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Gildas and the Dark Ages
Robert Vermaat

Gildas shares with us a rare view of the changing landscape in the early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages. Before entering into a discussion about his position in these times, I must refer to an excellent article by Chris Snyder on this site, to which I refer as an almost obligatory introduction.

A transcript of the relevant chapters can be found at this site.

All Gildas understood of the Roman past in Britain was that it was orderly; though he knew two northern walls, he knew nothing of when or why they were built. Oral memory took him back to the wars and a dateless Vortigern but no further. But for all its obscurity his narrative remains our chief guide to the history of Britain between the Romans and the English. Britain was the only western province where the newcomers met prolonged resistance, instead of a long but steady process of assimilation. The subsequent conflict ended in permanent division. There was no fusion between German and Roman; Roman institutions and language disappeared; the Welsh and the English both perpetuate the languages that their ancestors had spoken in and before the Roman centuries. The present day consequences of these divisions are better understood when their origin is known. But Gildas also paints a picture of utter destruction and devastation, a picture that is in direct contrast with his own Roman cultural background. How could Gildas have received a Roman rhetoric education and expect his readers to recognize this, while he claims the whole country was devastated?

From Roman Britain...
At the beginning of the fifth century Britain had been a Roman province for nearly 400 years, and for 200 years all freeborn Britons had been Roman citizens; there was no longer much contrast between 'native' and 'Roman'. Society had for a long time been dominated by a landed nobility, whose splendid country mansions, also know to us as ‘villas’, were built and furnished on a scale not matched again until the 18th century, when the great houses of the modern landed gentry began their two hundred-year period of greatness. The rents that sustained this gentry were drawn from agriculture and industry, that became based on an ever larger scale.

Yet this system had become ever more vulnerable. It had been spared the larger troubles of invasions that had plagued the rest of the Roman Empire, especially during the later third and later fourth centuries. There had been usurpators, but these generally went over to the continent to fight their wars. Thus, the British provinces had become wealthy, but not safer. Beyond the frontier, northern border kingdoms were still uneasy allies of Roman authority, and the Picts, sometimes allied with the Scots in Ireland, raided when they could, and had established a number of colonies on the western coasts of Britain. A new threat had come from the east with the Saxons in their small but feared boats.

The Roman Empire of the West had been fading already in the late fourth centuries, when ever larger armies of federates extorted the governments of both the East and West at will. Commanders such as Alaric and Stilicho, later Attila and Aetius fought over control of the Empire’s economy, until there was nothing left. Mortally wounded in 410, when Alaric took Rome, while the British usurper Constantine III was unable to challenge marauding Germans and Alans in Gaul, the Empire in the West survived for two more generations. The Goths, Franks, Alans and many other groups obtained the right to settle in Roman territory under their own laws and rulers, with the status of federate allies, in and after 418. They were the first, but others soon followed, and when Gildas was young the western empire was divided between four Germanic kingdoms, in France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. Roman and German fused; German kings inherited the centralised authoritarian rule of Rome, and preserved the property and power of landlords.

The British situation differed. The British provinces had never been swamped by large moving armies, as the island was far enough removed from their main routes. Consequently, far less alien immigrants had come to Britain, though many Germanic soldiers had served and settled in Britain, like it had suffered from the raids of their brethren. A heavy Saxon raid had been driven off in 410, the survivors probably settled, like those on the continent, on severe terms (dedititii). A strong ruler emerged in the 420s and survived for some 30 years. Later writers knew him by the name or title of Vortigern, Gildas' word-play describes him as superbus tyrannus (proud tyrant), or as ‘Pharaoh’ in his metaphors. To curb invasions by Picts, Saxons and maybe even Romans Vortigern and the Council settled German federates throughout the land. Gildas called them Saxons, but they were in fact not one single tribe; the regular units of the army of Independent Britian may in the beginning have been of a very similar composition. We should in all probability not look for an ethnic British regular army versus purely Germanic or even Saxon federates. This was no reality for the Late Roman army, where federates usually differed from the regular army only through a far more personal relationship with their commanders. The Saxons must have become an fast growing part of these federates, as many of them were already settled in Britain.

