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Was Gildas the first to mention Vortigern by name or not? This article means to clear the picture by looking at the text of Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and attempting an interpretation.
It is difficult to get a clear picture about Vortigern from Gildas. There may be more to the DEB, for is very difficult when it comes to extracting information from it. Apart from mentioning only a handful of names, Gildas has a tendency to use aliases for several persons and ethnic groups, obviously to conceal any direct criticism and thus to avoid repercussions. He may even have used an alias himself! On a still deeper level, Gildas uses imagery drawn e.g. from Biblical texts or from the natural world. When dealing with Vortigern, it is necessary to dig through these three levels to get at information that seems not to be there at first sight.
The superbus tyrannus
At a first glance, Gildas does not mention Vortigern, only the probable pun on his name. This phrase, together with the occurrence of the name twice in Bede and once in manuscript (MS) A of Gildas but not in the oldest manuscript, MS C, has led to needless speculation among historians. The first time we come across this superbus tyrannus is in chapter 23:
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXIII
This superbus tyrannus is almost certainly an alias for someone else. In fact, it seems most likely that it was a pun on someones name, something Gildas does to the names of the kings of his own day as well. And when one realises that this the superbus tyrannus means almost exactly the same (it is usually translated with proud usurper) as Vortigern (which is a name not a title- meaning foremost ruler), it is hard to defend the opinion that Gildas had anyone else. But can we be sure that Gildas never mentioned him?
Gildas and Vortigern
The textual history of Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae is by no means established. The text which is used today, the last one edited by Winterbottom in 1978, all go back onto the version published by Mommsen in 1894. Mommsen used MS C, which was written at Canterbury in the 10th century, and which seemed not only the oldest copy, but the best kept as well. It does not contain Vortigerns name, which has stuck in the minds of readers for the next century. However, this particular text may have been heavily edited, and therefore looks may betray, and the best quality may not be the most authenticity. In fact, there are a few later MSS that does give the name of Vortigern: MS A (Avranches MS 162, 12th C.), MS X (13th C.) and MS Cambridge Ff. I.27 (13th C.).
Here follows a historical oversight of texts of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and the use of the name of Vortigern in them:
To be completely honest, most of these above manuscripts are later and less complete as the MS mostly used as the basic form of the DEB, so that there remains a slight possibility of a later interpolation. But only a very slight one. Dumville is inclined to rely on the continental manuscripts, instead of relying solely on the Canterbury one, which Mommsen and his followers have done. He sees the strong possibility that we should in future reconstruct the text with the admission of Uortigerno (a perfectly acceptable 6th-century form) into it.
In any case Bede, who relied very much on Gildas, actually did use Vortigern at that point in the text, using the even older forms of Vortigern, Uertigernus and Uurtigernus (the primitive English form), which must also come from a written source. In an old chronicle-fragment which dates from 750-850 and continues a chronicle from Bede, the even older form of Uuertigernus is used. This may even be contemporary with Vortigern, which indicates that one of these authors (Gildas, Bede or this anonymous one) had access to written sources of the 5th century.
No other author has uttered any doubt about the identity of the ruler behind the Adventus Saxonum. The best interpretation seems to be that British *Wortigernos was the man's name, and only the fact that Mommsen's popular edition was based on manuscript C, which lacked it, gave rise to these speculations of interpolation by Bede or others in the first place. We have seen that Gildas may have written superbo tyranno Uortigerno after all, and that this may well be why it appeared in Bede. In any case, the point is that in calling him 'arrogant usurper' he was characteristically playing on the meaning of the British *Wortigernos in exactly the same way as he did with that of Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus.
Though I believe that this solution may be arguable, I think that there is enough proof (albeit circumstantial) to assume with a high degree of probability that Gildas, if not actually mentioning Vortigern by name, clearly had him in mind when writing his book. Strangely enough, it is not scholarly arguments that work most against the bastion of Mommsen, but the internet! The most widely circulating edition of Gildas DEB, thanks to the public domain and Mommsens inaccessibility (he published in elitist Latin), is that from the mid-19th century scholar J.A. Giles. Giles did not accept the exclusion from Gildas work on different grounds, and included it in his edition. However, a word of warning must be added: Giless edition is badly translated, the Winterbottom edition of 1978 (though not online) is to be preferred above Giles one.
