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|Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Gildas > Dark Ages|
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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.
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?
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 Empires 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.
Dark Ages descend
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:
And in chapter 26:
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
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
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
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 latters 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
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
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!
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.
intentions and victory
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.
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