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|Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Gildas > When?|
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Between several continental fifth-century historians and Bede in the eight century, Gildas is the single major source for events in Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. Though distorted and often misinformed, Gildas sheds at least some light on Britain in the Dark Ages, which was then in the process of changing from a Roman province into a myriad of English and Welsh kingdoms. Gildas may even have been the only one writing a history (although we can hardly call him a historian) for that period, for no other source is available to us. No one before Bede uses Gildas, no one even mentions a lost source that could have rivalled Gildas.
But when did Gildas write his history? There are several indicators which have been used over the ages.
Since Gildas does not provide us with any clear dates himself, which means we can only compare the internal evidence of the text with events which are know from history. The orthodox date for DEB, a date which can be found in almost every standard textbook and work of reference down to the present time is Sir Frank Stentons date of a little before the year 547. This article examines the evidence for this orthodox date, why it was chosen and whether this was valid.
There are several internal indicators that limit the period of the search. The upper limit is indicated by the total lack of reference to the Paschal Controversy, that hit Britain simultaneously with the continent in AD 600. This may be confirmed by the reference to Gildas in a letter by St Columbanus to the Pope in AD 595 (see below, Columbanus), in which he mentions several subjects about monasticism also found in DEB, which may possibly indicate the Epistola. The lower limit is indicated by silence about any sign of a flourishing Church in Ireland and the notice that monasticism in Britain was still very limited, which means that DEB was written probably before 540. Even more so Gildas stress of his Romanitas and that of his fellow-citizens suggests as early a date as possible.
The most widely used internal proof used to determine the orthodox date of DEB is about persons. On the one hand the admonition to the five kings in chapters 28-36; Constantine, Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus. On the other hand the information that Gildas shares about his own life in chapter 26; the 44 years that have passed since the siege of Badonis Mons was fought and the year in which this siege might have taken place.
The five Kings
First, though, we must look at the available information about the five British kings, for they will give us the best idea of the period we are discussing. We assume that all of them were alive at the time of publishing (Gildas could have denounced any long-dead tyrant or persecutor, but he did not), and that DEB was no forgery of a later date. Adding their general floruits (the period of their grown-up life), we should arrive at a general period in which to place the writing of DEB.
Another assumption is the relative trustworthiness of the royal Welsh Pedigrees. These were compilated in the tenth century, though based on earlier documents. There are, however, great dangers connected with the use of these pedigrees as a source of history. During the ninth century, the larger parts of Wales were united under the sole dynasty of Rhodri Mawr. Rhodri had inherited Gwynedd and Powys and received Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi through marriage. It is small wonder that this unification is reflected in the genealogies, for these served mainly the purpose of proving a claim of heritage, to glorify their patrons. Therefore, as Patrick Sims-Williams insists: the Welsh genealogies cannot be used with any assurance as an independent check on the period of Maglocunus and his contemporaries, calculation back with generation averages, because the pedigrees all have unverifiable weak links in them, and because they have come down to us from the same milieu, indeed in the same earliest manuscript, as the Annales Cambriae.
Dumville mentioned another candidate: Cinnin, great-grandson of Britu, the son of Vortigern (see genealogies of East Wales). This king of Powys is otherwise unknown, but his birth could be placed c.500, which would also fit Gildas floruit. Identifying Caninus with a king of Powys would be attractive, for it would close a gap in Gildas political landscape. Bartrum has come up with another candidate, Cynan Wledig, the Welsh version (in the Brut Brenhinedd) of the Aurelius Conanus of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who drew his material from Gildas. Bartrum identifies this king of Powys with the Cynan Garwyn (from Carr-wyn = of the white chariot?) from the pedigrees, who was the great-grandson of Cadell Ddyrnllug, but who figured in the same, confusing line of the king of Powys, descended from Vortigern. The Book of Taliesin praises Cynan for raiding Gwent, Brycheiniog, Dyfed and Anglesey; Cynan may have fought those civil wars that distressed Gildas so much. Though Cynan may have lived in the first decades of the sixth century (and thus be a prime candidate for Aurelius Caninus), the trouble with the pedigree of the kings of Powys is its unreliablity. Cynan may thus have lived in the seventh century as well. Dumville warns that the main Powysian trunk-line is severely defective in its seventh-century section, which makes dating and calculating a generation-average extremely difficult. Maybe we should heed this warning and push no further.
