invicto brachio terrae defigunt; (“they place[d] the yoke on [their own] shoulders, and dug up the earth by shovel and spades in [their own] invincible arms”); Gildas: aratra trahentes et suffosoria figentes terrae (“pulling ploughs and digging shovels in the earth”).  Once again, the correspondence is verified by a rare Latin word, suffossorium, unknown to most Latin dictionaries; just as we once deduced the existence of A from the coincidence of sablones in Gildas and Nennius.  Then, there are definite mentions in Irish sources of a contest between David and Gildas for supremacy over the British church, which David won.  Thirdly, there is a legend of a bell made by Gildas and denied to David.  Fourthly and decisively, there is David’s own legend, in which the mere presence of the still unborn David silences Gildas in the middle of his preaching.  To ignore all these matters, as a recent account of Gildas’ position in Church history does[8], seems to me ill-advised.

The legend of the bell is the remotest of these four pieces of evidence; but it clearly suggests that there was very little sympathy between the cults of Gildas and David.  For reasons we can no longer fathom, some tales, both in Brittany and South Wales, make Gildas a skilled maker of bells.  In the Life by the monk of Ruys, he sends one as a gift to St.Brigid of Kildare.  That one reaches its addressee, and we hear nothing more about it; but in two other accounts, Gildas’ bell has a troubled journey.  In the Breton Life of St.Iltud, Gildas designs his bell for David, but Iltud - teacher of both - conceives a great desire for it: as a result, the bell will not ring for David, who perceives the will of the Lord and sends it to Iltud.  The same story is told, to the glory of Cadoc, in the Welsh Life of St.Cadoc, in which the Pope himself takes the place of St.David, and Cadoc that of Iltud: Gildas’ bell will not ring for the Pope, since Cadoc desired it, and it has to be sent to him.

I have no doubt that the Cadoc version is derivative, and the Iltud version original; because it seems clear that at the heart of this story is some sort of disguised apology - “why won’t the bell of St.Gildas ring for the Pope/St.David?”  The story resolves this troubling question by positing a higher claim: a better man had desired it.  No such problem arises when Gildas sends his bell to Brigid, patroness of Leinster, where Gildas had worked to reform the monasteries in Ainmire’s time and left permanent memories; but when the bell is sent to David - or to the Pope - there is trouble.

Now, it would make perfect sense to read the silence of the bell as an echo of the apparent silence of Gildas’ voice in Wales (no church in the Principality is consecrated to him).  Why won’t the bell of Gildas ring for David, why is Gildas’ voice silent in Wales, when another bell rings so clearly for Brigid, when his voice rings loud and clear in Leinster?  I repeat: the point of the story is, clearly, to explain this troubling silence by positing a higher claim - namely, that of the great sage Illtud.

This is not contradicted by the fact that, whatever Iltud’s relationship to Gildas, there is no doubt that the idea that David was also his disciple is an invention.  Not only is Iltud unknown to the Life of David, but Rhygyvarch ascribes him a quite different teacher, one Paulinus.  Why, then, should Iltud be made the teacher of David?  Obviously, to place Iltud’s claim to the bell on a higher level than David’s - which, given that David is the patron of all Britain, can only be ascribed to someone ahead of both him and Gildas in time, learning and sanctity, and whose claim may legitimately and peacefully be accepted by both.  Thus, a teacher of both must be introduced (in Celtic hagiography, legendary teachers often have a special place); thus, Iltud is intruded in the hagiography of David against the evidence.

That makes perfect sense; a story in which Gildas’ bell does not sound for a completely unhistorical Pope, and in which the superior claim that justifies it is that of Cadoc - placing Cadoc above the Pope! - makes none.  However, this Cadocian rewriting is not without significance.  We notice that in all three legends, the bell is sent to dignitaries of the highest degree: if it is not St. David, it is Brigid - “the Mary of the Gael” - or the Pope.  The fact that the Pope should have replaced St.David testifies that this saint was regarded, by the time the Life of Cadoc was written, as having some sort of supreme rank among the saints of Wales; not unlike Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s Trias thaumaturga.  Gildas’ bells, it seems clear, are only for the highest: if not St.David, then the Pope.  How Gildas got to receive the name of “he who makes bells for the highest of saints and bishops”, however, is more than I can guess.  None of his surviving writings, or of the better kinds of notices, seems to shed any light on the matter.  But there can be no doubt that the basic point of the story is that the sound of Gildas does not ring out for David.

The story of the bell can only date to a fairly late period.  What it describes and tries to explain is not a contest or clash, but a permanent condition, the silence of Gildas in Wales; that is, when it was conceived, the fact that Gildas did not “speak” in Wales - that his name was not honoured in Wales - was already an undeniable and permanent reality.  What is more, it was a reality whose origins the legend-writers did not know; if he or they had known any idea of original hostility between the two great British saints, they would not have invented a legend that not only does not suspect any such thing, but actually places both in a common line of spiritual descent from the Great Teacher Iltud.  Incidentally, the fact that Iltud rather than Paulinus is the figure of the Great Teacher shows - if there was any need to prove it - that the legend was produced within the cult of Gildas - probably in Ruys or the surrounding area - rather than that of David.  David’s cult had its own ideas about Gildas, we will find out soon enough.

A contest between David and Gildas for supremacy over ecclesiastical Britain is described in the Irish Life of St.Finnian of Clonard[9] - trailing historical problems in its wake.  The notion of a contest for supreme power is of course unacceptable.  There is nothing to suggest that Gildas was in any sense the head of the British church, or even that he desired such a position. The reverse is true: it was David whose complete victory in the struggles of the British Church led to his becoming a bishop (we have no evidence that Gildas ever was one), while Gildas’ name was driven out of Wales to Ireland and the remote fastnesses of south-east Brittany.  It was because the ideological struggle effectively resolved itself in the conquest of ecclesiastical supremacy by David and his party, that a later age imagined the struggle between the two giants of British Christianity in terms of a clash for ecclesiastical power.

