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 gildas (Was this what Gildas looked like? Probably not.. [1])


There are very few documentary sources in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In fact, Gildas’s De Excidio Britonum (‘The Ruin of Britain’) is literally our only substantial insular account of immediate post-Roman Britain. That makes it both incredibly interesting, but also very difficult to fully understand. Accordingly, scholarly debate rages widely over who Gildas actually was, as well as when, where and why he was writing. One thing is for certain, though, he wasn’t very happy with the current state of Britain. In his introduction he outlines his purpose, but also hints at his own personal frustrations:

In this letter I shall deplore rather than denounce; my style may be worthless, but my intentions are kindly.” ([2])

This really sets the scene for what follows, which can be best described as a massive rant about the political and spiritual leaders of his time, and the ruinous state of the land. Think of it like a high-stakes Private Eye, or the comments section of The Daily Mail, but with ecclesiastical clout. He begins with a brief history of Britain from pre-Roman to post-Roman times, noting the collapse of society and the onslaught of savage Saxons from the east. The second and third parts are more focused, though, and consist of a damning report on the activities of the British kings and clergy of his day. He writes with furious vigour about the depths of depravity and ungodliness of the people of Britain, and argues that the barbarian raids of the Saxons, Scotti and Picti were rightful punishments from God.

So who was Gildas? Well we know that he was well-educated, which is attested by his knowledge of classical literature and his sophisticated Latin writing abilities. We also know that he was a devoted Christian and part of the British church, perhaps with monastic sentiments. The name Gildas is quite interesting as well because no other name (forename or surname) is given, so it is very possible that the author was writing under a pen name, perhaps to evade any envisioned repercussions. Such a suggestion feeds into commentary on where he might have been living and writing. Scholars have argued considerably over whether he was living in Wales, South-West England, Northern England or even amongst the Anglo-Saxons to the east. The fact that he seems to have a detailed knowledge of British kings in Wales and South-West England might indicate that he was writing in this area, but the fact that he so vehemently criticises them might also suggest that he was far away! This isn’t exactly a time of free speech, and the kings described don’t sound like they would suffer someone like Gildas lightly.

tyrants(The ‘five tyrants’ [British kings] discussed in the second part of the text [3])

No certainty is to be had in regards to the date of the text, either. Whilst scholars such as Nicholas Higham have argued that the text must date to the 5th century on account of Gildas’s seemingly classical education, the text is traditionally dated to the early 6th century. A date of c. AD 530-540 is usually arrived at through an analysis of his history of Britain, which is outlined in the first part of the text, and through reference to later historical annals. At one point he mentions a battle at Badon Hill which took place on the year of his birth, some 44 years before writing, so we know he wasn’t a young man [4]. I was, however, at a conference last week which detailed the results of a brace of important chronological projects for this period, and it seems that modern approaches to dating give results slightly earlier than previously thought. It is therefore completely possible that Gilas was writing a bit earlier, but we don’t know yet.

So what can we realistically conclude from such a short summary of one of the most debated and important texts of the first millennium AD? I would argue that there are three important points to take away from this. Firstly, the fact that Gildas is berating his contemporaries attests that there was enough British society left in the 5th and 6th centuries that there could even be decadence, depravity and sin. Secondly, his writings clearly paint a picture of savage, violent and territory-hungry Anglo-Saxon migrants. Thirdly, and finally, the text is useful for characterising the Dark Ages from a British perspective: one of strife, uncertainty and a distinct fear of God. Gildas clearly thought things had gone tits up, and wrote a letter of complaint. So next time you find yourself in a pub criticising politicians, do so knowing that it is something of a 1500 year old British institution.


[1] Courtesy of David Nash Ford’s ‘Early British Kingdoms’ [http://www. earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/gildas.html].

[2] De Excidio Britonum, 1:1.

[3] ©Nicholas Higham, 1994. The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the fifth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, page 109.

[4] By pre-industrial standards of human demography, at least.

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