Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, is how this writer was remembered throughout
the medieval period. And the views of Bede, of Wulfstan and of William
of Newburgh are still endorsed by the Dark Age historians today: Gildas
correctly diagnosed the ills of his society and warned of their inevitable
consequence. His medieval biography, however, they do not endorse. The
medieval Lives of Gildas have him travelling widely, from north Britain,
to Wales and the west country, to Ireland, indeed the earliest takes him
as far as Rome and Ravenna, then finally to Brittany, where he founds a
monastery before he turns thirty years of age. Dark Age orthodoxy requires
a more parochial Gildas, for if his sermon is to be taken as proof of Britain’s
descent into a Dark Age, in which “knowledge of the outside world
and knowledge of the past had been wiped out of men’s minds”,1 then
he can’t be allowed to have travelled far, or he might have learned
something, and then what excuse could there be for his history?
There is no honest error in Gildas’ historical introduction. His fabrication clearly serves a purpose and that purpose is not benign. Gildas himself has not sought to disguise his intention. The Dark Age historians are self-deluded. Their picture of Gildas the patriot, wringing his hands over the folly of his feuding countrymen, is just as much a figment of the historical imagination as the Roman Arthur, last bearer of the flame of civilization. Gildas doesn’t testify to a sub-Roman British collapse. He testifies to a Britain which is ruled, ordered, a Britain which has kings, judges, priests, a Britain which is divided into two factions but which at the time of his writing is largely at peace. It is a peace which Gildas has set himself to disturb.
Gildas does not condemn the entire ruling class of Britain. He condemns, among the lay rulers, five specific individuals whom he addresses by name: Maelgwn of Gwynedd, his cousin Cuneglasus, Aurelius Caninus, Vortipor of Demetia and Constantine, ex-ruler Dumnonia. Their territories are all reckoned to be located in the south west of Britain. There are British rulers Gildas does approve of, whom he terms duces, 'commanders', in contrast to the Pelagian tyrannos. Gildas does not name or locate these duces, but historians deduce their territories lie to the north and east of the five tyrants. It has been suggested that Gildas could not have penned his virulent denunciation of these five from within their territories, and must have lived in some other part of Britain. E A Thompson favours a northern location. More recent scholarship prefers the territory of the Durotriges, to the east of Dumnonia. The earliest Life of Gildas claims he wrote The Ruin of Britain in the monastery that he founded in a place that still bears his name, St. Gildas de Rhuys in southern Brittany. But wherever he is operating from, Gildas is not working alone. He tells us he is “spurred on by my own thoughts and the devout prayers of my brethren”, the few remaining “true sons” of the “holy mother church”, who “by their holy prayers support my weakness from total collapse”.2 And he addresses himself to others of that faction; good Roman clerics who are not “stained with the disgrace of schism, pride and uncleanness”3 and who clearly are in a position to get themselves martyred, as it is one of the criticisms he levels against them that they have failed to do so. So there is a potential Roman fifth column inside the territory of the Pelagian tyrants which Gildas’ ‘sermon’ is intended to activate.
Dark Age historians have not deduced much history from Gildas’ address to the good priests. It is couched as a series of biblical examples, and has surely been overlooked for that reason. But it is this section which makes the purpose of the work explicit. It opens and closes with the negative example of Eli, who suffered the same fate as his wicked sons because he did not sufficiently reprove them for their sins - the lesson being that the good priests risk sharing the fate of the Pelagians, and what that fate is Gildas does not leave us to doubt. The wicked tyrants, the lay protectors of the Pelagian British Church, are to be overthrown and the good priests should dedicate themselves to this end, whatever the risk, whatever the cost. They should, like Samuel, depose bad kings and replace them with good. Like Melchizedek, they should withhold their blessings until the victors have defeated the dire armies of five kings. They should imitate the example of Elisha, who “by fervent prayer to God opened the eyes of a boy sweating in despair of his life and suddenly terrified at the warlike preparations of the enemy besieging the city they were in, so that he could see the mountain full of allies from the heavenly army, armed chariots and horsemen flashing with fiery countenances, and believe that he was stronger to save than his enemies to fight”.4
Gildas’ faction is a tiny minority, as he tells us himself: “so small a number that, as they lie in her lap, the holy mother church in a sense does not see them”.5 Yet they are going to win the war. The duces who have found the narrow path have previously punished the tyrants and they will do so again. If the prospects don’t look encouraging it is up to the good priests to reassure their flock, as they exhort them on to victory, that the “allies from the heavenly army” are about to rescue the righteous from an apparently overwhelming enemy.
It is hardly to be imagined that Gildas the Wise, contriver of a completely false, propaganda history, was naive enough to expect divine assistance would assure the Holy Roman minority of victory in an all-out war against the British Pelagians. He was anticipating more earthy reinforcements.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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1 E A Thompson, Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain, p115
2 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 1.16, 26.4
3 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 69.1
4 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 72.2
5 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 26.3