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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

§ 2. “Hisperic” Latin

It is evident that he considers himself a Roman citizen in some sense. To him, Latin is “our tongue,” as opposed to English; and the impression given by this phrase is confirmed by the whole tenor of his writing. His sources of inspiration, as we have in part seen, are Roman. To those already mentioned we may add the names of Vergil and, perhaps, Juvenal and Claudian.

In summing up the impression which he leaves upon us, we may say that his eyes are fixed regretfully upon a great past; there is no hint of hope for the future. The thought that the heathen English might become a source of light to the western world is one that has never dawned upon him. In short, Gildas is a dark and sad figure. Night is falling round him; all that he has been taught to prize is gone from him or going; and, when he looks upon his land, “behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.”

The literary history of the book is not very complicated. The compilers of the History of the Britons used it, and so did Bede, and the authors of the lives of Gildas and of other Breton saints. In the twelfth century it was a rare book in England, as William of Newburgh tells us: but Geoffrey of Monmouth had it before him in the first half of that century.

We have, besides the epistle par excellence, relics of other epistles of Gildas, in which his peculiar style is very recognisable, and also some penitential canons. Of these latter, we need only say that the precise extent of the material in them which can be certainly assigned to Gildas is still in dispute.

Another fragment of Gildan literature, upon whose authenticity a curious literary question depends, is the hymn called Lorica or Cuirass. This is a metrical prayer, in which the suppliant asks for divine protection against “the mortality of this year” and against evil demons, and enumerates each limb and organ of his body. The form which the prayer takes, though not common, is not unique. A similar hymn in Irish is attributed to St. Patrick, and there are others of Irish origin. The attribution of this particular Lorica to Gildas (Gillus, the name in the manuscript, is pretty clearly meant for Gildas) is not unanimous: one Lathacan, Laidcenn, or Loding (probably an Irish prince of the seventh century) is named by several copies—once as having brought the hymn to Ireland. Zimmer is confident in maintaining that Gildas is the author: Mommsen dissents from this view.

It may seem an indifferent matter whether this particular hymn is a work of the sixth or seventh century; but the fact is that its style and vocabulary are of considerable interest as throwing light on the culture of its time, and they connect it with a longer document or group of documents, the date and provenance of which it would be very interesting to settle.

In its latter portion, where it enumerates the various parts of the body, Lorica is, to a large extent, a collection of the most obscure foreign and archaic words which the author could scrape together. Hebrew, Greek and Latin are mingled in the most curious way, and are so disguised and corrupted that, in many cases, we are only able to divine their meaning by the help of glosses. It may be allowable to quote a single line—

  • gygram cephalem cum iaris et conas—
  • which is said to mean
  • head, head with hair and eyes.
  • The other group of writings in which a similarly extraordinary vocabulary occurs is represented principally by the work called Hisperica Famina, which we possess in more than one text. It is arranged in a series of sections, numbering in all somewhat over 600 lines, of a kind of assonant non-metrical structure. Each line usually consists of two parts. The first part contains one or two epithets, and the verb and subject are in the second part. Each section contains a description of some scene or object—the day’s work, the sea, fire, the wind, a chapel, an encounter with robbers. The writer is evidently a member of something like a monastic school; and all that we can certainly say of his surroundings is that he is brought into contact with Irish people, for they are distinctly mentioned in the text.

    It is impossible to give any idea of the obscurity of Hisperica Famina without quoting or translating passages; and nothing short of the genius of Sir Thomas Urquhart could find equivalents for the amazing words used by the writer. This one point is evident, that the same school produced Lorica and Hisperica Famina. Was that school located in England or Ireland? If Gildas be author of Lorica, it follows, in all probability, that the author of Hisperica Famina was a man brought up, like Gildas, in a south Welsh school such as that of St. Iltut, and, subsequently, settled in Ireland, where he wrote Hisperica Famina. In this case we must place him in the sixth century. One piece of evidence which points in this direction can hardly be set aside. The hymn attributed to St. Columba and known as Altus prosator contains very marked specimens of the Hisperic Latinity. That this composition is really of Columba’s age is the belief of its latest editors; and, if that be granted, there is no need to seek for further proof that Hisperica Famina could have been produced in the sixth century, and that, whether Irish in origin or not, its peculiarities were adopted by genuinely Irish authors.