Gildas (c. 504-570) Sapiens (“the wise”) was a British monk who chronicled one of the strangest–and for subsequent history one of the most important–sequence of events in the fall of the Roman Empire: the separation of Britain from Rome and the subsequent disintegration of “post-Roman Britain” at the hands of the Saxons. The story is interesting because it shows that history isn’t just a succession of impersonal “forces” at work, but the product of human decisions, good and bad.
Britain was first brought under Roman rule during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Once the last serious attempt to break Roman rule (led by Boadicea) was suppressed, Britain went on to become perhaps the most successful of Rome’s western provinces. Although it was a victim of both barbarian invasions and power challenging usurpers (sometimes a participant with the latter,) Britain’s geography insulated it (literally) from a good deal of the third century chaos that devastated places like Gaul. This enabled Britain to do reasonably well.
The vagaries of fourth century Rome, with its combination of increasing centralisation and taxation and the progressive unravelling of Roman power with the barbarian invasions, fell hard on Britain, with characters like Paul the Chain making life for the local notables difficult. Around the sack of Rome in 410, Britain’s power holders, believing that the obligations of Roman rule outweighed the unavailable benefits, simply threw off Roman rule and went to a form of self-government. It is not clear how they organised themselves in the wake of this but there is no evidence of a strong central authority figure.
This independence did not end the problem of the barbarian invasions. At this point the British chief Vortigern got the bright idea of inviting the Saxons into the eastern extremities of England–the usual jumping-off point for barbarian invasions from the Continent, as Hitler planned in 1940–to defend the island. Vortigern’s colleagues went along with the plan, the Saxons were invited, and when they came they became part of the problem rather than part of the solution, eventually destroying Roman Britain and driving its survivors into Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
Gildas is probably the best single British chronicler of this entire account. As Gildas himself points out, Roman Britain was primarily documented by outsiders, a lacuna only filled in recent times by archaeology. His account is especially instructive to Anglicans and other Christians for two reasons.
The first is his admission that Christianity in Roman and post-Roman Britain left a lot to be desired of. Much of the mystique of British and American Christianity, especially starting with John Foxe, is a product of myth-making. Britain was one of the least Christianised provinces of Rome; it remained for both the Irish and the Continentals to actually put the faith on a sound footing in England and Wales after the end of Roman Britain. Britain is certainly capable of being a “pagan province” again as it was under Rome. Gildas also points out that this was a result of ineffectual leadership on the part of the British church, something which the Church of England needs to consider in its present predicament.
The second is that effective Christian leadership is a combination of righteousness and courage. Gildas is the first author I know of to refer to people without courage as “chickens.” Today too much criticism of those in power by Christians centres on their lack of righteousness rather than their lack of ability; many of our so-called leaders are lacking in both, and there is a connection. This is true both of our secular and our ecclesiastical rulers. This is a Biblical concept, but one that is forgotten, especially by ministers.
The Current Text
The edition used here is that of John Allen Giles (1804-1884), Six old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals, published in 1891 by G. Bell & Sons. In addition to Gildas’ work, the other authors included were Nennius (fl. 796), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St. Asaph (1100?-1154), Ethelwerd (d. 998?), and John Asser (d. 909). The work was translated by William Gunn (1750-1841) and Charles Bertram (1723-1765). This text was transcribed by Janice Reilly and placed on her web site at the University of Tennessee, and was then moved to the Internet Medieval Source Book.
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I. THE PREFACE
1. WHATEVER in this my epistle I may write in my humble but well-meaning manner, rather by way of lamentation than for display, let no one suppose that it springs from contempt of others, or that I foolishly esteem myself as better than they; -for, alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land;- but that I would condole with my country in her distress and rejoice to see her revive therefrom: for it is my present purpose to relate the deeds of an indolent and slothful race, rather than the exploits of those who have been valiant in the field. I have kept silence, I confess, with much mental anguish, compunction of feeling and contrition of heart, whilst I revolved all these things within myself; and, as God the searcher of the reins is witness, for the space of even ten years or more, my inexperience, as at present also, and my unworthiness preventing me from taking upon myself the character of a censor. But I read how the illustrious lawgiver, for one word’s doubting, was not allowed to enter the desired land; that the sons of the high-priest, for placing strange fire upon God’s altar, were cut off by a speedy death; that God’s people, for breaking the law of God, save two only, were slain by wild beasts, by fire and sword in the deserts of Arabia, though God had so loved them that he had made a way for them through the Red Sea, had fed them with bread from heaven, and water from the rock, and by the lifting up of a hand merely had made their armies invincible; and then, when they had crossed the Jordan and entered the unknown land, and the walls of the city had fallen down flat at the sound only of a trumpet, the taking of a cloak and a little gold from the accursed things caused the deaths of many: and again the breach of their treaty with the Gibeonites, though that treaty had been obtained by fraud, brought destruction upon many, and I took warning from the sins of the people which called down upon then the reprehensions of the