The Dark Ages descend
In or about 441 the federates rebelled. Like Alaric and his federate army (not a 'Gothic Nation'!), they might have resented their non-regular status as federates, in any case Gildas tells us that they demanded more pay, as Alaric had done. The disaster that followed was also the same. Gildas condenses twenty years' fighting or more, which ended with the destruction of a large part of the nobility of Britain according to legend, and the emigration of many of the survivors. The first mass migration to Gaul is dated by contemporary sources on the continent to 450-60. At home, resistance began under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus and continued for over thirty years until the battle at Badon Hill, probably around 500. According to Gildas, Roman Britain lay in ruins by then. But was this true?

In Gildas’ own words of chapter 24, the raiding Saxons all but destroyed Britain, its citizens and its towns, in enormous carnage, slaughter and ruin:

DEB, 24:
For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of the impious easterners, and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean. In these assaults, therefore, not unlike that of the Assyrian upon Judea, was fulfilled in our case what the prophet describes in words of lamentation: "They have burned with fire the sanctuary; they have polluted on earth the tabernacle of thy name." And again, "O God, the gentiles have come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled," &c. All the colonies were levelled to the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds; with reverence be it spoken for their blessed souls, if, indeed, there were many found who were carried, at that time, into the high heaven by the holy angels.

And in chapter 26:

DEB, 26:
But not even to this day are the cities of our country inhabited as before, but deserted and dismantled, still lie neglected; because though foreign wars have ceased, domestic troubles still remain.

This description cannot be rejected without proper research, but archaeology rejects it today. Almost all major towns of Roman Britain have shown evidence of continuity and sometimes even major construction well into the fifth century. Though impoverished and not comparable to their heighdays under Roman rule, these towns were inhabited well into the sixth century, some even into the seventh or continuously. Clearly, the cities were never razed to the ground, and it looks like that the population was never slaughtered either. So what was Gildas on about? How literal can we take this? Patrick Sims-Williams points to a solution that has a direct bearing on Gildas’ education. He refers to similar descriptions of civil violence and destruction by fifth- and sixth-century authors from the continent. It is very useful to show these again here:

To start with, the anonymous author of De Vita Christiana, who may have been a Pelagian and possibly even a Briton, wrote in the early fifth century. Note especially the savagery with which he vividly describes the carnage of the wicked, which also turn up in DEB, as do the carrion-eating animals:

The works of Fastidius, chapter 3
Of these some, who had frequently shed the blood of others, felt the wrath of God to such effect that they were compelled at last to shed their own. …Others who had committed similar deeds were so completely overthrown by the wrath of God that their bodies lay unburied and became food for the beasts and the birds of the air. Yet others who had unjustly destroyed a countless multitude of men have been torn to pieces limb from limb, piece by piece…

Next is the poet Orientius, who described the barbarian onslaught in the first decades of the fifth century in Gaul. He uses the same geographical terminology as Gildas (caves, forest, etc.), but also the same universal picture of slaughter, using similar words:

Orientius, Commonitorium, II.167-84
Neither the harsh terrain of dense forest and high mountain [celsi montis], nor strong rivers with their rapid currents, nor castles [castella] with their stones, nor cities protected by walls, nor the barrier of the sea, nor the troubles of the wilderness, nor caves, nor even caverns beneath black rocks, were sufficient to escape the hands of the barbarians. To many false trust was the cause of death, to many injury, to many civic treachery. What was not overcome by force was overcome by famine. The unlucky mother fell with her child and husband, the master underwent servitude with his slaves. Some lay food for dogs, and flaming roofs deprived many of life, giving then a funeral pyre. Throughout towns and villas, throughout fields and crossroads and all regions, on every road this way and that, there was death, sorrow, ruin [excidium], burning, grief. All Gaul was a single funeral pyre.

