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|Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Gildas > Where?|
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Locating Gildas geographical view might seem superfluous. Weather useless or not, many writers have looked for the region from which Gildas looked upon his world. Gildas has been seen as a typical Northerner, a Midlander, a Welshman or a Westcountryman. Of course, any search for his true geographical context might be superfluous, but at least from the view of his connection to Vortigern, it must be dealt with. For his geographical nearness or remoteness to Kent and other regions in which Vortigern is situated have great bearings on his trustworthiness. In other words, if Gildas came from Strathclyde, he is far less likely to have reported accurately about Vortigern and the Saxons. But if he lived in Dorset, he would have been much closer to people who were likely to have remembered these events.
Thompson also relegated the invitation by the superbus tyrannus to the first Saxon mercenaries solely to the northern region, for he believed that any military units containing the northern threat could not have been settled in Kent, but would logically have been stationed near the threat the North. To think otherwise is to enter dreamland.
But how sure can we be of Gildas northern origins? His knowledge of the Roman walls is long known to have been completely wrong, since he ascribed both to the very last stage of the Roman occupation. Bede, who indeed wrote from the north (Jarrow in Northumbria) at least knew them to date back to Severus (which was not strictly true, either). Gildas knowledge of the Picts is worse. Archaeology has pointed out that the Picts inhabited the British isles long before the fifth century. But in all his descriptions of their raids, Gildas makes them come by sea, capture the north of Britannia, and then return home to Scythia. It is only after the last raid that they stay. Bede, again, initially followed Gildas (Chronica Maiora), but later changed his mind, whereupon he altered his transcription of DEB (Historia Ecclesiastica) considerably. As a result, it can be fairly certain that we cant trust Gildas knowledge of the north, which was so much smaller than Bedes, who indeed lived there, and two centuries after the events!
Wright and Sims-Williams have both uttered the same criticism, that the major argument against Thompsons northern bias is the use of terms such as Britannia. Gildas used it from the start as depicting the whole island, not just the Roman diocese. When Gildas speaks of patria, Britannia, our island or the region, the context of these terms clearly shows that he does not mean solely the north. In fact, he proved that by stating that the Saxons raided not just the north, as Thompson would have it, but almost the whole surface of the island (DEB 24). Furthermore, Gildas speaks about the salvation of the whole Christian community of Britain not just those of the north. Gildas seems to have believed that the whole of Britain was occupied by the Romans, since he makes the Picts conquer the northern part, before the first wall was built to stop them. To Gildas, the Picts were living in the outermost parts of the island (in extrema parte insulae). This would be a strange sentence when written by a northerner, but it would be more familiar to a standpoint of a southerner. Concluding, the lack of real knowledge about the north makes a southern locality more likely than a northern one.
Molly Miller followed the ideas of Thompson about the northern bias in Gildas, but with a crucial difference. She believed that one part of the Historia (cc. 14-21) concerned the Pictish Wars and the north only, whereas the rest (cc. 21-26) brought events down to Gildas time and southern region. These two account were connected by the word interea (meanwhile). This view has been rejected, however, as there seems to be no clearly defined geographical transition from north to south. Millers stress on the word interea has been judged as too heavy and not supported by the text.
Another argument concerns the damning accusations of the Welsh kings. Some scholars, notably Thompson, have suggested that since Gildas was able to accuse these men, who must certainly have lived a long way away from the territory controlled by them. If we agree upon the purpose of the DEB (publication rather then a single secret pamphlet) there might be something to that point, were it not self-defeating, for it is in fact these territories that Gildas presents far more correct details about than the northern area where he was supposedly living! Thompsons case rests on this supposed political necessity: because of the attack on the Western kings, Gildas had to live in the north. Higham suggested a location outside of these territories, but close enough to receive information at short notice. Contrary to suggestions of Wales, Chester or Northamptonshire (which all suffer from the objections to a northern location), he suggested a southern location, close enough to Dumnonia to write the latest gossip. Though remotely based on the same principle as Thompsons theory, it seems rather more attractive.
Gildas speaks about his own community as well, but in vague and less strict terms. Where the rulers of the West are viciously attacked, he speaks to his immediate audience only in guarded terms, and addresses them always anonymously. His comments on the grandsons of Ambrosius Aurelianus (DEB 25.3) are almost polite, those to the anonymous rulers that are in league with the Saxons (DEB 92.3) are even more shrouded. He was clearly writing from an are that was in close touch with the areas already controlled in not occupied by what he considered as the enemy. Yet he was close enough to the West Country to receive information about Constantine at very short notice (DEB 28.1,2).
Another famous remark is the impossibility of reaching the tombs of several martyrs because of the enemy, places usually identified with St. Albans and Caerleon. Even if the Saxons controlled the upper Thames Valley during the early sixth century, which on the grounds of modern archaeological results may be in great doubt, the connection to Caerleon would hardly have been effected. Field has suggested an identification of the City of the Legions with York, which would make more sense, though I would not readily accept an occupation of this city at such an early date, which must have been accessible from the West anyway. A less orthodox, though maybe preferable explanation would be that several British were in league with the invaders, or at least in opposition with the western British kings, and thus prevented pilgrims to travel to these territories. In any case, this explanation does not weaken a southern solution.
Dark has proposed a south-western location based on Gildas apparent knowledge of geographical details. His coasts, which he describes as having curving bays and large promontories which jut out, are much better reflected by the coasts of Kent, Sussex and Dorset than those of Yorkshire or Cumbria. The cliff-edge fortifications are of a very limited distribution, stretching from East Devon to South-east Wales. He tells of agriculture on wide plains and stretched hills, which points more to the down-land of the southern chalk hills, than to the barren north. Even the snow-white pebbles in the streambeds suggest a chalk or limestone geology, which prompted Dark to suggest a location of East Devon or the West Country.
The first of these is what sources Gildas actually used for his viewpoint. Did he use any local knowledge at all? It is telling that Gildas himself states that he uses no insular sources for his description of Britain:
Though Gildas refers primarily to writings about British history, but we should remember that geographical information usually came with those writings, mostly during transgressions of the author. In fact, most geographical information we possess about Britain during Roman times, stems from historical writings.
Another pitfall is that any local information that Gildas refers to, might come from such overseas sources instead from his own local knowledge. Thus the (wrong) information about the northern walls, but also the (correct) information about the southern rivers, Saxon Shore Forts and coasts, could have been derived solely from sources such as Orosius. Furthermore, these sources could well have come to him through a secondary compilation. For instance Gildas opening words about Britain certainly come from Orosius, but he seems otherwise ignorant of this source!
A third pitfall is the relativity of geographical information. There are so few pieces of real, undebatable evidence, that drawing any conclusion may be stressing them too far anyway. Moreover, certain places, such as St Albans, may have been of such importance that he would have mentioned them wherever he lived. I have dealt with Thompsons suggestion about Gildas necessary living away from the kings he attacks above.
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