A possibility that Vortipors fourth ancestor lived in the times of Magnus Maximus means that Vortipor could be dated to c. 500, which would fit the traditional chronology of Gildas.
Another attempt can be made to date Maglocunus by identifying his son. This son was mentioned as Bridius filius Meilochon by Bede, and as Bridei filius Mailcon by the Pictish chronicle, which records campaigns of him in 557 and 559. He seemed to have been the contemporary of Columba, who visited him during his mission to Britain (ad 563-97). But was this Bridius/Bridei/Brude the son of Maglocunus /Mailcun /Maelgwn? Pictish history is riddled with kings by this name; 36 at the last count! What speaks mostly against this identification is that their relation as father and son is mentioned nowhere, but even more that the Pictish king is a pagan! Maglocunus was a Christian king and (temporarily) even an ecclesiastic, so the chance that his son would have returned to paganism should be considered rather impossible. Dating Maglocunus through Bridei fails.
A last attempt can de made by dating his forefathers. Cunedda, founder of the dynasty, was dated to have come to Gwynedd 146 years before Maglocunus by the Historia Brittonum in a text that predated the pedigrees. I will not discuss how this period came to be at this point. Cunedda is called atavus, which strictly means great- great- great- grandfather, or rather more simply ancestor. In most pedigrees, Cunedda is only the great-grandfather of Maglocunus. But Cunedda was already of advanced age when he came to Wales, his sons being old enough to fight battles. If we should date Mealgwns death to AD 547 (but see below), this would mean that Cunedda came to Gwynedd 146 years before Maglocunuss reign, which would put him in the time of Magnus Maximus. Other interpretations have dated Cuneddas migration to AD 401 or even AD 429, acting together with St.Germanus Which would cut Maglocunuss reign very short, if we would see Maglocunus as the fifth generation below him, but it would be acceptable if he were the third. If Mealgwns death is dated to AD 547, it would imply that Cuneddas obit is dated to AD 390x400, or else to AD 447x457. To take every possibility into account, Mealgwns floruit could range from about 440 to 530. Since the exact lineage remains uncertain, we must give up all attempts to date Maglocunus through his pedigree.
Cambriae, annus ciii (AD 547)
That Maglocunus is meant here is beyond doubt, but the year is not. However, the entry itself is suspect. It was almost certainly copied from the earlier Chronicle of Ireland, which originally mentioned a list of Leinster names (not Maglocunus). The Welsh copyist may have had authority to substitute these names, but this is unknown to us. If not, the whole entry is false and any discussion bound to be useless.
However, should we accept (but on no real basis) that the Welsh copyist indeed had access to reliable information, we can concentrate on the year itself. If we compare it with the date for the battle of Badon (AD 516), we would end up with a publishing-date for DEB in AD 560, which is 13 years too late (below, Badon). One of the years must be wrong, but which?
The Mortalitas magna is usually seen as the Great Plague of Justinian, which started in the east in AD 542, and which could easily have reached Britain by AD 547. But how sure are we that Maglocunus indeed died in that plague?
Alas, all references of this Vad Velen, come to us through Edward Williams, a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg (1745-1820), who, according to Ifor Williams, was "the greatest forger of Welsh documents ever known. The damage that man has done! Maybe he was mad - let us be charitable" (..). Early MSS of the Mabinogion do not include these references to Vad Velen, but there are other sources that do. One is the Vita Teiliavi (Life of St.Teilo, 12th century), which confirms the death of Maelgwn in a Pestis Flava, while a second MS of the Annales Cambriae mentions Hir hun Wailgun en llis Rhos (The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos). To sum up, we have no evidence at all that Maglocunus died of the bubonic plague, but only that he might have died in a pestilence that turn victims yellow. If not a plague, what could this disease be?