Apart from a ludicrous and patently late legend about David, Padarn and Teilo being consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem (in whose background we discern Muslim control of the Holy Land, thinly disguised as Jewish), the claim for David’s supremacy is based on David’s triumph at the Synod of Llandewi Brefi.  According to Rhygyvarch, the Synod was convened to deal with a resurgence of Pelagianism in Britain.  But the chaos and the crowd made it impossible for anyone to be properly heard.  The assembled fathers feared lest the crowd should simply go home, unpreached-at, unconvinced, and unprotected against Pelagianism.  Paulinus, David’s teacher, decided that David had to intervene: his voice, if anyone’s, would have the power to make the crowd listen.  The story says that David had to be asked and begged before he consented - in his humility - to speak before the assembled bishops and people of Britain; even though already before entering the Synod, he had performed a major and symbolic miracle, resurrecting a dead young man - clearly significant of the new life he was to breathe in the all-male Church establishment of Britain.  But once he had spoken, all those present recognized at once that he, and only he, could be the leader of the British church.

Now according to Rhygyvarch, the synod had been summoned by authorities other than David; but other sources thoroughly disagree.  Both the Life of St.Cadoc and the lost Life of St.Cynnydd (of which an abstract was made by the Englishman John of Tynemouth in the early 1300s) state that the synod was called by David himself - flanked, in the Life of Cynnydd, by his supporters Padarn and Teilo; and neither speak of Pelagianism.  Cynnydd, who was a cripple, refused to go, and even reversed a miracle performed by David to heal his twisted leg; Cadoc, we are told, was absent when the synod was summoned, and was furious when he found out - until one of those providential angels, so frequent in Celtic hagiography, ordered him to forgive David.

It must be underlined that there is no indication that the Lives of Cynnydd and Cadoc are dependent on each other.  Their accounts of the synod episode are widely different: Cynnydd is visited by the three saints in person, and refuses out of humility (or so we are told; but the fact that he will not even allow St.David to heal his crippled leg could be held to indicate hostility), while Cadoc has no opportunity to either face David or any of his supporters, for he is not there.  And in the case of Cadoc we are told that his anger had to do with David not only summoning the Synod but claiming presidency over it - a presidency which Cadoc felt pertained to him; while no such claim is made for the humble Cynnydd.

Cadoc, then - or, at least, the ecclesial forces that identified with him - was an enemy of David; and here we return to the Irish Life of St.Finian of Clonard.  It is not only that it certifies that a tradition of a Gildas-David clash existed, but that it brings together four sixth-century figures who were involved in the clash.  Finnian himself, though the Life makes him an Irishman (but Cadfael remarks that he speaks British like a native!), was very probably a British contemporary of Gildas called Uinniau.  According to St.Columbanus, he had asked Gildas for advice about rigorist monks; therefore, the Irish-preserved letter fragments in which Gildas condemns David’s movement were probably part of one or more replies written to him.  This, in turn, suggests that Uinniau, himself was also unhappy about their ways.  The Life also involves Cadfael - i.e. Cadoc - as the first proposed arbitrator between the rival saints (according to the story, he resigns his arbitration in favour of the unknown young Finnian, just over from Ireland) - the same Cadoc who burned with indignation at David’s usurping activities.  In effect, both Cadoc and Uinniau/Finnian may be suspected to have been on Gildas’ side, however that is conceived.  The Life of Cadoc shows Cadoc’s functionary - “the sexton of Llancarfan” - taking “ the gospel of Gildas” to a local lord.

The Irish Life concludes with a determination in David’s favour, but by the time it was written, St.David’s was effectively, and long since, the greatest bishopric in Wales.  Even if Cadoc, Uinniau/Finnian, and Gildas, had once been known as David’s enemies, David’s name had become so great that it was impossible to imagine that anyone who opposed him could be a good Christian - let alone a saint like the three in question, who were all venerated in Ireland.  The presence of a cluster of interrelated names of sixth-century ecclesiastics, involved in a struggle which echoes, however remotely, one that really happened, must be significant; but it is, I should guess, practically impossible to find a historical reality behind the legend.  The legend has been designed, consciously or unconsciously, to hide it; but it has preserved the evidence of the interconnection of these churchmen, and of the clash of two of them.

These are all legends, and events cannot be expected to have taken place as they tell.  Cadoc being absent as the Synod was summoned, for instance, is too coincidental for words, and sounds like a justification or excuse for a major defeat in ecclesiastical politics.  If we were told that Cadoc had been present, had vigorously opposed the Synod, and that the Synod had taken place in spite of all his protests, his status as a powerful and effective miracle-working Celtic saint would be severely affected.  But these legends are based on ecclesiastical claims; and it is clear that the claims of St.David and his successors were based on what was perceived to be his triumph at the Synod.  Just as the summoning of the Synod is David’s offence in the Life of Cadoc and his one appearance in that of Cynnydd, the Synod itself is the central and triumphant moment in Rhygyvarch’s Life.  Its centrality is shown by the way in which its echo works its way backwards in the legend, to create the tale of the silencing of Gildas.  The story is that Gildas was preaching to the people of Britain in the days of King Triphun of Dyved (the 480s), when he suddenly became incapable of speaking.  Inquiry showed that Non, mother of David, was in the congregation, with the unborn saint still in her womb, and that it was the baby’s inborn spiritual supremacy that had silenced Gildas.  Cruelly, Rhygyvarch or his source placed in Gildas’ mouth these sycophantic words: “The son who is in that woman’s womb has grace and power and rank greater than I, for God has given him status and sole rule and primacy over all the saints of Britannia for ever, before and after the Judgement.  Farewell, brothers and sisters; I am not able to abide here longer, owing to the son of this nun, for to him is delivered sole rule over all the people of this island, and it is necessary for me to go to another island, and to leave the whole of Britannia to this woman’s son.”

