Gildas was a British monk who wrote his ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae’ (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) sometime during the early to mid-6th Century. At first reading, this source is a confusing read. Part 1 records Gildas’ motivation to write his work (to deplore the wickedness of the Britons – their ‘obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion’ – which has brought about its contemporary woes) , and a history of Britain based upon classical sources; while Part 2 and Part 3 are vitriolic condemnations of respectively the British kings and British clergy. Unfortunately, many readers discount Gildas as they are unable or unwilling to navigate the vitriol.
In Part 2 of this 9 part series, I provided an overview of the major histories written during this period. In Part 3, I will discuss Gildas and his history written in the 6th Century.
‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but they are wicked.’ (Gildas 27).
Gildas sought to imitate the style of earlier writers to shape his narrative approach. He explicitly references the accusative tone of the Old Testament prophets, which provides the vital clue as to his overall intention – a people’s contemporary political woes are a direct consequence of their lack of religious faith. And a people without faith are also a people without God’s favour. God shows that lack of favour by allowing foreign conquest. The Britons had had a long history of defiance against lawful authority – the laws of God and also the laws of Rome. Eventually Rome abandoned Britain to the invading pagan Anglo-Saxons.
‘Then a pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language’. (Gildas 23.3)
We can infer from Gildas something of his historical approach:
- The study of history is a study of the causes for contemporary woes.
- The study of history depends on a wide knowledge of earlier sources, whether Christian or pagan in origin.
- The study of history requires imitation of an established narrative structure – with Biblical influences being the obvious sources for a deeply religious man.
In Part 4, I will discuss Bede’s history written in the 8th Century.
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|Title: Sutton Hoo helmet reconstructed Description: Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. Source: Wikipedia Commons Author: Gernot Keller Copyright Statement: This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: brighten & crop. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.|