The Yellow Pestilence is recorded for Ireland in the sixth century as the Cron Chonaill, which was mentioned by the Annals of Ulster for 548, which would fit the entry concerning Maglocunus. This disease was no plague, but might best be identified with relapsing fever, which occurs often together with a plague. Relapsing fever was common in Ireland together with famine, and its modern name is still fiabhras buidhe (yellow fever). And if we consider that famine fever can spread from people lacking food to those with plenty of it (as it spreads through lice), we might have found a good candidate for the death of the king of Gwynedd.
Which leaves us with a circular argument: We cannot prove that Maglocunus died in AD 547, nor that he died of plague, so his death may not have been confirmed by the Great Plague of Justinian in 542 at all. The date of 547-8 may be confirmed by Irish annals, but they speak only of Yellow Fever, while the Annales Cambriae speak of plague. Which leaves us with an unconfirmed date that is provided only by an untrustworthy source. With these attempts to date Maglocunus and the British kings finalized, we must come to the conclusion that it is not possible to date DEB to a few years before 547, for the simple reason that it is not possible to date the death of Maglocunus/Maelgwn Gwynedd to that year. Even more so, if we look at the very scarce information about the floruit of each king, it seems possible to date their floruits to a generation after 500, rather than two. This seems to be supported by the mentioning of Gildas by Columbanus.
The meaning of the 44 Years
The next possibility to date DEB is by following up the lead of the Quadragesimus Quartus Annus (44th year) that seem to have to be placed between Badon and the time of writing the DEB. The Badonic passage of DEB, on which this period is based, reads as follows:
The usual translation would be:
After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, until the year of the siege of Badon hill, when took place also almost the last, though not the least slaughter of our cruel enemy, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month, and also the time of my own nativity.
44 Years since
Badon and Birth
The year of the siege of mons Badonicus which also is the year [back] from that which [at present] begins, one month already elapsed, which too is [that] of my birth.
Mommsen could only arrive at this translation by emendating the words ut novi with est ab eo qui. This change has no basis in the text and has been criticised accordingly. Notwithstanding that criticism, the explanation that Gildas seems to have been writing in the first month of the 44th year after both Badon and his own birth, has been accepted widely. However, there are several partisans of other interpretations.
44 Years since the
Historia Ecclesiastica, Book 1, chapter 16
This is much clearer and more specific, but the interpretation is totally different. Bede saw 44 years between Badon and the Adventus Saxonum, the arrival of the Saxons in Britain! J.A. Giles turned this around, and based his edition of DEB on this interpretation:
After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.
(This edition of Gildas work is now very common on the internet, being the only e-text without copyright, so let this be a warning to all users: this is not the authentic version of Gildas!)
Several later authors
have followed Bedes lead. De la Borderie
used Bedes date for the Adventus (AD 449)
and dated Badon to AD 493.
44 Years since
But let us remain with the victory of Ambrosius. Several authors based this interpretation on Gildas assurance in the remainder of chapter 26, where he continues that the wars against the Saxons have ceased a generation since:
Especially the reference to a new generation has inspired authors more than the vague ex eo tempore.
Nikolay Tolstoy based the rise of Ambrosius on Bedes dating of AD 449, adding the 12 years mentioned in the Historia Brittonum (c. 66) between the Adventus and the battle of Guoloph, in which (an) Ambrosius was engaged, to arrive at AD 458. Tolstoy dated Badon to 501, 43 years + one month later (and Gildas birth to Friday, January 29, AD 501)! But sadly, Bedes date has no real basis, and in any case, Tolstoy miscounted the 12 years of Guoloph, which are counted from AD 425, the accession of Vortigern, instead of the Adventus, which was dated to AD 428. Besides, when he used that period, Tolstoy should have used Nennius suggestion of AD 428 for the Adventus. Ambrosius rise would then have been AD 437, and Badon AD 481.
This might have led John Morris to include a second Ambrosius, which he dubbed the Elder, referring to Gildas mentioning of Ambrosius (anonymous) parents. Morris believed, however, that the wars had ended a generation before Badon. Anyway, Morris clearly thought AD 481 too early for Badon, for he dated it to AD 500, basing this on the traditional dating of DEB to Maglocunuss supposed death of plague in AD 547 (which we have dealt with above).
