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The Sources
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Where did Gildas write?
Robert Vermaat

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.

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

The North
Gildas has long been associated with a northern background. The first Breton antecedents Life gave Gildas royal in Strathclyde, which have been repeated ever since. The best known modern advocate for a northern context is E.A. Thompson (influencing, to a degree, Dumville and Sims-Williams), who developed the idea that Gildas’ Pictish raids were confined solely to the north, thereby modifying the views of Miller (below). Thompson limited all Pictish wars to the north, and all subsequent events as well; when Gildas was speaking about Britannia or the regionorth. Thompson believed that the Pictish raiders, which arrived , he was “certainly and explicitly” of the from the sea, entered the north of Roman Britain south of the wall and then raided northwards up to the wall. Thompson subsequently did not reject the statement by the
Gallic Chronicler of AD 452 of the conquest of Britain in AD 441-2 by the Saxons, but restricted its impact to the south. All events concerning the raiding, destruction of cities, famine, etc, happened in the north only. “To think otherwise would be not only wrong, but wrong-headed”.

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 can’t trust Gildas’ knowledge of the north, which was so much smaller than Bede’s, 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 Thompson’s 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.

Both North and South
Though the medieval Lives of Gildas place his family in the north, most have him educated in Wales, which would explain at least his geographical viewpoint when writing the DEB.

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. Miller’s 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! Thompson’s 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 Thompson’s theory, it seems rather more attractive.

The South
Contrary to Gildas’ apparent lack of knowledge concerning northern details (the date of the Walls, the origins of the Picts) is his recollection of southern details. Where he fails to mention the Humber, Ouse or Trent waterways, or the great northern inlets such as the Wash or Forth, he does mention the Thames and the Severn. Where he does not mention navigable routes to Ireland, he mentions the Channel Crossings into Belgic Gaul (even better, he claims this is the only navigable route across the sea). Ireland is uniformly described as populated by barbarians and beasts, which weakens a northern or northwestern viewpoint. This seems also the case when he speaks about certain migration. Though these are undatable, it seems clear from his comment an and knowledge of Ireland that he is better informed about migrations to the continent.

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 Southern Walls
These Durotrigan or Dumnonian civitates also provided a better foundation for the Christianity and close connections with the continent which are so clear from Gildas’ text. Locating Gildas here would also explain Gildas ‘northern bias’, for to the southern author, the Saxon settlements south of the Humber were indeed in the ‘north of the island’! Another explanation for Gildas’ interest in the northern walls might be that in this territory lies another great earthwork, which might well date from Gildas’ time. This is
Wansdyke, an earthwork that spreads from Savernake Forest to Bristol, with a gap in the middle, formed by the river Avon. Excavators have pointed to similarities between Wansdyke and the late fourth to early fifth-century earthwork in Dorset known as Bokerley Dyke. Similarities occur with Cadbury Castle as well, an iron Age hillfort in Dorset, refurbished in the fifth century on a massive scale, and associated with either Ambrosius Aurelianus and of course the legendary king Arthur. If all these massive works were going on, how could Gildas not know of it? Yet his interest is not in the walls themselves, but in their ultimate failure. Keeping in mind what we know of the vagueness with which Gildas describes his own community, it may be that he did not attack the futility (in his eyes) of these works, but rather referred to similar and well-known structures in the far north, which had failed their purpose as well.

Pitfalls
Unfortunately, attractive though a southern solution may be, it is but a limited solution. In our search, we have stressed those areas Gildas seemed better or worse informed about as a means of establishing his whereabouts. However, as Patrick Sims-Williams stressed, there are several pitfalls in this approach, neither of whom were avoided by Thompson, Dumville, Miller, Higham or Dark.

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:

DEB 4.4
I will only endeavour to relate the evils which Britain suffered in the times of the Roman emperors, and also those which she caused to distant states; but so far as lies in my power, I shall not follow the writings and records of my own country, which (if there ever were any of them) have been consumed in the fires of the enemy, or have accompanied my exiled countrymen into distant lands, but be guided by the relations of overseas tradition [transmarina relatio], which, being broken and interrupted in many places, are therefore by no means clear.

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 Thompson’s suggestion about Gildas necessary living away from the kings he attacks above.

Conclusion
After weighing all information, it might seem best to refrain from speaking of Gildas’ “place” of writing, but rather refer to his “geographical horizons”. Indeed, as Patrick Sims-Williams rightly states, Gildas may well have been moving about during his life, even during the time in which he compiled his work. The later traditions (see Gildas) all refer to Gildas’ leaving Britain, both to Brittany and Ireland. Nevertheless, if one would speak at all of a location that seemed better equipped than another, or one in which Gildas spent more time if you like, I would certainly opt for the south-west, and particularly for the Durotrigan region.

Bibliography

  • Bartrum, P.C. (1966): Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, (Cardiff).*
  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (Cardiff).*
  • Brooks, D.A. (1983-4): Gildas' De Excidio, Its revolutionary meaning and purpose, in: Studia Celtica 18/19, pp. 1-10.*
  • Caradoc of Llangarfan: The Life of Gildas, ed. Hugh Williams, translator, in: Two Lives of Gildas by a monk of Ruys and Caradoc of Llancarfan, Cymmrodorion Record Series, 1899. Facsimilie reprint by Llanerch Publishers, (Felinfach 1990), at: http://members.aol.com/michellezi/translations/LifeofGildas.html.
  • Dark, Kenneth R. (1994): Civitas to Kingdom, British Political Continuity 300-800, Studies in the Early History of Britain, (Leicester).*
  • Dumville, David N. (1984a): The chronology of De Excidio Britanniae, Book 1, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 61-84.*
  • Field, P.J.C. (1999): Gildas and the City of the Legions, in: The Heroic Age 1, http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/1/hagcl.htm.
  • 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.
  • Gildas: The Ruin of Britain &c., ed. and trans Hugh Williams, in: Cymmrodorion Record Series, No. 3. (1899), at: http://www.ccel.org/p/pearse/morefathers/gildas_02_ruin_of_britain.htm
  • Higham, Nicholas J. (1991): Gildas, Roman Walls and British Dykes, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 22, pp. 1-14.*
  • Higham, Nicholas J. (1994): The English Conquest, Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century, (Manchester).*
  • Jones, Michael E. (1996): The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell).*
  • O'Sullivan, Thomas D. (1978): The De Excidio of Gildas, its Authenticity and Date, Columba studies in the Classical Tradition 7, (Leiden).*
  • Sims-Williams, P. (1983): Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 6, pp. 1-30.*
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Thompson, E.A. (1979): Gildas and the History of Britain, in: Britannia 10, pp. 203-226.*
  • Wood, Ian N. (1984): The End of Roman Britain: Continental Evidence and Parallels, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 1-26.*
  • Wright, Neil (1984a): Gildas's geographical perspective: some problems, in: Lapidge and Dumville, Gildas: New Approaches, pp. 85-106.*

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved