What Made the Anglo-Saxons Capable of Conquering the Britons?

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
The focus of his work is not the handful of passages about the history of Britain, but about the shortcomings of the clergy and, to a lesser extent, the venality of kings.
He doesn't hold back!

"Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. ... they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: "
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
He doesn't hold back!
"Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. ... they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: "
He really doesn't! It all seems like fire and brimstone pantomime to us, but to Gildas, it was undoubtedly all very serious. The clergy had a divinely ordained responsibility to keep their flock on the straight and narrow and they were failing in that duty. But even in all of this, we learn a great deal about early sixth-century Britain. There clearly was a large and functioning ecclesiastical hierarchy still in place and whatever state the economy was in, unscrupulous clergymen were able to feather their nests. What is more, Gildas' Latin and his classical allusions shows us that a traditional Roman education in rhetoric was still available to people in Britain, a century or more after the Roman system had supposedly broken down completely. Gildas describes a complex, stratified society which is virtually invisible in the archaeology. This, to me, is the real value of De Excidio. It gives us a window into a society which, in the absence of the text, we would not have believed possible.
 
Mar 2015
1,460
Yorkshire
It isn't pointless. You are quite right about the limitations of Gildas, but nonetheless, you'll know as well as me that many people both on Historum and elsewhere talk of Gildas' 'testimony', as though he were setting out to write a sober narrative history of the fifth-century events. He wasn't, although he is a first class witness for certain aspects of the socio-political situation in the mid sixth-century. That, I think, is what we can accept him for.

I'd take issue with your contention that his book is a call to arms to rout the Saxons. I don't think it is. I see it as a moralising sermon which aims to warn the Britons that their persistent sinning is going to lead them into disaster, both in this world and the next. The focus of his work is not the handful of passages about the history of Britain, but about the shortcomings of the clergy and, to a lesser extent, the venality of kings. It's a plea for the elites to show appropriately Christian moral leadership and it's hedged about with previous examples of what happens when the Britons turn away from God. Gildas' account of the adventus is just one of these examples. To Gildas, the Britons are inherently weak and lacking in backbone. They require leading by the nose in order to stay on the path of righteousness. If they can do that, God can take care of everything else for them. The problem is that the people who are supposed to be providing the leadership are a bunch of hypocritical, murderous and hedonistic ne'er do wells.
Beautiful summary as usual Peter. If I try to answer other parts of your contribution later otherwise this will get unbearably long. As far as Gildas is concerned:

I think we have to look at Gildas from the readers point of view and here, I lean on Charles-Edwards (super scholar - great books on the Irish BTW) view that although Roman rule had ceased, it took a considerable length of time for the Britons and other Romanised peoples to accept that they were now no longer Roman or that the Empire would not be re-established. We can see by Gildas' time this view is disappearing eg cowardly Britons of today, valiant Romans which my Grandfather's generation were and capable of giving the Saxon a good thrashing etc.

Surely Gildas is not recommending that the status quo with the Saxon be accepted. Its clear that he warns against a renewal of the Saxon onslaught, if things don't change.

As his temporal audience will know chunks of Eastern Britain are still in Saxon hands. The threat remains. As far as the Britons are concerned this not acceptable; this is our Land, we were first and the Saxon has no right to here. I really do think the underlying message is follow God, have the courage of forefathers, be like Romans and drive out your Saxon enemies.

Sorry if this offends your academic susceptibilities but on all aspects of Gildas I reserve the right to cherry-pick. After that is what he is doing isn't it, choosing those bits (ill-remembered in some cases) that fit his polemic and omitting others.
 
Mar 2015
1,460
Yorkshire
He really doesn't! It all seems like fire and brimstone pantomime to us, but to Gildas, it was undoubtedly all very serious. The clergy had a divinely ordained responsibility to keep their flock on the straight and narrow and they were failing in that duty. But even in all of this, we learn a great deal about early sixth-century Britain. There clearly was a large and functioning ecclesiastical hierarchy still in place and whatever state the economy was in, unscrupulous clergymen were able to feather their nests. What is more, Gildas' Latin and his classical allusions shows us that a traditional Roman education in rhetoric was still available to people in Britain, a century or more after the Roman system had supposedly broken down completely. Gildas describes a complex, stratified society which is virtually invisible in the archaeology. This, to me, is the real value of De Excidio. It gives us a window into a society which, in the absence of the text, we would not have believed possible.
We are straying into another area here. In Britain the Classical Roman education had died and been taken over and modified by the Church in Britain. The standard of Latin of Gildas is extremely high, better than his contemporaries on the Continent but he makes limited allusion to classical texts and then only those of Virgil. He has learnt his Latin via study of biblical texts not heathen authors. I think this tells us that Latin and bilingualism were now disappearing fast.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
We are straying into another area here. In Britain the Classical Roman education had died and been taken over and modified by the Church in Britain. The standard of Latin of Gildas is extremely high, better than his contemporaries on the Continent but he makes limited allusion to classical texts and then only those of Virgil. He has learnt his Latin via study of biblical texts not heathen authors. I think this tells us that Latin and bilingualism were now disappearing fast.
I take your point and won't derail the thread, but might I suggest you get hold of the volume of papers edited by Lapidge and Dumville entitled Gildas: New Approaches. There is a fine chapter about Gildas' Latin and how it was the Latin of the late Roman grammarians rather than the Latin of the early medieval monasteries. It convinced me, at any rate...
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
I think we have to look at Gildas from the readers point of view and here, I lean on Charles-Edwards (super scholar - great books on the Irish BTW) view that although Roman rule had ceased, it took a considerable length of time for the Britons and other Romanised peoples to accept that they were now no longer Roman or that the Empire would not be re-established. We can see by Gildas' time this view is disappearing eg cowardly Britons of today, valiant Romans which my Grandfather's generation were and capable of giving the Saxon a good thrashing etc.
I think we are looking at two things here. The realisation that Roman governance was never going to be re-established must have been fairly clear by about the 440s, when Aetius' last push came to naught. But the sense of no longer 'being Roman' was something else entirely. I don't think people were consciously trying to be Roman any more than you or I consciously try to be English. They were just doing what they did and what they did was clearly heavily influenced by centuries of inclusion in the Roman world. Gildas might have (wrongly) thought that Britons and Roman were two different things, but he still lived in a society when people carved Latin inscriptions, where some people at least understood Latin, where there was a demand for luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean and where people still gave themselves Roman titles and constructed their genealogies to give themselves illustrious Roman ancestors.

Surely Gildas is not recommending that the status quo with the Saxon be accepted. Its clear that he warns against a renewal of the Saxon onslaught, if things don't change.
He's far more concerned about civil war than external war ad says as much. He's clearly unhappy about the divortio of Britain, but nowhere do I get a sense that he is actively advocating armed campaigns against the Saxons. De Excidio isn't Armes Prydain Vawr. He bemoans how some Britons have come to an accord with them, but what the Saxons are in terms of his text is a visible reminder of how badly wrong things went last time the Britons turned away from God.

As his temporal audience will know chunks of Eastern Britain are still in Saxon hands. The threat remains. As far as the Britons are concerned this not acceptable; this is our Land, we were first and the Saxon has no right to here. I really do think the underlying message is follow God, have the courage of forefathers, be like Romans and drive out your Saxon enemies.
Fair enough. We'll have to agree to disagree!

Sorry if this offends your academic susceptibilities but on all aspects of Gildas I reserve the right to cherry-pick.
I'm not sure I have any academic susceptibilities (one of my abiding regrets is that no-one has ever asked me to join one ot these academic conspiracies we hear about). All I'm saying is that cherry-picking has to be justified and, equally as importantly, the cherry picker has to understand the context of what they are selecting.
 
Mar 2015
1,460
Yorkshire
I take your point and won't derail the thread, but might I suggest you get hold of the volume of papers edited by Lapidge and Dumville entitled Gildas: New Approaches. There is a fine chapter about Gildas' Latin and how it was the Latin of the late Roman grammarians rather than the Latin of the early medieval monasteries. It convinced me, at any rate...
I am hanging on Charles Edward but then Academics are as different was we are.
 
