The Strange Case of Gildas
Gildas is strange, despite being known and used heavily by people discussing the transition of Britain from Roman diocese to a multiple set of political units in Late Antiquity. As Guy Halsall now describes such things, it’s messy.
It is well-known that Gildas is not a British or Roman name (Lapidge, M. and Dumville, D. (1984) (eds) Gildas: New Approaches, Woodbridge: Boydell Press). Various suggestions have been made, such as his real name being Sildag and that Gildas was a nom de guerre. If so, an anagram was a pretty thin disguise. Why would anyone wish to disguise himself? It would be fairly obvious from the level of erudition and from the political position being adopted who the author was.
There is one source of names which has not been taken into account, and that is the Goths. Many Gothic names end in —gildaz. These are usually lost when the names are rendered into English from Latin texts, where they appear as Hermanigildus or Leuvigildus. The original names would have been as Hermanigildaz or Leuvigildaz. The —az ending corresponds to —us in Latin or —os in Greek (or Gaulish). Bede interestingly calls Gildas ‘Gildus’. Ammianus mentions an officer – probably a Goth – sent from Constantinople to Julian to tell him Constantius II had died; the man was called ‘Aligildus’ (Amm. XXII.2.1) Possibly the —az ending was pronounced something like —us anyway. The reason why modern historians have dropped the —az ending is to make them sound more like other Germans. Gothic, being separated from other Germanic languages had retained the Indo-European declension system, which most Germanic languages had dropped, which is why you don’t get it in English. I discussed this possibility with my PhD supervisor, Professor Guy Halsall, and it eventually filtered through to his book Worlds of Arthur.
But Gildas (Gildaz) does not appear to be a full name in itself. It may be a hypocoristic, that is, a familiar form of the name (like Bert for Albert/Herbert, etc.). Could Gildas have had that name because he was descended from Goths, the ones who had been in slavery, some of whom had returned to the Continental mainland? It will be objected that Gildas didn’t like Saxons; he said that the Council of the Britons had ‘sealed its doom by inviting in among them “like wolves into the sheep-fold”, the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations’ (DEB 23). The Goths, however, didn’t consider themselves to be Germans anyway, and there is no saying that the Goths had to like the Saxons; those based in Gaul had fought Swabians and Vandals, while the Franks had fought mostly on the side of Rome against fellow Germans.
There are two vitae of Gildas, each contradicting the other; Gildas is said by the Monk of Rhuys who wrote the earlier Vita (pre-Conquest; everything after that is contaminated with Arthurian junk) to have been in Gaul during the life of King Childeric (r. 457-481). This places him fair and square in the late fifth century, rather than in the sixth. Gildas himself states that the grandsons of Ambrosius Aurelianus are his contemporaries. Taking the standard generation of 25 years and counting back, it suggests that the floruit of Gildas is only 50 years, give or take, later than Ambrosius Aurelianus. We are talking fifth century, not sixth, and somewhere in the range 457-481. The Vita can be read in English in Two Lives of Gildas (trans. H Williams, Llanerch Press, 1990).
We do however have a very similar name, Gildias. He was a vir spectabilis in Italy under Athalaric and held the role of Count of Syracuse. The king rebuked him at length in AD527 for abusing his role and robbing taxpayers blind (Cassiodorus Variae Epistolae IX.14). Gildias was a Goth. In fact, Athalaric was only eleven years old at the time and the letter was written at the behest of his mother, Amalasuntha, Theodoric’s daughter, who was regent of Italy, by Cassiodorus.
But were there any Goths in Britain anyway? We do in fact have such a reference, but a peculiar one it is. Jordanes’ book Getica is, or so he says, a rewrite of a now lost work by the Roman senator Cassiodorus in praise of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (r. AD486-524). It has several references to Britain.
The first is a detailed description of its size, position and agriculture, its peoples and what they look like. Why should a book about the Goths include a lengthy description of Britain (571 words in an English translation) (Jordanes Getica II 1-15)?
The second is just as odd:
We read that on their first migration the Goths dwelt in the land of Scythia near Lake Maeotis. On the second migration they went to Moesia, Thrace and Dacia, and after their third they dwelt again in Scythia, above the Sea of Pontus. Nor do we find anywhere in their written records legends which tell of their subjection to slavery in Britain or in some other island, or of their redemption by a certain man at the cost of a single horse. Of course if anyone in our city [Constantinople] says that the Goths had an origin different from that I have related, let him object. For myself, I prefer to believe what I have read, rather than put trust in old wives' tales (Jordanes Getica III 38).
This is an odd comment. Quite clearly there were legends which did say Goths had been slaves in Britain and had been redeemed. Who was the ‘certain man’ and why did a horse feature in it? Could this connect with the stories of Hengest and Horsa?