Ian Wood had a very interesting solution, in which he separated Badon from the 44 years. He thought the word Nouissimae could hardly describe an event 44 years back, and that the mentioning of mense uno emenso (one month has already passed) meant something far more specific. Wood concluded that Gildas hints that his birth had been in the same year as Ambrosius victory, which happened 44 years earlier, and that Badon has happened only a month before he wrote DEB! This would fit the information that Ambrosius grandchildren were conspicuous in Gildas day. It would also agree with Bede, who would then have dated the Adventus to just before the victory of Ambrosius. Wood dated the DEB to AD 485x520, which would indeed agree with some of the floruits of the British kings mentioned above, though AD 485 is too early. AD 516 would, however, fit with the date from the Annales Cambriae.
OSullivan, writing a little before Wood, came to a similar solution. He was convinced that Gildas referred to a generation which had witnessed the Saxon revolt as well as the recovery under Ambrosius, and was now dead. Consequently, the 44 years should refer to an earlier event, possibly Ambrosius victory. The siege of Badon, however, had taken place in our time (DEB, c.2), which could only have been two or three decades, no more. This differs from Woods solution of one month (which OSullivan does not specify), but OSullivan explains those few decades by stressing Gildas referral to a generation that had grown up in peace. This peace would have come after Badon, which consequently must have taken place a few decades before the writing of DEB. It also means that Gildas was born in the same year as Badon (hence his mentioning the battle), not 44 years before. OSullivan proposes that Gildas wrote the work when he was still young, about 25 or thirty, and then had thought ten years about it, as he tells us (DEB, c.1). Thus Gildas would have been rather young (15 to 20) when he wrote this part of DEB (the Historia), whereas the Epistola was written at a more mature age. Dating Ambrosius victory to 450x460, Badon would have been ca. AD 500, and DEB ca. AD 520-30, which also fits the floruit of the British kings.
I tend to agree with this solution. Though the passage seems clear, and Gildas seems to tell us that he was born in the same year as the siege of Badon, and that 43 years and 1 month have already passed, this is not the correct, straightforward translation, which Mommsen himself proved when he amended the text of the passage. Many authors have based an (Arthurian) period of peace, lasting 44 years upon this passage, fruitlessly seeking it in the archaeological record.
But Gildas clearly tells us something else. The Saxons had revolted, while the nation had only just been saved by Ambrosius, until the Saxons were decisively beaten at Badon, 44 years after their arrival, and Gildas had been born. Twenty-five to thirty years later, all those who had witnessed the original revolt had died, but the siege of Badon could still be described as in our times. He wrote DEB at a time when he was old enough to be distressed by the low morals of his countrymen. This solution is neither perfect nor unassailable, neither is it the interpretation followed by most authors. But I believe this usual solution imperfect and based on a flawed translation, and closely linked with an impossible dating of Maglocunuss death (above). However, it does not exclude the years found for the traditional dating, if we can date the siege of Badon.
The Battle of Badon
Having established the period between Badon and the writing of DEB, we should now determine the date of the battle of Badon. This battle has been dated by the Annales Cambriae or Welsh Annals (c. AD 955) to annus lxxii (AD 516). As we have seen with the dating of Maglocunus in the Annales (above), this year cannot be relied upon.
Now becomes immediately clear that when we compare the internal evidence of DEB with this date, we cant use the traditional opinion: Gildas claims to have written 44 years after Badon, yet admonishes a living Maglocunus. This faces us with a contradiction: Maglocunus died (according to the Annales) in AD 547, but that would mean that Gildas had actually admonished him in AD 560, 13 years after his death! We are forced to choose: either Gildas did not write 44 years after Badon, but sooner (which I proposed above), or Maglocunus did not die in AD 547 (which, as shown above, is likely) or the Annales Cambriae are completely false. Oh, the agony of choice! We know the Annales are wrong when dating Maglocunuss death to AD 547. But Gildas, when writing 25-30 years after a Badon that took place in AD 516 (as supplied by the same Annales), could very well have been writing to a living Maglocunus in AD 541-46! And if Badon took place c. 500, which is most popular today (which means that the Annales are indeed wrong for both dates), Gildas would have been writing to admonish a very living Maglocunus in Ad 525-30, which fits even better with the most likely floruit that we have found for him. Remains to fit this with a siege of Badon around this time.