The echoes of Llandewi Brefi are impossible to miss: not only the fact that Gildas predicts the supremacy of David over both the clergy and the laity of Britain (which is why the rather verbose speech seems to repeat itself), which is realized at Llandewi Brefi, but also in that the question is of the ability of each saint to speak to the whole people of Britain.  It was because David was able to speak to the whole people where no other Church leader had been able to make himself heard above the crowd, that his supremacy had been accepted.

The clash of David and Gildas represented the clash of two visible and opposing church parties.  Gildas stood for decency and order, for a certain old-fashioned idea of rightness and duty, and even in his most aggressive Jeremiads, his desire is clearly not that king and bishops be exterminated, but that they should turn, repent, and go back to their proper duties.  David, by contrast, is to be identified as the leader of a virtually independent monastic movement.  Even six hundred years after his age, the hagiography of Rhygyvarch does not place him in anything like the creative opposition with a king that is almost a natural part of any Celtic saint’s life; or rather, it twists the story to a purely negative ending.  The king of the region as David is founding the monastery of Menevia is a mysterious Boia, an Irish invader unknown to the genealogies; and we recognize the opening scene of the legend of Patrick and Loegaire in the scene in which the king sees, from far away, the smoke of a new fire, lit in his land without his permission.  As in the case of Patrick and Loegaire, this is a challenge; but rather than moving towards a reconciliation and the proper submission of king to saint, the story moves with relentless violence towards the complete destruction of Boia and all his people.

This attitude is reflected in Gildas’ testimony.  We have spent several books and hundreds of thousands of words to find out one thing: Gildas does not lie.  He may avoid mentioning a fact that does not suit his argument, but when he makes a charge against someone, he has reason to.  We must therefore take seriously his charges against David’s followers.  He never names David, to our knowledge; but, as we have seen, his description of the extreme self-imposed poverty of a certain rigorist group in his time (aratra trahentes et suffosoria figentes terrae). - is clearly parallel to the much later description of the asceticism of David’s followers in Rhygyvarch’s Life of St.David, (iugum ponunt in humeris; suffossoria vangaque invicto brachio terrae defigunt), and must come from the same source.  These people recur again and again in the fragments of Gildas’ letters preserved in two Irish manuscripts, and never in a positive light.  Gildas hates them, and his description shows heights of savage rhetorical invective unclimbed even by The ruin.

He starts with two ferocious Pauline censures of heresy: “’the worst of times will arise, and men will be seized with self-love, miserly, arrogant, proud, blasphemous, rebellious against their parents, ungrateful, impure, without love or peace, accusers of others, uncontrolled, cruel, hating what is good, treacherous, brash, over-swollen, fond more of their own lusts than of God, holding the shape of religion but denying its nature.’  Many will do evil and perish, as the Apostle says: ‘they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge; they know nothing of God’s justice, and seek to set up their own - they do not even begin to submit to God’s righteousness.’”  Given Gildas’ huge knowledge of the Bible, and the constant aptness of his quotations in The Ruin, we cannot imagine that he chose these particular passages without purpose; it is not his way to use Biblical quotations haphazardly or where only superficial parallels exist.

He goes on: “They busy themselves charging every brother who does not follow them in their novel practices and individual views; while they eat bread by measure, they brag of it beyond any measure; while they use [only] water, at the same time they get drunk on the cup of hatred; while they enjoy dry stuff, at one and the same time they take pleasure in condemning; while they stay awake longer and longer, they take note of others asleep.  They say to the feet and other parts of the body: ‘unless you all will be head, we will reckon you as nothing’ - a promise given not out of love, but out of contempt.  And as they brood on these ‘head decrees’ of theirs, they prefer slaves to lords, the common people to kings, lead to gold, iron to silver… And in the same way they place fasting above mutual love, staying awake to justice, their own contrivances to concord, a little cell to the Church, savagery to humility, man - to finish with - to God.”

To a modern spirit, of course, preferring slaves to masters and the common people to kings is nothing to be ashamed of; but what Gildas is attacking is not any expression of democratic sentiments, but rather the reversal of sane standards in the service of a novel, perverse, self-consecrated religious aristocracy.  “Those men, over there, fast, though fasting does no good at all where the other virtues are not followed; these men, here among us, act according to charity, which is the fullness of the law, being taught by God.  As the harps of the Holy Ghost say, ‘All our righteousness is as rags filthy with menstrual blood’.  But these bellows of Satan say to men who may be their betters, whose angels behold the face of the Father: ‘go forth away from us, for you are unclean’.  To this answers the Lord: ‘These shall be smoke in My wrath, and a fire burning for evermore’.  Not those who despise their brother does the Lord call blessed, but the poor; not the rancorous, but the meek; not the envious, but those who weep both for their own and for others’ sins; not to those who are hungry and thirsty for water and the contempt of others, but for justice; not those who see others as counting for nothing, but the merciful; not the proud of heart, but the lowly; not the harsh unto others, but the peace-makers; not those who bring about wars, but those who suffer persecution for justice - these, indeed, are to be believed to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Those who bring about wars!  Qui inferunt bella!  Is Gildas telling us that David and his people were instigating war?  He is indeed.  His point throughout is that the vicious egalitarianism of David’s movement is a threat to the social order, encouraging envy, civil dissension, and the thing that Gildas hates worse than death - civil war.  A modern spirit may find much to admire in David’s movement; and there can be no doubt that Gildas’ attitude to it had something of caste prejudice - he found it natural that kings should be preferred to the uulgus.  But his main point is absolutely coherent with that of The ruin: a detestation of civil dissension, of self-seeking pride, of disruptive influences in a society all too easily led to war and slaughter.

