Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 1. Gildas and The History of the Britons

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred

§ 1. Gildas and The History of the Britons

IT is outside the scope of this work to survey the various scattered documents of British origin which were produced outside Britain. Moreover, the influence of most of them upon the main stream of English literature was, beyond all doubt, extremely slight. Among the writings thus excluded from consideration may be mentioned the remains of Pelagius, who seems to have been actually the earliest British author, the short tract of Fastidius, “a British bishop,” on the Christian life and the two wonderful books of St. Patrick—the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus—which, in spite of their barbaricstyle, whereof the author was fully conscious, are among the most living and attractive monuments of ancient Christianity. Outside our province also falls the earliest piece of Latin verse produced in these islands, the Hymn of St. Sechnall; and also the hymns of the Bangor antiphonary, the writings of Columban and the lives and remains of the Irish missionaries abroad. All these are named here principally lest it should be supposed that they have been forgotten.

We pass to our earliest indigenous literary products; and the list of these is headed by two somewhat uncouth fragments, marked off from almost all that follow them by the fact that they are British and not English in origin. These are the book of Gildas and the History of the Britons.

Concerning the career of Gildas the Wise, we are told much in the lives of him by a monk of Rhuys, and by Caradoc of Lancarvan, which belong respectively to the early part of the eleventh century and to the twelfth; but almost all the data that can be regarded as trustworthy are derived from Gildas’s own book and from brief notices in Irish and Welsh annals. As examined by Zimmer and Theodor Mommsen, these sources tell us that Gildas, born about the year 500 A.D., was living in the west of England and wrote the book which we possess shortly before 547; that, perhaps, he journeyed to Rome; that he spent the last years of his life in Britanny and probably died there in 570; and that not long before his death (probably also in his younger days) he visited Ireland. He is represented by various authorities as having been a pupil of St. Iltut at Lantwit Major in Wales, together with other great saints of the time.

The book of his which remains to us is thus entitled by its most recent editor, Mommsen: “Of Gildas the Wise concerning the destruction and conquest of Britain, and his lamentable castigation uttered against the kings, princes and priests thereof.” The manuscripts differ widely in the names they assign to it.

The author himself in his opening words describes his work as an epistle. For ten years it has been in his mind, he says, to deliver his testimony about the wickedness and corruption of the British state and church; but he has, though with difficulty, kept silence. Now, he must prove himself worthy of the charge laid upon him as a leading teacher, and speak. But first, he will, with God’s help, set forth shortly some facts about the character of the country and the fortunes of its people. Here follows that sketch of the history of Britain which, largely used by Bede and by the compilers of the History of the Britons, is almost our only literary authority for the period. In compiling it, Gildas says he has not used native sources, which, if they ever existed, had perished, but “narratives from beyond the sea.” What this precisely means it is not easy to determine. The only historical authors whose influence can be directly traced in his text are Rufinus’s version of Eusebius, Jerome’s Chronicle and Orosius; and none of these records the local occurrences which Gildas relates. Moreover, the story, as he tells it, clearly appears to be derived from oral traditions (in some cases demonstrably incorrect) rather than copied from any older written sources. It may be that Gildas drew his knowledge from aged British monks who had settled in Ireland or Britanny: it may be that by the relatio transmarina he merely means the foreign historians just mentioned. Brief and rather vague as it is, the narrative may be accepted as representing truly enough the course of events.

It occupies rather more than a quarter of the whole work, and brings us down to the time, forty-four years after the British victory of Mount Badon, when the descendants of the hero of that field, Ambrosius Aurelianus, had departed from the virtues of their great ancestor, and when, in the view of our author, the moral and spiritual state of the whole British dominion had sunk to the lowest level of degradation. In the pages that follow, he attacks, successively and by name, five of the princes of the west: Constantine of Devon and Cornwall, Aurelius Caninus, whose sphere of influence is unknown, Vortipor of Pembrokeshire, Cuneglasus, king of an unnamed territory; and the “dragon of the isle,” Maglocunus, who is known to have reigned over Anglesey and to have died in the year 547. Each of these is savagely reproached with his crimes—sacrilege, perjury, adultery and murder—and each is, in milder terms, entreated to return to the ways of peace.

Up to this point the epistle is of great interest, though tantalising from its lack of precise detail. It now becomes far less readable. The whole of the remainder is, practically, a cento of biblical quotations, gathering together the woes pronounced in Scripture against evil princes and evil priests, and the exhortations found therein for their amendment. The picture which the author draws of the principate and of the clergy is almost without relief in its blackness. He does just allow that there are a few good priests; but corruption, worldliness and vice are rampant among the majority.

That Gildas was convinced of the urgency of his message there is no room to doubt. Like Elijah at Horeb, he feels that he is left alone, a prophet of the Lord; and every word he writes comes from his heart. Yet, if we are certain of his sincerity, we are at least equally confident that his picture must be too darkly coloured. We have complained that he lacks precision: it must be added that he loves adjectives, and adjectives in the superlative degree. Doubtless Salonius and Sagittarius, the wicked bishops of Gap and Embrun, of whom Gregory of Tours has so much to say, had their counterparts in Britain; but there were also St. Iltut, St. David and many another, renowned founders of schools and teachers of the young, whose labours cannot have been wholly fruitless.

In style, Gildas is vigorous to the point of turgidity. His breathless periods are often wearisome and his epithets multitudinous. Perhaps the most pleasant sample of his writings is the paragraph in which he enumerates with an ardent and real affection the beauties of Britain. In a few instances he shows that tendency to adorn his page with rare and difficult words which seems to have had a great attraction for the Celtic mind.