The Pharaoh and the princes
Apart from the very name, Vortigern can also be deduced as being mentioned by Gildas. On the next, deeper level of his imagery, Gildas speaks about Vortigern through an alias. This alias is probably the Pharaoh, a term possibly used in allusion to the actions of Vortigern. There are three occasions where Gildas makes use of this word.
The first one is the most clear, as it describes the circumstances of the adventus Saxonum, where Gildas seems to indicate that the princes are the members of the Council which prompted Vortigern to invite the Saxons into Britain:
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXIII
This is very much clear, the unwise pharaoh is Vortigern, by which Gildas sets Vortigern on a higher level as the princes at the same time. Also, the unwise Pharaoh is perfectly counterbalanced by the unlucky tyrant, adding to Gildas' opinion about Vortigern, not as an evil usurper, but sooner a misguided and unfit king.
The second time the title is used is somewhat more obscure. Again, the Pharaoh is misguided, as his army is wilfully urged into the Red Sea (destruction) by the five horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh.
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXXVII
As these horses can hardly be anyone else as the kings that Gildas has admonished before (DEB 37 follows the attack on Maglocunus), can we possibly identify this Pharaoh with Vortigern? I think we can, barring that Gildas' attack on the five contemporary kings should be seen as a comparison to earlier times. Gildas denunciation the kings is based on their (in his eyes stupid) repeating the mistakes of their forefathers, who had unwisely counselled Vortigern. To that end, Gildas explicitly uses the phrases 'the miseries of our time' and 'the stubborn and proud princes of this our age' to make that clear. In other words, Gildas might say here that the five kings are continuing the detestable politics of their ancestors and Vortigern, to the demise of the British.
The third time that Pharaoh is used in a Biblical quote, which does not refer to anyone specifically.
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae LXXVI
Concluding, if we read Vortigern for Pharaoh in two of the three times Gildas uses the title, we can deduce a little bit more from the text. The unwise councillors to Pharaoh almost certainly point to the Council and Vortigern! If correct, we might propose that this Council consisted of princes, by which Gildas means the political leadership of his day. In Vortigerns time, these people were still the leaders of the Roman civitates, who themselves were a Roman continuation of the prehistoric British tribal society. By Gildas day, these civitates were evolving rapidly into sub-kingdoms, with kings or tyrants (usurpers) like Vortigern exerting power over most or all of them.
The exactness of this information is debatable because of the vagueness of the language (probably the reason why Gildas, afraid of persecution, used it in the first place!), and therefore subject to interpretation. But on the ground presented above, I choose for the interpretation in which Gildas hides far more information about Vortigern through his frequent use of imagery.
The unworthy king: Saul and the Gibeonites
On a third level, Vortigern appears in a direct comparison with the ancient Israelites. Gildas did not use this comparison between the Israelites and the Britons by chance. The parallels are obvious and meant to be just that. Like the Israelites, Gildas tells the Britons that they were chosen by God, but had trespassed and were punished in the same way. The current predicament of Britain was modelled upon that of Israel during the time of Jeremiah, whose laments are the single most used source for Gildas quotes. Like Israel, Gildas tells his audience, the Britons must suffer death and destruction, because of the sins they committed.
The first quote and the most important is the comparison of a treaty (foedus) between the Israelites and the Gibeonites:
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae I
In this model, Gildas used Saul as a role-model for Vortigern. Saul was the first king of the Israelites after their subjugation by the Egyptians, as Vortigern was to the Britons after their domination by Rome ended. Israel was tricked into a treaty (foedus) with the Gibeonites, as the British were tricked into a foedus with the Saxons. Like Saul tried to exterminate the Gibeonites afterwards, so did Vortigern and his sons make war on the Saxons (though Gildas does not mention that).