And it is not as though the opposition were Gandhian in their principles or methods.  Their attitude may be read in the brutal suppression of Gildas’ memory; not only a feature of the legend of the bell, but a historical fact.  No church dedicated to Gildas exists in the Principality.  What is more, the legend itself abundantly proves that he had been “silenced” in the ears of David’s followers; that is, that they did not read his work.  The legend makes Gildas preach and be silenced, and David be born, is “in the reign of king Triphun”.  Now the genealogy of the Irish-descended kings of Dyved is perhaps the most solid and historical of all recorded Welsh genealogies, finding an exact parallel of its early stages in an Irish source; and it tells us that Triphun was Vortipor’s grandfather - that is, at least, his predecessor-but-one on the throne.  This must have been common knowledge, easily accessed to any Welshman with genealogical skills - i.e. practically any educated Welshman.  And yet anyone who read The Ruin would know that it was written in Vortipor’s time, that Gildas was 44, and that Vortipor was already very old.  In other words, Gildas cannot possibly have been preaching in the time of Vortipor’s grandfather[10].

What does this mean?  It means that those who wrote the legend were aware of the clash between Gildas and David, but that they had never read Gildas’ work.  In fact, they had no idea who Gildas was - apart from the fact that he had opposed David.  What does the legend tell us, but that David had been born to refute Gildas?

This has another corollary: that the cult of David elaborated, very early on, a historicistic doctrine that made David the fulfilment of Welsh Christianity, overcoming and silencing all past ages.  This is why Gildas came earlier.  The Davidian environment exaggerated his antiquity and outdatedness, so as to make David’s birth represent the fulfilment of the times, the moment in which something new and triumphant replaces something past, feeble, and unnecessary.  Therefore - why doubt it? - the followers of this new way would not bother with the writings of the old; and they identified the old way with the way of Gildas, though they knew no more than his name.

So David’s movement suppressed the works of Gildas.  The vindictive destruction of the work of enemies is a feature we have had plenty of reason to suspect in Arthur and his party; and for this reason, I say that David is the other heir of Arthur.  If Gildas inherited the breadth of vision, the intellectual energy and grasp of facts, that were characteristic of the Celticizing revolution, David is the heir of the energies of revolution, of its contempt of the past and of the existing order, of its eagerness for renewal and extreme, self-sacrificing, muscular simplicity.  Like Arthur, whose party spent so much time writing and rewriting their own view of history, David’s followers believed that history preluded to and justified them.

This doctrine is still present, somewhat watered down and misunderstood, in Rhygyvarch’s opening words, in which he asserts that God foreknew the birth of His great ones in advance, and laid visible foreshadowings of David’s greatness before he was ever born; and these foreshadowings, it turns out, are the successive humiliations of St.Patrick - driven out of Vallis Rosina thirty years before David’s birth - and of St.Gildas, driven out shortly before David’s birth.  It must be observed that, if Patrick left for Ireland in 430 or so, this entry is another chronological monstrosity of the same character as that which makes Triphun and Gildas contemporaries; which does not surprise us, since this cycle of legends was clearly created as a whole and with the same purpose.  The fact that Gildas “must go to another island” strongly suggests that he, too, must go to Ireland like Patrick, as a pis aller, not having been allowed to remain in Dyved; and this, in turn, leads to the conclusion that the Davidists regarded Ireland as a sort of dumping ground of the discarded and outdated features of ecclesial life, no longer suitable for the renewed Christianity of St.David’s island.

A general anti-Irish orientation is something that E.C.Bowen had reason to suspect in David’s movements, suggesting that he opposed the Irish-originated Dyved dynasty in the name of a British nativist consciousness.  It is certain that the kings of Dyved were still aware of their Irish roots in the time of Vortipor, whose monument is written in both Latin and Ogham Irish; and it is very curious that Gildas, in the course of his exceptionally skilful and multifarious repertory of invective against the Five Tyrants, does not make use of the Irish origin of the detested “wicked son of a good father”.  But perhaps that same contumely explains the reason: if Gildas were to attack Vortipor’s blood, he would involve his “good father” (Aircol) in his censure.  David, who preferred the uulgus to kings, has no such qualms. 

Having said all the possible evil of David, it is time to take a good look at Gildas’ own position.  Gildas, civilized, moderate yet delightfully passionate, immensely talented, asking for no more than simple decency, is as sympathetic to the modern mind - and certainly to mine - as David, savagely self-righteous, exclusivist by nature and choice, ascetic to the point of sadism and masochism, excessive in everything, is antipathetic; and, what is more, Gildas wrote the book.  We have no writings whatever by David, while everything we have of Gildas excites admiration and sympathy in equal parts.  But if David was standing up against Pelagianism, as Rhygyvarch claims, then he was standing up for the right; and if Gildas opposed him in this, then Gildas was at least mistaken.  Nothing wrong with that; more than one Father of the Church has held dubious opinions; but we have to know.