Third is Salvian, whose description around AD 440 of the sack of the once-great city of Trier, which had been the capital of the Roman empire until the last decades of the fourth century, was written about ten to twenty years after the event. Salvian had clearly observed the horrors with his own eyes, and was able to report them vividly decades later. Did Gildas look at the same carnage somewhere? Notice that Salvian also mentions the few men of rank who had survived, though he rates them somewhat less than Gildas does:

Salvian, De Gubernate Dei, VI.15.83-85
Those whom the enemy had not killed while they pillaged the city were overwhelmed by disaster after the sack; those who had escaped death in the capture did not survive the ruin that followed. Some died lingering deaths from deep wounds, others were burned by the enemy’s fires and suffered tortures even after the flames were extinguished. Some perished of hunger, others of nakedness, some wasting away, other paralysed with cold, and so all alike by diverse deaths hastened to the common goal. Worse than this, other cities suffered from the destruction of this single town. There lay all about the torn and naked bodies of both sexes, a sight that I myself endured. These were a pollution to the eyes of the city, as they lay there lacerated by birds and dogs. The stench of the dead brought pestilence on the living: death breathed out death. Thus even those who had escaped the destruction of the city suffered the evils that sprang from the fate of the rest. What followed these calamities? Who can assay such utter folly? The few man of rank who had survived destruction demanded of the emperors circuses as the sovereign remedy for a ruined city!

The fourth is the anonymous author of the Narratio de imperatoribus domus Valentinianae et Theodosiane, who wrote an anonymous series of biographies of the emperors from Valentinian I to Honorius (364-423). The anonymous author wrote this obscure and very brief series between 423, the deaths of Honorius (which is the last event noted), and of Theodosius II (450), as the latter’s reign is mentioned as well. He uses these words:

Gaul and Spain were demolished and utterly destroyed by the barbarian nations of the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans.

Fifth is Sidonius Appolinaris, Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, who wrote to Constantius (the biographer of Germanus) during the winter of AD 473-4 of a Visigothic raid in the Auvergne. Constantius is pictured like a restorer, in much the same language as Gildas praises Ambrosius Aurelianus (though much flowery):

Sidonius, Epistulae, book III, letter 2
What joy it was for the afflicted when you set your sacred foot within our half-ruined ramparts! …What tears you shed, as if you were the father of all, over buildings destroyed by fire and half-burnt homes. How greatly you grieved over fields that were buried under unburied bones! How splendid then was your encouragement, how spirited your arguments for reconstruction! To this it may be added that, when you found the city evacuated because of civic dissension as well as barbarian attack, you, by urging peace, restored charity to the people and the people to their fatherland. Thanks to your advice the people have returned to a single mind as well as to a single city; to you the walls owe the return of their people, the returned people their unity.

Sixth and last is Gregory of Tours, who described the ruin of Italy in the late sixth century. Gregory, who was an ecclesiastic like Gildas, uses much of the same images and language:

Gregory of Tours, Homilies on Ezekiel, II.6.22
What is there to please us in this life? On every side we see grief, on every side we hear groans. Cities are destroyed, forts overthrown, fields depopulated, the lands reduced to a wilderness. No inhabitant remains in the fields, and scarcely any dweller in the cities; and yet these tiny remnants of the human race are still afflicted every day without respite. And the lashes of heavenly justice do not end because their faults are not corrected even under the lash. Some we see carried into captivity, other mutilated, others killed. What then is there to please us in this life, my brothers? If we still delight in such a world, it must be wounds we love, not joys. We see what will be left of Rome herself, who for a while seemed mistress of the world; bruised again and again by many great sorrows, by desertion of her citizens, by oppression by her enemies, and by repeated destructions, so that we may see in her what the prophet says against the city of Samaria [Ezekiel 24] …Where is now the senate? Where now the people? …And we few who have remained are still daily oppressed by the sword and innumerable tribulations… For because the senate is missing and the people lost, and because even among those who remain sorrows and groans daily increase, Rome. Now deserted, burns.

Would we use this lament as direct evidence for the destruction of city-life in Italy? I think not. It seems that Gildas’ descriptions were not so dramatic when compared to all these similar lamentations. We do not have to believe the pictures of bone-covered fields, cities deserted by all inhabitants, bodies lying around, eaten by beats, all of Gaul burning. The shock of the ending of the Roman empire must have been great, but not as dramatic as these authors let us believe. Small wonder that Gildas is citing from the Bible, and most of all from Jeremiah, who lived through the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple!