The opinions about this identification differ amongst scholars. Higham does not see a comparison between Gildas and Saul, whereas Sims-Williams does, largely on the basis of Gildas comparison of the treaties with the Gibeonites and the Saxons. Higham believed that the treaty was different from that with the Saxons, as it was the Israelites that broke the treaty. However, Gildas seems to indicate that it were the Britons who refused the Saxons, thereby in effect breaking the foedus. This was also the opinion in the middle ages, when Vortigern's son Vortimer was held responsible for attacking the Saxons first. Higham did notice the comparison of the unworthy king, whose transgressions would prove disastrous for his entire dynasty, but he looked to David rather than to Saul (I will return to this later). Sims-Williams based his opinion on the adversity between Israel and the Gibeonites, Higham on the threat of the Philistines.
In a second quote, the unworthiness of Saul and the unlawfulness of his first kingdom is accentuated:
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae XXXVIII
This makes again clear how Gildas thought of Vortigern: he was the first king of a free Britain, but he committed sins against God by not following certain commandments. In other words, Vortigern had sinned against the church, at least in Gildas eyes, rather than occupied a throne that was not his to take. Only the exact nature of these sins are withheld by Gildas, but it is clear that his kingdom was over, like that of Saul, which agrees with later sources. If we were to compare Sauls eldest son Jonathan with Vortigerns eldest son Vortimer, we notice that both are looked upon favourably (Vortimer was blessed by Germanus), but neither may rule after their father, for the kingdom is given to a new favourite. In the Bible this is David, in Gildas case it is Ambrosius Aurelianus.
In the light of this reasoning, we can make a better judgement about the imagery that Gildas used: were the Saxons based on the Gibeonites or the Philistines, and was Vortigern based on David rather than Saul? In this I tend to follow the reasoning of Sims-Williams, rather than that of Higham. Both see Gildas comparison of Britain with Israel, but differ in the person of the unworthy king. Though Higham opts for David, he recognizes the condemnation of Saul by Samuel as minimal, compared to the crimes committed by Gildas five kings. However, the identification of the first king could hardly be any other than Vortigern, even more so because the rest of the comparison fits as well. David was chosen over Saul, disinheriting Jonathan. This does not compare to anything we know of Vortigern, but would fit Ambrosius Aurelianus.
The question is rather theoretical, but interesting nonetheless; if David rather than Saul was the unworthy king, who then was Solomon could Vortimer have been held in such high regard? And what does that make Ambrosius Aurelianus? I think that this comparison, if meant to be taken literally, would fit much better if we compare Saul-Jonathan-David-Solomon to Vortigern-Vortimer-Ambrosius-(dare I say it) Arthur. Therefore, I would identify the unworthy king Saul with the unworthy king Vortigern.
Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigerns decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigerns rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days (see quote DEB 37, above).
What does Gildas mean when he describes Vortigern as a tyrant? The usual explanation is that Vortigern was an illegitimate ruler, a usurper. This seems confirmed by Gildas use of tyrannus where Magnus Maximus is concerned, who indeed usurped the imperial throne. But Gildas uses the same word with Diocletian, who never was a usurper. What did this word mean to Gildas? Brooks thinks that Gildas used the word also when he described activities against the church, as Diocletian engaged in a nine-year persecution of the Christian church. And since Vortigerns rule with the council seems legitimate, at least temporarily, Brooks believes that Gildas meant that Vortigern had engaged in such activity as well. This might be the undisclosed sin that Gildas mentions when he compares Vortigern to Saul (above).
What can we deduce from this? Vortigern seems to be balanced between the person of Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is praised almost into heaven by Gildas, and the five kings of his day, who are generally vilified for their vices. Later authors were not so kind. Later Welsh sources, following tradition or just the Historia Brittonum, had much worse things to say. Either Gildas did indeed have little information at all, or we may safely accept that Vortigern was neither a pagan, nor a heretic, nor too bad a person.
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