Gildas avoided doctrinal battles.  Certainly, those who look for Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or Augustinianism, in The Ruin, deceive themselves; no such thing can be found, because Gildas, like St.Patrick before him, did not want them there.  (It is even possible that Patrick and Gildas drew on a common British Christian tradition emphasizing the avoidance of direct doctrinal confrontation, and attempting to recall heretics to the flock by other means.)  He clearly said that he had no desire to be caught up in dogmatic arguments, though his disclaimer of being intellectually up to the job of refuting heresy (107.1) is, unlike Patrick's admissions of ignorance, no more than the kind of graceful, gentlemanly demurral we would expect.  His attitude - his political moderation, his preference for individual reform of character over collective political revolution - is easily recognizable by any Catholic.  He reveres the See of Rome - he can say nothing worse about simoniac bishops than that they emulate Novatian, usurper of the dominica margarita - and determinedly calls churchmen to obedience, to follow the rule of the ancients, to obey the vows made as a priest: haec quidem ab apostolo mandata et in diem uestrae ordinationis lecta, ut ea indirupte custodiretis - these things, ordered by the Apostle and read out on the day when you were ordained, so that you should keep them whole and undefiled.

Part of this is simply the result of his times.  He is faced not only with heresy, but with simony and gross sin among the bishops themselves.  109.1, speaking of a contemporary bishop and his son: ...quid erit ubi nec pater nec filius - mali genitoris exemplo prauatus - conspicitur castus? what shall happen when neither the father nor the son, depraved by his wicked parent's example, can be seen to be chaste?  We can only guess at the extent of their unchastity, but it must have been notorious.  Faced with such crass and unrepentant breaches of elementary morality, Gildas does not trouble to argue: he goes back to the equally elementary and already ancient rituals and teachings of the Church, the tradition of the fathers, and the duties laid on any regularly ordained priest.

Nevertheless, it seems very likely that his unmixed support for the Augustinian polemics of E may have been given not in clarity but in ignorance.  It has long been noticed that among the authorities he quotes, as “one of us”, is the Pelagian writer of De Virginitate; and historians eager to discover evidence of massive survival of Pelagianism in Britain seized on this detail with unthinking eagerness, even though by itself it proves nothing.  First, we cannot even be sure that he does quote him.  The passage (non agitur de qualitate peccati, sed de transgressione mandati; "what matters is not the level of the sin, but the disobedience of an order") happens at least three times in the same or similar words in three separate Pelagian works - De Uirginitate 6, First Letter, De Operibus 13 - and may, therefore, have been a locus communis.  What is more, it is not itself heretical, but unobjectionably Catholic, and may be paraphrased from the Catholic Catechism[11].  It is not fair to suggest any Pelagianism in such a Catholic writer as Gildas on such slender evidence.

What is far more troubling, and, I would say, pretty much conclusive, is his relationship with a series of powers which can be connected with the surviving tradition of south Irish Pelagianism.  We remember that the spread of Ogham “son of” stones was a good marker for the presence of Pelagianism: and that these stones are restricted to the far south of Ireland and to Dyved.  Dyved, it is well known, was conquered by Irish settlers, and the local dynasty, for all its adoption of Roman names - Vortipor’s father, the “good king” whom Gildas remembered, was called Aircol or Agricola - was conscious of its Irish inheritance until quite late: Vortipor himself has a surviving funeral stone written in both Latin and Ogham.  In other words, this dynasty is apparently associated with the spread of a Pelagian type of funerary monument from Ireland to Britain.

Now it is in the heart of the dynasty of Dyved’s realm that David summons the Synod of Llandewi Brefi, for the explicit purpose, according to Rhygyvarch, of condemning Pelagianism.  This may be a late learned addition, depending on the memory of Pelagianism as “the British heresy”; on the other hand, the Pelagian Ogham stones, and the presence of Pelagius' Commentary in Powys and Brycheiniog (Brecknock) in the seventh or eighth centuries[12], show that Pelagianism was certainly present in south-eastern Wales, and in particular in the Irish-conquered territories of Dyved and Brycheiniog.  The negative view of monarchy in David’s legend goes with the notion that his legendary Boia was an Irish raider come from abroad - which is actually true, through several generations, of the kings of Dyved in his time.  And while the two things are not exactly contemporary - Gildas was probably dead before Llandewi Brefi - it cannot be denied that he supported a probably heretical dynasty, part of a South Irish complex with Pelagian features, at roughly the same time as David is said to have been preaching against Pelagianism in their kingdom.  The very fact that he blamed Vortipor for being the bad son of a good father means that he had no doubts about Aircol’s religious orthodoxy; but Aircol may well have been a Pelagian.

It is therefore interesting that F.J Byrne’s reconstruction of the earliest recognizable Munster Latin culture, whose origins I see as Pelagian, should be so similar to my reconstruction of the Gildasian world.  As with Gildas, “There is a good deal of evidence for a high standard of Latin learning in Munster during the sixth and seventh centuries…the tract De duodecim abusiuis saculi, whose chapter on the justice of the king was to have such widespread influence, came from this school, which also produced works on Biblical exegesis and Latin grammar.”  Royal justice, Biblical exegesis, and Latin grammar, were of course all subjects very close to Gildas’ heart.  On the other hand, there is an “absence of early annals for the south… Iona was the home of the earliest annals, and Bangor a possible secondary centre of compilation” [both are northern monasteries]; Professor Byrne thinks it likely that the southern churches had little interest in the “abstruse science” of computation, and therefore “would have been the more willing to accept Rome’s ruling, and they are unlikely to have concerned themselves with annalistic records.”  Perhaps; but we remember that Gildas did not know how to reckon time, either.  And people who can cope with such an “abstruse science” as advanced Latin grammar may be expected to survive a little computation; complete lack of evidence suggests rather complete lack of knowledge than complete lack of interest[13].