prophets and also of Jeremiah, with his fourfold Lamentations written in alphabetic order. I saw moreover in my own time, as that prophet also had complained, that the city had sat down lone and widowed, which before was full of people; that the queen of nations and the princess of provinces (i. e. the church), had been made tributary; that the gold was obscured, and the most excellent colour (which is the brightness of God’s word) changed; that the sons of Sion (i. e. of holy mother church), once famous and clothed in the finest gold, grovelled in dung; and what added intolerably to the weight of grief of that illustrious man, and to mine, though but an abject whilst he had thus mourned them in their happy and prosperous condition, “Her Nazarites were fairer than snow, more ruddy than old ivory, more beautiful than the sapphire.” These and many other passages in the ancient Scriptures I regarded as a kind of mirror of human life, and I turned also to the New, wherein I read more clearly what perhaps to me before was dark, for the darkness deaf, and truth shed her steady light -I read therein that the Lord had said, “I came not but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;” and on the other hand, “But the children of this kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shal1 be weeping and gnashing of teeth:” and again, “It is not good to take the children’s meat and to give it to dogs:” also, “Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites!” I heard how “many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven:” and on the contrary, “I will then say to them, ‘Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity!'” I read, “Blessed are the barren, and the teats which have not given suck;” and on the contrary, “Those, who were ready, entered with him to the wedding; afterwards came the other virgins also, saying ‘Lord, Lord, open to us:’ to whom it was answered, ‘I do not know you.'” I heard, forsooth, “Whoever shall believe and be baptized, shall be saved, but whoever shall not believe shall be damned.” I read in the words of the apostle that the branch of the wild olive was grafted upon the good olive, but should nevertheless be cut off from the communion of the root of its fatness, if it did not hold itself in fear, but entertained lofty thoughts. I knew the mercy of the Lord, but I also feared his judgment: I praised his grace, but I feared the rendering to every man according to his works: perceiving the sheep of the same fold to be different, I deservedly commended Peter for his entire confession of Christ, but called Judas most wretched, for his love of covetousness: I thought Stephen most glorious on account of the palm of martyrdom, but Nicholas wretched for his mark of unclean heresy: I read assuredly, “They had all things common:” but likewise also, as it is written, “Why have ye conspired to tempt the Spirit of God ?” I saw, on the other hand, how much security had grown upon the men of our time, as if there were nothing to cause them fear. These things, therefore, and many more which for brevity’s sake we have determined to omit, I revolved again and again in my amazed mind with compunction in my heart, and I thought to myself, “If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, ‘My first begotten Israel,’ its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has in common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy ?” “What, wretched man (I say to myself) is it given to you, as if you were an illustrious and learned teacher, to oppose the force of so violent a torrent, and keep the charge committed to you against such a series of inveterate crimes which has spread far and wide, without interruption, for so many years. Hold thy peace: to do otherwise, is to tell the foot to see, and the hand to speak. Britain has rulers, and she has watchmen: why dost thou incline thyself thus uselessly to prate?” She has such, I say, not too many, perhaps, but surely not too few: but because they are bent down and pressed beneath so heavy a burden, they have not time allowed them to take breath. My senses, therefore, as if feeling a portion of my debt and obligation, preoccupied themselves with such objections and with others yet more strong. They struggled, as I said, no short time, in a fearful strait, whilst I read, “There is a time for speaking, and a time for keeping silence. At length, the creditor’s side prevailed and bore off the victory: if (said he) thou art not bold enough to be marked with the comely mark of golden liberty among the prophetic creatures, who enjoy the rank as reasoning beings next to the angels, refuse not the inspiration of the understanding ass, to that day dumb, which would not carry forward the tiara’d magician who was going to curse God’s people, but in the narrow pass of the vineyard crushed his loosened foot, and thereby felt the lash; and though he was, with his ungrateful and furious hand, against right justice, beating her innocent sides, she pointed out to him the heavenly messenger behold the naked sword, and standing in his way, though he had not seen him.
Wherefore in zeal for the house of God and for his holy law, constrained either by the reasonings of my own thoughts or by the pious entreaties of my brethren, I now discharge the debt so long exacted of me; humble, indeed, in style but faithful, as I think, and friendly to all Christ’s youthful soldiers, but severe and insupportable to foolish apostates; the former of whom, if I am not deceived, will receive the same with tears flowing from God’s love; but the others will sorrow, such as is extorted from the indignation and pusillanimity of a convicted conscience.
2. I will, therefore, if God be willing, endeavour to say a few words about the situation of Britain, her disobedience and subjection, her rebellion, second subjection and dreadful slavery-of her religion persecution, holy martyrs, heresies of different kinds-of her tyrants, her two hostile and ravaging nations-of her first devastation, her defence, her second devastation and second taking vengeance-of her third devastation, of her famine, and the letters to Agitius-of her victory and her crimes-of the sudden rumour of enemies-of her famous pestilence-of her counsels-of her last enemy, far more cruel than the first-of the subversion of her cities, and of the remnant that escaped; and finally, of the peace which, by the will of God, has been granted her in these our times.