Voices of History: Gildas and the Ruin of Britain

This week, I wanted to launch a new type of post, focusing upon the mediaeval authors to whom we owe our knowledge of their times. Some will be conscious historians, writing narratives with the specific aim of explaining and preserving their past. Others, however, will have had other intentions, whether to criticise and correct their contemporaries, to legitimise claims, or satisfy a literary patron. All, however, have authored signifiant texts, whose unique outlooks and details add significantly to our understanding of the period.

A tentative identification of the political landscape in Britain during Gildas’ life. (Wikimedia Commons)

Introducing the series today is Gildas, an enigmatic but fundamentally important author. Although all dates attached to Gildas are uncertain, most agree that he lived, and wrote, in Britain around 540 CE. As such, he is one of the few witnesses to the great transformations which the island underwent between the withdrawal of Roman forces (tentatively placed between 380-400 CE) and the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 6th century onwards.

This transformation involved a great, and still unexplained, shift in the language of the time, which before the arrival of the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, was predominantly Celtic-speaking. As the tone of modern Britain attests, however, Celtic languages (Welsh, Gaelic, and Cornish) survived only on the fringes of a large English-speaking majority.

Gildas, at the centre of these changes, had strong opinions about both their causes and their consequences, argued in his major work De Excidio Britanniae (or The Ruin of Britain.) As the title hints, he perceived his country as one in decline, declaring in the preface ‘I weep the general decay of good, and the heaping up of evil…’ 

His text, however, is not precisely a history. Instead, it is a rousing condemnation of vice as Gildas saw it, in the kings and churchmen of a failing Britain. His Latin, inspired by the Bible and informed by a Classical education, is crafted to shame those he held culpable and inspire them to repent. It is not, as you might then imagine, a very objective text, and its short, historical introduction (used to set the scene, as it were, for contemporary events) should be treated with care.

But first, what is Gildas’ version of events?

He begins with the pre-Roman and pagan past, and narrates how the ‘island, of proud neck and mind, since it was first inhabited,’ was conquered by the Romans, revolted, was subdued, and finally came to accept Christianity. He touches upon the persecution of Christians, and celebrates the martyrdom of St Alban–one of the oldest figures of the faith on the island. Gildas then narrates how the same haughty and unwise attitude that caused the revolts against the Romans resulted in heresy.

Portrait of Magnus Maximus, from a gold solidus of 388CE (Wikimedia Commons)

The true problems, however, set in in the 380s when a Roman commander in Britain, Magnus Maximus, declared himself emperor. As a result, the island was ‘robbed of all her armed soldiery, of her military supplies, of her rulers, cruel though they were, and of her vigorous youth…’. Without them, Gildas writes, Britain lay vulnerable from attack, relying on faltering Roman intervention, and finally upon Germanic mercenaries, to stave off attacks from the north and west.

These Saxons, ‘admitted into the island like wolves into the folds,’ settled in such large numbers that they overwhelmed the Britons who had hired them, until native resistance finally managed to curtail their settlement at a battle–Badon Hill. Now in the present, Gildas writes, ‘kings Britain has, but they are as her tyrants; she has judges, but they are ungodly men; engaged in frequent plunder and disturbance, but of harmless men; avenging and defending, yea for the benefits of criminals and robbers.’ At their hands, he warns, the ruin of Britain may easily come to pass.

Its a complex story, and credible in its broad sweep, but it has its difficulties. First among them are Gildas’ moralist explanations, particularly on the national character of the Britons, which modern historians largely pass over. His chronology too is fraught with difficulties, as too few dates are available to coordinate his story with those of his contemporaries. This narrative, however generalised, is the only source which speaks to the lived experiences of these centuries–the fear and desperation, the rapid change and upheaval, which accompanied the British transition from the ancient to the mediaeval. As such, it deserves not only to be employed by historians (who have, and will continue, to puzzle out its significance,) but also to be remembered as a major voice in the history of mediaeval Europe.

Learn More:

De Excidio Britanniae, or The Ruin of Britain, trans. Hugh Williams, (1899: Dodo Press Reprint) was used for the quotes above. An even earlier translation by J.A. Giles is available online, however, via the Internet History Sourcebooks project.

For information on the factual (or not) nature of Gildas’ narrative, see Dumville, David N., ‘The Chronology of De Excidio Britanniae, Book I,’ in Michael Lapidge and David Dumville (eds.) Gildas: New Approaches (Woodbridge, UK, 1984).

9 thoughts on “Voices of History: Gildas and the Ruin of Britain

  1. Pingback: Voices of History: Gregory of Tours and the Frankish Kingdoms | mediaevalmusings

  2. Pingback: The Coming of the Northmen | mediaevalmusings

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