I have no doubt that there was a Christian, post-Pelagian cultural continuity in Southern Ireland from the beginning.  As the continuous transmission of text is signalled in the north by the survival of Patrick’s writings, so is it signalled in the south by the survival of Pelagius’ commentary on St.Paul’s letters.  Therefore, I find it strange that we should not have even so much of the pre-Patrician saints’ lives and origins as we have of St.Patrick, where some garbled notices survived.  We have seen that similar survivals can be argued for in Welsh sacred history, for instance about St.Germanus and St.Faustus of Riez; their complete absence in south Ireland is a significant fact.  Of course, the vast majority of Irish documents are far later than this period.  Even the earliest texts have been copied, sometimes several times, before our earliest copies came to be.  There has been plenty of time for conscious, let alone unconscious, censorship; to remove the testimony of early doctrinal conflicts, schismatic origins, and opposition between Patrick’s successors in the north, and the heirs of his Pelagian opposite numbers elsewhere.  All that remained was the memory of some founders of churches in the south, tenaciously remembered as earlier than Patrick.  But is it a coincidence that the Lives of these founders should all be so late and so completely, unremittingly unhistorical?

Some recorded events - which we would dearly like to see expanded - give us a clue as to what happened.  Southern Ireland, this early hive of intellectual and ecclesiastical activity, aligned itself with Rome, accepting the Roman Easter dating, in the 630s.  Now Bede records two successive letters from Rome to Ireland[14].  The first, coming from Pope Honorius and dated 634, is exclusively concerned with the reckoning of Easter; Bede, usually so scrupulous in transcribing documents, does not even bother to copy it out, from which we gather that there were no arguments in it beyond those already rehearsed in his work.  It appears, nevertheless, to have come at the right time to seal the reunion of the south Irish with Rome.  Honorius (otherwise notorious for giving ill-considered assistance to the Monothelite heresy) was a follower of Gregory I and probably happy to see the islands return to the fold; elsewhere in Europe, he had vigorously backed the Irish-originated monasticism of St.Columbanus, by placing the great monastery of Bobbio under direct Papal protection.

It is in 641 that we find Pope John IV sending a letter which strikes an altogether different note.  He is alarmed by letters sent to his predecessor Severinus (who died before he could respond, and who was, at any rate, elderly, harassed and eventually robbed by the Imperial governor Isaac).  Though John only reigned two years, he made a major change in Papal policy, a noticeable hardening of the theological climate.  Honorius’ superficial support of Monotheletism arose more from a desire to have an end to quarrels than to any real support for the theory.  John, less concerned with church peace and more theologically acute, condemned the doctrine.  It will be clear that his severe reaction to reports of Pelagianism in Ireland is of the same nature.  He couples it with the Easter question, but only in passing, showing clearly that the prospect of Pelagianism redivivus was far more in his mind.

Who sent Pope Severinus those letters is a good question.  Amazingly, John’s response is addressed exclusively to members of the still-schismatic northern church - the bishop-abbots of Armagh and Clonard, the bishops of Connor, Tibohine and Devenish, and the abbots of Iona, Nendrum, Moville, Tory Island, and an unidentified monastery.  And he calls them “our well-beloved and holy”, yet!  Even granting that such introductions were the ordinary currency of ecclesiastical manners (the savage letter of Licinius, Eustochius and Melanius to Lovocatus and Catihernus opens with similar pleasantries), it still sounds as though the Pope did not know that it was the very addressees of his letter who practiced Easter out of season.  He writes as though it was being carried out by unnamed third parties.  If this is diplomatic talk (I mean, suggesting that unnamed third parties are really responsible for what you are in fact blaming in your own interlocutor - to spare blushes), then it is very untypical of the Vatican, who, at all times, have never failed to pin the tail of schism or heresy on the appropriate donkey in public.  It is likeliest to arise from a misreading of documents that must, after all, have distracted the Popes from the main business of a chaotic age in which Longobard wars, Arab invasions and Byzantine civil conflict must have claimed every available moment.

However, that he addressed the northern clergy suggests that it was from the north that the original information had been received.  The Irish Pelagians, to use the ecclesiastical expression, had been delated to Rome.  The Pope would respond to the people who had written to him (or to his predecessor).  Also, if the letter had originated from him, he would have written only to his fellow-bishops, even if the message was ultimately intended for other ears; he would not treat abbots as equal sources of ecclesiastical authority with bishops.  In other words, he was responding to a letter from those particular bishops and abbots.

If the delation of Pelagianism in Ireland came from the people to whom the Pope wrote, then the whole northern church was involved.  Eminent clergymen were addressed, including the bishop of Armagh and the abbot of Iona.  We must bear in mind that before the thirties of the seventh century, direct contact between the Roman and Irish churches is hard to imagine.  In 604, the Irish bishop Dagan shocked and horrified the Roman missionaries in Kent by refusing to so much as eat under the same roof as them - circumstances highly unsuitable to close contact.  Now, if contact between Rome and Ireland had only been restored in the 630s, what does it look like, that a letter of complaint about Pelagianism should reach the Papacy in 640 from the part of the church which had not closed the rift over Easter observances?  Obviously, it looks like internecine conflict.  “My Lord of Rome, do you know that these people, whom you have admitted to Church unity, practice Pelagianism?”

The breach over Easter does not seem to have looked so important to the North Irish as to the Roman party; it certainly did not stop Columbanus, in spite of his great independence of mind, from treating the Pope as the ultimate authority, or acting as though quite happily at home in the Continental Catholic Church.  He spoke with affection and gratitude of having received the Gospel from Rome (surely an allusion to Palladius and Patrick).  Though Leinster-born, Columbanus was trained in the north; if his views were widely shared among the northern clergy, then if they had something to denounce to the Pope, their different Easter habits would no more prevent them than it prevented Columbanus.

I suggest that the Pelagians delated by the northerners were in the south.  There must be some reason why Columbanus, born in Leinster and with such a strong view of Roman supremacy and Catholic orthodoxy, deserted his country to go study in Bangor, Ulster.  Severinus and John IV, elderly, harassed, with their minds largely elsewhere, and already familiar with Ireland as a country where Easter was celebrated incorrectly, got the message a little garbled (all those foreign names!) and condemned irregular Easter practice and Pelagianism together and as if the same group practiced both.

If the northern church was able to delate other Irishmen for Pelagianism, that means that they had a good idea that the doctrine was false and condemned; and that they knew this by themselves, without any need for encouragement from the Continent.  In other words, the doctrinal conflict between Pelagians (wherever they resided) and northern churchmen pre-dated the renewed contact between Ireland and Rome in the 630s; the Northerners had not waited for contact with Rome to decide that Pelagianism was wrong.

If I am right, then the effect of the letter on the southern clergy must have been devastating.  They had consciously submitted to Rome and re-entered the universal Church, only to find that the auctor whose Pauline commentaries they had been copying and studying, whose doctrine had been followed by their founders, was a heretic; and that their revered founders were schismatics.  No wonder that the real facts about the “Pre-patrician” saints of the south vanished in a whirlwind of legend!

What seems to have been, therefore, the nave rush of the southern church, with its Pelagian origins, to join a Roman whole in which the name of Pelagius was remembered with horror, seems - like the culture itself of the southern church, so brilliant in prose and thought, so deficient in exact chronology - exactly comparable with the attitude of Gildas.  Like the south Irish, Gildas reverenced the throne of Rome, was eager to be joined to the universal church, and apparently quite unaware - even to the extent of misreading his own source E - of the universal condemnation of Pelagians.  Time and again, we become conscious of the shared, collective culture behind the individual and towering genius of Gildas; and it perhaps is no coincidence that when he left Britain, it was to southern Ireland that he went - to carry on from there his struggle against the reform of David with its opposition to Irish ways and to Pelagianism.

However garbled, the notice that Gildas “had to” leave Britain does seem to suggest his last years.  The annals make him go to Ireland in 565; the Life of the monk of Ruys tells that he went at the behest of the short-lived king Ainmire, who only reigned over Leinster about three years in the late 560s - however we read the annalistic data.  As the Life does not seem to know anything about Ainmire’s defeat or death, we have to suppose that Gildas did not stay in Ireland very long; but the annals tell us that he died in 570, and the Life that he died on the Continent - where the Council of Tours, 567, had dealt with a scandal denounced by him.

David triumphed at the Synod of Llandewi Brefi; and however we are to read the legend, it certainly tells us that the “silencing” and “exile” of Gildas had taken place a good deal earlier.  Therefore the Synod must have taken place at some point between Gildas’ leaving Britain (565) and David’s death (589); we would not be far wring in accepting the sometimes asserted date of 580.

By the time the bishops of Wales confronted St.Augustine of Canterbury, the church of Wales had a recognizably Davidian shape. The monastery of Bangor is-Coed was claimed to have 2100 members all of whom worked for their living with their own hands, in the manner demanded by David and deplored by Gildas; and the bishops themselves followed the lead, not of one of them, but of an anchorite called Dinoot (Latin Donatus, Welsh Dunawt). This person has left no trace in Welsh hagiography, but there is an otherwise unexplained[15] “Spring of Dunawt” within the parish of St.David’s itself. Why, therefore, have historians not noticed this: that an extremist religious movement had taken over British religious life, just as Britain was falling into the hands of the barbarians? The two things are contemporary; we have Gildas’ word that David’s party were disruptive; why has nobody wondered whether the emergence of the revolutionary egalitarian movement of the monk from Menevia had any part in the catastrophe that handed over most of free Britain to her enemies? Of course, the coincidence in dates may also mean the opposite; it may mean that the people of Britain reacted to the catastrophe by attaching themselves to the revolutionary and somewhat millenarian movement of David. But the coincidence exists and must be relevant.

By 597, everything that Gildas loved and cared for had completely collapsed. Already most of Britain’s most temperate and fertile provinces had fallen to the Saxons - a reality unimaginable to him; and the still unconquered part was turning - perhaps had completely turned - to the way of his ecclesiastic enemies, those whose ascetic fads he had fought in Ireland. He was, in a sense, lucky to die when he did. Already in his forties when he wrote The Ruin, there is nothing particularly surprising about being informed by the Irish annals that he died only eight years later, in 570; the early fifties would be by no means an unusual date of death in such an uncertain and insanitary age (and it would explain why, in spite of his literary genius, he did not write anything else of the scope of The ruin). What is more, we know from Marius of Avenches that a plague ravaged Gaul and Italy in the same year; perhaps it accounted for Gildas, perhaps even for his adversary Maglocunus, long supposed to have died of the plague. A lucky death for poor Saint Gildas: he did not see - or he only saw the beginning of - the end of his country in a whirlwind of Saxon swords.

And his luck extended to the unique fortune of his masterpiece, surviving alone of all the probably vast literary production of his age, and due to what might be called – in a perverted way – fortunate timing. In 561, poor old Gildas predicted the ruin of the proud lords of Britain unless they started turning their swords, together, against the Saxons; within a few years, ruin does indeed come to Britain – at the hands of those same Saxons. Meanwhile poor old Gildas has died, so that people cannot even apologize to him for not having listened in time. Would that not be enough to insure that, among the few books that could be snatched from the flame - whatever David and his monks might say - his had the pride of place? And yet this was not simply a coincidence; while Gildas had not seen from which side the blow was to fall, he was only too correct – based on a real understanding of the moral nature of man both individual and in groups – in saying that the situation of his day simply could not be sustained, and that disaster was bound to come.


[1]With apologies to Gregory the Great, some of whose writing keeps the strength and flexibility of the best of Latin; but there was no future in it.