Mar 2015
1,460
Yorkshire
I think we are looking at two things here. The realisation that Roman governance was never going to be re-established must have been fairly clear by about the 440s, when Aetius' last push came to naught. But the sense of no longer 'being Roman' was something else entirely. I don't think people were consciously trying to be Roman any more than you or I consciously try to be English. They were just doing what they did and what they did was clearly heavily influenced by centuries of inclusion in the Roman world. Gildas might have (wrongly) thought that Britons and Roman were two different things, but he still lived in a society when people carved Latin inscriptions, where some people at least understood Latin, where there was a demand for luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean and where people still gave themselves Roman titles and constructed their genealogies to give themselves illustrious Roman ancestors.
Hindsight can blind us to what things seemed like at the time. The Britons must have been in a desperate panic to ask for Aetius and Roman assistance. they must have known that this "help" would not have come cheap - back would come of necessity a burdensome bureaucracy and crushing taxation in order to support the professional Roman Army. The fact that they managed unaided to stem the Saxons at Mount Badon would have given them confidence.

However, whilst not arguing this too strongly, I would query any statement that it was obvious in Gildas' time that the Roman World was finished. Contacts with Byzantium merchants were still intact and
at the time that Justinian appeared to be recreating the Roman Empire. Farcical as it may now sound, there is reason to believe that Gildas believed it might happen. Britain might yet again become part of the Roman world.

Perhaps we should turn to the Bede, because the main story we learnt was his interpretation of Gildas (gravely mistaken on chronology) coupled with info from his Kentish contacts.
 

Peter Graham

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
2,659
Westmorland
I am hanging on Charles Edward but then Academics are as different was we are.
True enough - which I suppose is why we need to read as many of them as possible in order to get a clear grasp on the various arguments in relation to any given issue. Incidentally it has also been argued (albeit slightly less convincingly than in relation to Gildas) that some of the early Welsh poetry to which a sixth-century date is sometimes assigned also betrays a knowledge of Virgilian imagery. It is also worth pointing out that study of Virgil was the cornerstone of the late Roman education which Gildas appears to have received.

Farcical as it may now sound, there is reason to believe that Gildas believed it might happen.
Do you think? Gildas' (entirely incorrect) position seems to have been that the Roman had got fed up with baling out the cowardly Britons and had basically given them some military manuals and told them to get stuffed.

Perhaps we should turn to the Bede, because the main story we learnt was his interpretation of Gildas (gravely mistaken on chronology) coupled with info from his Kentish contacts.
Bede basically recycles Gildas and adds in the Hengest and Horsa story. Half a million pages of debate over many years in another thread didn't persuade anyone (me included) to shift their position even one iota on the historicity of Hengest and Horsa, so I'm not going there again! But we are entitled to ask what sources Bede's Kentish contacts had over and above Gildas and the other handful of sources which survive to this day. Are we arguing for oral sources or do we say they had something more which is now lost to us? And in the latter case, what is the positive evidence for it? Personally, I don't think there is any.

Bede was writing at about a two century remove from Gildas' federate rebellion. This is a bit like you or me setting out to write a history of the Napoleonic Wars with the aid of a single overview book of British history and some stuff we were told by a bloke in the pub.
 
Mar 2015
1,460
Yorkshire
I take your point and won't derail the thread, but might I suggest you get hold of the volume of papers edited by Lapidge and Dumville entitled Gildas: New Approaches. There is a fine chapter about Gildas' Latin and how it was the Latin of the late Roman grammarians rather than the Latin of the early medieval monasteries. It convinced me, at any rate...
Peter - I know you possess the book on Wales and the Britons. If you read pages 213 to 216, Charles Edwards spends considerable time discussing Lapidge's work. He has no difficulty in agreeing with Lapidge contention that Gildas employed the high arts of the Roman Rhetor and had been taught this well. Although the municiple schools had gone, it was still possible in the early 500s to obtain a private tutor in addition to the ecclesiastical education offered by the Church.

In the former case the pupil was destined for a position in the Law or Bureaucracy and would be grounded in Roman practice and in-depth knowledge of the Classics. It is possible that there still remained some calling for this type of education in post Roman Britain.

However C-E makes the case (in my opinion he is the highest authority on the Irish Church), that no such positions ever existed in Ireland. The limited amount of Virgil is seen in irish Church education is very similar to that used by Gildas. As the Irish Church is a scion of the British one, C-E concludes that Gildas received an episcopal education.

I hope that is reasonable summary but as you know I am a rusticus. Nevertheless, I will get around to your Lapidge paper in the future but at the moment I am having a tough struggle with Wales and the Britons.

As far this discussion is concerned we can all agree that Gildas was extremely proficient in his writings and commanded the highest quality Latin.