It was Roman practice to reduce defeated enemies to a subordinate status and to resettle them elsewhere in the empire to work underused and under-taxed land (agri deserti). Such people were termed dediticii, and they were reduced to the level of serfs. JNL (Nowell) Myres long ago in The English Settlements proposed that defeated Germanic warriors were settled in Britain as dediticii. These were former soldiers who had unconditionally surrendered. They were excluded from the Caracalla law of AD212 which made all free persons in the Empire into citizens.
The monk of Rhuys also knew that Gildas had been born at Alaclud, which he equated as Dumbarton. Quite why a place should have not one but two British names is a mystery. Alaclud means ‘town on the Clota’, while Dumbarton just means ‘fort of the Britons’ and therefore is probably a name given by the locals to an outpost rather than an autonym. The identification of Clud or Clut with Clota is reasonable, but the second level identification with the name given by Ptolemy of Alexandria to the Clyde, is not, because there were two rivers named the Clota.
Worse, there is a second Araclud. This is the town of Auckland, now more specifically Bishop Auckland, St Helen’s Auckland and West Auckland in County Durham, within the line of Hadrian’s Wall and all on the River Gaunless, formerly the Clota; like a lot of eastern names, that river was not renamed until the Viking ninth century. Until the see moved to Durham, it was in Auckland, Araclud.
|Vinovia (Binchester, Co.Durham) Roman Fort|
This makes a lot more sense than to suggest that Gildas came from a settlement a hundred miles into independent British territory. Bishop Auckland is on Dere Street, a Roman road, and is a mile away from the Roman fort at Vinovia, now Binchester, to which it may have originally been a vicus. It has been suggested that a number of Frisian units the (cuneus Frisorum Vinoviensium) were based there. There are altars at Binchester to Germanic mother goddesses the Matres Ollototae (RIB 1030, 1031, 1032) and similar at nearby locations, such as the Matres Germaniae on Hadrian’s Wall (RIB 2064), and many of the dedications involve Germanic peoples like the Tungi and Vangiones.
|Principal buildings at Vinovia|
Bishop Auckland’s High Street forms part of Dere Street, suggesting there was a settlement there from Roman times. Escomb Church near the town was built in c.650 from material pillaged from Vinovia. Perhaps its association with Gildas was once known (it’s one of only three early Anglo-Saxon churches to have survived), although if he lived in this area, he either worshipped at a lost church within the fort or privately in a local house.
|Escomb Anglo-Saxon Church, Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham|
For all we know, it could have been the most northerly villa in Europe mentioned by Guy de la Bedoyère (Roman Villas and the Countryside, 1993, English Heritage, ch.3 no page). The work on the survival of ladder settlements at West Heslerton and at Dorchester on Thames, Oxfordshire suggests that Auckland may have been a similar survival. In 633, the Britons and Saxons fought a major battle nearby on Dere Street at Heavenfield, near Hexham, the earliest episcopal see, recorded in the Annales Cambriae and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica.
|Bishop Auckland High Street, part of Dere Street, running from York to the Antonine Wall|
|A surviving rural part of Dere Street|
Who Gildas was is quite clear. He was a monk – he praises monks and nobody else. He quite clearly despises kings and judges, with the ringing phrase ‘reges habet britannia, sed tyrannos; iudices habet, sed impios’ (Britain has kings, but tyrants, it has judges, but impious ones; DBE 27). To follow Halsall, if Gildas’s Roman Britain has kings, where did they come from and if it had judges, who appointed them and why are they impious? Did Roman Britain have kings, even though they were not recognised by the imperial system? France has been a republic since 1870, but it still has claimants to both the Bourbon and Bonapartist thrones. It is far from impossible that there were local holders of thrones throughout the Roman period, who might have remained major local landowners and decurions. Some might even have been proper Romans.
Gildas mentions the Romans leaving military handbooks for the Britons, hardly the actions of an expelled overlord. These might include De Rei Militari, by P. Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who wrote sometime after AD383, because he mentions the death of the emperor Gratian in that year. However, Sabin Rosenbaum (Who Was Vegetius?, Academia.Edu, 2015) dates him to the court of Valentinian III in the 450s, which would rule this out. The supposed manuals might include Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which the emperor Julian had used to defeat the Franks and German invaders in the 350s. He’d read the book, they hadn’t.