[2]Also of the story of Belinus and Brennius; but that counts for less.

[3]I have no doubt that this passage will be charged with romanticism. But I think there is no doubt that, from the records as we have them, only two figures stand out: Gildas, and his enemy David. There is a suggestion that Cadoc can be counted as a third, but not in the earliest documents. Writing only forty or so years after Gildas’ death, Columbanus quotes Gildas (and his correspondent Uinniau) with a respect otherwise reserved for Church Fathers. It is only in later Irish hagiography, as we will see, that Gildas, David and Cadfael (Cadoc) are regarded as the three leaders of the British church in their time, with Finnian (Uinniau) as a distant; but by then Cadoc’s supposed diocese of Llandaff had acquired considerable importance. Little of what we know of Cadfael/Cadoc that suggests that he could have been the kind of moral leader that Gildas was. As for Gildas, he is not said to have ever been a bishop; why, then, should he have been shown as the equal of consecrated bishops such as David and Cadoc, unless he was at least their equal in moral authority?

[4]It also gives us another reason for Gildas’ legendary account of the Picts as complete interlopers, coming from outside Britain, after the Romans had left, and occupying land up to the Wall (bk.2, ch.1). If such a story was believed, it would of course justify any north-British Christian leaders entering and seizing Pictish territory - they are only taking back what was once theirs.

[5]Its intrusive look in the fundamentally Celtic arrangements of Gildasian Britain suggests an alien origin, which may have been Roman, but may also, in my view, have been but Saxon. In 442 and after, the Saxons deliberately carved themselves a part of Britain, which even Gildas described as their "home"; if they controlled the rest of Britain, they must have used emissaries. This was practical politics: they were probably not enough to settle the whole enormous island; their whole war was a punishment raid to extort from the British the annona they had been denied - probably turned into a heavy and permanent tribute. Efficient arrangements for its collection were required, including surely local envoys to survey land and assess taxable crops. We have seen that a simulacrum of royal/imperial authority may have been allowed to carry on, under a deflated Vitalinus; the likelihood is that the tribute was collected under some sort of legal fiction relating to army payments. But as what had been an army was now in effect a dominant ethnic group with its own king, exercising an effective protectorate over the whole island including the pretender imperial court; so their functionaries would exercise powers far in excess of tax assessors, becoming in effect the eyes, ears and - so far as they could - hands of the Saxon Host. This is pure guesswork; but it would make no sense if such arrangements were not in place, and any alternative - given Gildas' account and other evidence - is far more unlikely. All aspects of the Gildasian rector seem to go back to such a figure, including the fact that it is implicitly backed by the terror of the high king's army, paralleling what may be guessed of the role of the Saxon host. In the Gildasian version of A, this is represented by the Roman army from Italy. A poet or historian (I mean writing such history as they could write) envisaging the end of Roman power in Britain and the beginnings of the British state, would be bound to imagine it within categories familiar to him - that is, as a matter of autonomous local powers kept under control by envoys backed by the threat of a powerful army.

[6]See Appendix XII.

[7]Vita Gildae by a MONK OF RUYS, in HUGH WILLIAMS, op.cit.

[8]RICHARD SHARPE, Gildas as Father of the Church, in DUMVILLE &LAPIDGE, op.cit. 193-205.

[9]There is a Latin version of this life, in which the rivalry between Gildas and David is completely deleted from the story - though the miracles that follow it are retained. This shows how easy it was for later writers to revise or censor episodes they judged not to be in keeping with the dignity of their heroes.

[10]Part of the result of this seems to have been a number of fabulous annalistic entries about Gildas, who is supposed to have visited Rome and done a number of deeds in the 490s. All the annalistic entries in question refer not to any demonstrably historical view of Gildas, but to an obviously legendary figure (they include an unhistorical Pope Alexander). Yet the Irish annals also record his death in 570. I suggest that the annalists found themselves with two separate Gildasian dates, one supplied by the hallowed legend of David - Gildas as contemporary of Triphun - and the other by Gildas’ own work - Gildas as contemporary of Vortipor. Therefore, as in the case of Patrick, they ascribed him a fabulously long life; and they clustered around his “old age” the notices pertaining to the historical Gildas, while ascribing to his “youth” all the poorly grounded and poorly dated legends attached to Gildas’ name. Incidentally, this might account for one oddity in Geoffrey of Monmouth: the dating of Illtud and of his student Samson to almost a century before their historical time, to the age of Ambrosius rather than that of Arthur and his successors. If Illtud was regarded as Gildas’ teacher, then his date would depend on that of Gildas’ youth; and if Gildas was an adult, of an age to preach, in King Triphun’s time (the 480-500s), then he must have been a child of school age in that of Ambrosius (for which we have seen that Geoffrey had a quite good date). Hence “Eldadus” and his doublet Eldol become the great ecclesiastical leader and the great warrior leader, pen esgyb and pen hyneif, which Ambrosius needed to be seen as a great king in the medieval Welsh imagination. Geoffrey depended on hagiographic and heroic traditions from Gwent and its neighbourhood, otherwise long since lost, which probably deviated widely from the accounts we have. This would, however, imply that the Gwent tradition regarded Illtud as the teacher of Gildas and Samson, which is something we find in Breton Lives but not in the surviving Welsh accounts.

[11]Catechism of the Catholic Church, London 1999, nos. 385-409, especially 397.

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

[13]F.J.BYRNE, op.cit. 169-70.

[14]HE 2.19.

[15]To be precise, Rhygyvarch explains it as the site of the martyrdom of Dunawt, a daughter of the evil king Boia, killed by her own mother for the good cause. His explanation is both implausible and highly obscure, leaving the impression of a piece of lore that drifted in from elsewhere.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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