The Roman legacy
But through all this, we can also spot the contrary evidence of his words. For not only writes Gildas these sentences in a very accurate Latin, he also confirms to the literary standard of his age, when he conforms to the dramatic language of his fellow-authors in describing the disasters of their age. However, Gildas was correct regarding the eventual result: Roman civilisation was destroyed notwithstanding the British victory. Industry and agriculture, already in steep decline in the 430s, had suffered immensely when the markets collapsed. Roads became unsafe and were kept up less and less. The subsequently weakened villa-society had vanished altogether when contact with the continental owners had been severed, the economy crumbled when the demand for goods stopped. It is very possible that the one-time magnates became warlords, who abandoned the villas/farming estates and retreated to hillforts.

Gildas asserts that the British victors maintained a government for a generation, but that kings were already anointed and slain in an ever more rapid succession. And in recent years power had thus passed from a more or less central government into the hands of regional warlords, whose mutual violence overrode law and convention and was matched by corruption in the church.These war-lords could compel a self-sufficient agriculture to maintain their men and horses, but not to rebuild the economic situation of past. They maintained their power throughout Gildas' lifetime; the great urban centres crumbled when their function as markets and civil administrative centres disappeared; they became small political centres that were only a shadow of their former glory. Several small towns and some larger ones disappeared completely, a fate not suffered by most of their continental counterparts.

When Gildas wrote, Romans were again foreigners, their empire a thing of the past. The sophisticated Roman civilisation was no longer there when Gildas was born, although not completely. The Roman Empire had lost its British provinces long before, and invasions had put an end to an economy that must have suffered immensely from that loss of contact with the Roman commonwealth. But Gildas and his compatriates still felt they were part, or at least had been, of the great Roman culture. Gildas still speaks of his Romanitas (as Patrick had done), and it is recognized today that Roman culture was not rivalled in Britain for centuries to come. Gildas had received a classical education, as his writings show, which are much closer to the prose style of the fifth-century rhetoricians like Ennodius or Sidonius Appolinaris. This may have been the exemption, but it must have been recognizable to at least some of his readers.

Gildas' intentions and victory
Gildas wrote mainly to warn his British countrymen of disasters, such as those that had occurred when the Britons had been too arrogant to listen to God and reject the Romans. The subsequent disasters, so Gildas told his audience caused the British much suffering, though victory had been achieved in the end. However, these disasters were bound to happen again when they were to continue their wars. But did Gildas write in vain? Yes and no. Wars did not cease, political control crumbled ever further, and in the east, the power of many Germanic immigrants grew year by year. Eventually, the British merged with them to such an extent that Victorian writers thought they had all been murdered. Many others migrated; to Wales, to Brittany and to Ireland.

But then, Gildas had some effect as well. Few books have had a more immediate and far-reaching impact than his. Two hundred years earlier, in the eastern Mediterranean lands, immense numbers of men and women had dropped out of society to seek solitary communion with God in the deserts; but their sheer numbers forced them to form communities. Monasticism was not yet institutionalised and monks, though present in large numbers, did not form large communities. Their western imitators had hitherto aroused little response; it had inspired only a few pioneers in the British Isles when Gildas wrote. But within ten years monasticism had become a mass movement, in South Wales, Ireland, and northern Gaul. Its extensive literature praises Gildas as its founding father, named more often than any other individual. Though he is less esteemed by modern writers, Gildas' reputation stood very high among the early monks. For another view of Gildas as a historian, I refer to the excellent article by Sheila Brynjulfson on this site.


  • Dark, Kenneth R. (1994): Civitas to Kingdom, British Political Continuity 300-800, Studies in the Early History of Britain, (Leicester).*
  • Dumville, David N. (1984): Gildas and Maelgwn: problems of dating, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 51-60.*
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, Latin and trans. M. Winterbottom, History from the Sources 7, (Old Woking 1978).*
  • Gildas: De Excidio Brittonum, trans. John Allan Giles, in: Six Old English Chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals (London, George Bell and Sons, 1891), full text (English) at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gildas-full.html.
  • Gildas: The de excidio Britonum (The Ruin of Britain): ed. and Latin Keith Matthews (2000), based on Mommsen's version, at: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/history/gildas/frames.html.
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  • Salvian: On the Government of God (De Gubernate Dei), trans Eva M. Sanford, (New York, Columbia University, 1930). ed. Roger Pearse, in: Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts, at: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers#Salvian.
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