Gildas mentions a famine (DEB 20.2) which followed the departure of the Roman authorities. Inevitably, the removal of the tax incentive, under which landowners had to produce surplus food to sell to pay their taxes in cash, would lead to the disruption of markets. Similar famines are noted in Spain in 410, described as ‘enormous’ (Chronicle of Hydatius) and in Gaul in 411, also termed ‘enormous’ (Gallic Chronicle of 452). The cause in all three cases is connected with disruption to Roman rule. Since the Goths were not yet in Gaul or Spain in 410 to disrupt the harvest, we could relate it to the substantial incursions into Gaul and Spain by the Vandals, Alans and Swabians. Hydatius refers to a plague in Spain in 409, so it is possible that the incursions brought hitherto unknown diseases. At DEB 22.2, Gildas mentions severe plagues in Britain, which followed a period of improved trade; this may have been the time when the delegation of St Germanus of Auxerre visited Britain in the late 420s.
In fact, the late Roman state was showing itself too sclerotic to function: there had been famine and plague in Syria and Cicilia in AD333 (Chronicle of Jerome), a series of earthquakes in what is now Turkey in 341, 344 (Neocaesarea in Pontus), 358 (Nicomedia),368 (Nicea), a great famine in Phrygia in 370, and failure of the water supply in Constantinople in 373 (all Jerome). The Gallic Chronicle also mentions an earthquake at Utica in north Africa in 408. It is possible that people moving from Africa to Spain brought plague with them, rather than the incoming armies. The imperial infrastructure was being overwhelmed. Governmentality, the idea that the government has the responsibility to fix everything, was proving impossible to maintain.
|Vetus Latin Bible - a page from St John's Gospel|
The text of the Bible Gildas quotes from extensively in De Excidio Britanniae is the Old Latin Septuagint (Vetus Latina), the version used before St Jerome’s Vulgate, the entirely new translation from Hebrew and Greek dating to the late fourth century. If Gildas had really been writing in the 540s, as has sometimes been suggested, he would have used at least some of the Vulgate. In those days Bibles weren’t produced as a single work, and each book was copied separately, so it would be a major resource to possess, and not the copy held by an individual monk.
If Gildas was a local lad, then we should be less surprised that Bede had access to Gildas’ book De Excidio Britanniae. There was probably a copy in the great library at Jarrow established by Benedict Biscop two generations before. Bede cites Gildas’ book De Excidio Britanniae (the title variant De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is modern; the work does not really discuss conquest and conquestu does not appear in the text; in Latin conquestus in a past participle, not a noun. The Saxons are only mentioned twice in the whole book).
Halsall considers the tyrannus maximus referred to by Gildas to be the usurping emperor Magnus Maximus and not Vortigern, which would certainly place Gildas in the fifth century. It would mean abandoning the letter Gildas quotes, the one to Aegidius, usually assumed to be Aetius. It would not explain many other aspects of the conundrum either.
|Professor Guy Halsall, University of York|
Let’s work with Halsall’s dates for a while. If the tyrannus maximus was Maximus, his death came in AD388. The leading figure in Britain then was Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas calls him a dux, certainly suggesting he had a Roman role. His name invokes the Metropolitan bishop of Milan, St Ambrose, who was strongly opposed to Maximus; his full name was Aurelius Ambrosius. St Ambrose was born in Trier in AD340. This may explain the cryptic comment of Gildas that the parentes of Ambrosius Aurelianus had been killed there. This has been translated as ‘parents’ in the modern British sense, but the modern meaning in French is ‘relatives’, much closer to the Latin. Those relatives need not be older than Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas uses the past tense, so he is referring to a completed event, but one which might be later than those he discusses here.
However the event referred to by Gildas as tantae tempestatis collisione occisis in eadem parentibus purpura nimirumindutis superfuerat, could be a ‘storm’ in the sense that the combined armies of Theodosius and Valentinian II attacked Trier, the capital of Maximus, with the Frankish leaders Richomeres and Arbogastes, and the Romans Promotus and Timasius, associates of Theodosius.
Moreover the term used for descendants of Ambrosius in Latin is suboles, which does not mean ‘grandchildren’ as is often claimed but simply ‘offspring’, which could equally mean sons and daughters or adopted children.
Halsall leaves us with the possibility that we are looking at a badly reported Roman era event, not a medieval one, or at least a late antique one. There is nothing to stop the ‘Council of the Britons’ being established before the Council of the Gauls, which was set up in Arles after the invasions of the early fifth century. It would even make more sense if such a council had been set up after the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of 367 or even after the recovery of Britain after the revolt of Magnentius (d.AD353), to address grievances such as those against ‘Paul the Chain’, executed in 361.
There is no way to place Gildas firmly in the sixth century and plenty of evidence for the fifth. The sixth century placement arises from a belief that Maglocunus was Maelgwyn of Gwyneth, who alleged died in the Justinianic Plague of the 530s-540s. Dating one dodgy document by reference to another, the Annales Cambriae, a ninth century work, which Ken Dark dismisses out of hand (Britain and the End of the Roman Empire,(2000) Tempus: Stroud) seems unsustainable. A fifth century Gildas, Goth or otherwise, seems more defensible.