Badon in the
Baring-Gould and Fisher pointed to a gap in the Saxon invasions between AD 519 and 552, a gap of about a generation which they assigned to the defeat of the Gewissae (later West Saxons) of Hampshire at Badon, c. AD 520. To square this with the Annales, they changed year 1 of these annals from the conventional AD 445 to 449.
This use of the Chronicle has long since been superseded, as the sources cannot be used in such a way. For instance, the Gewissae of Hampshire have long since been relegated to the Upper Thames region, from where they conquered the Jutish province of Hampshire only in the seventh century (under pressure from Mercia themselves). The kingdom of Wessex then usurped the Jutish history, making Cerdic land at the Hampshire coast (below).
This usurpation has been noted by Stenton, Wade-Evans and Kirby, who found that certain events repeated themselves at a systematic distance in time. From their findings, we may now conclude that the seventh-century English kingdoms had a very small clue about their origins in the fifth century.
Myres noted that nothing is known from the kingdom of Kent for half a century after AD 491. Worse for Sussex which, despite Bedes assertion that its king Aelle was the first Bretwalda (usually interpreted as the ruler of all Britain), does not know his successors for more than two centuries. The next entry is only in AD 547, the accession of Ida of Bernicia. Apart from this , there are only the primitive annals of Wessex, which are very complicated to decipher.
At first glance, it seems that a (British-named) king called Cerdic landed in Hampshire, after which the dynasty fought itself northwards. But modern opinion now agrees upon an anonymous genesis for the West Saxons (or the Gewissae as they called themselves) in the upper Thames region around Dorchester-on-Thames. Archaeology has dated their remains back to the Late Roman period, long before any conventional Adventus. The first kings from this dynasty are Ceawlin (ASC: AD 560-593) and his direct descendants. He and his sons fought in this region, but only in the seventh century did they conquer Hampshire, which until then had been a Jutish kingdom or province, closely associated to Kent. It is small wonder that the entries of the West Saxon annals resemble those of Kent, and scholars now believe that the Kentish/Jutish history (skimpy as it was), was usurped by the conquering Gewissae.
Badon and Ceawlin
Apparently, this is about all we can say about Badon. Either connected with the South Seax of Aelle, or the anonymous Saxons of the Thames, or any other locality in Britain, we seem unable to pinpoint Badon to an exact spot. Roughly around 500 seems the best we can do, since Badon is not signified by clear archaeological changes, nor by any recorded event in the sources. The only signs I can come up with are the expedition of Riothamus to Brittany and a back-migration of Saxons to the continent.
Badon and the
The so-called back-migration may offer more support. Rudolf of Fulda, writing before AD 865, wrote in his Translatio sancti Alexandri about Saxons migrating from Britain to the continent in AD 531. Though the information is very vague, it seems to find an echo with Procopius (ca. AD 550), who reported accounts from a Frankish mission to Constantinople in AD 553, who told of all kinds of people migrating from Britain to the continent. Though the distance and language would account for the strangeness of the reports, it might signify British migrations and Saxon re-migration to Gaul in the late 520s and early 530s. But that would be too late for Badon as well!
Finding it impossible to agree upon a precise reference for Badon in both historical sources and archaeological record, the only possibility to date Badon is from the internal evidence of Gildas, which we have discussed above. Since the floruits of the British kings seem to be ca. AD 510-30, and Gildas seems to have written after AD 500, we should date the siege of Badon roughly AD 490x510. Though unsubstantiated by hard evidence, this timeframe also fits the traditional dating scheme.
The orthodox date of shortly before AD 547 is, as we have seen, without any real foundation. There are but a few indications of dating the writing of DEB, which are the five British kings, the period of 44 years between some event and writing the manuscript and the battle of Badon.
As we have seen, the floruits of the five kings, though based on late evidence, should preferably be assigned to the first decades of the sixth century, rather than the orthodox middle. Especially the reign and death of Maelgwn Gwynedd, the anchor point of the orthodox dating scheme, can no longer be seen as terminating in AD 547. This means that DEB was probably written a generation earlier than usually thought.
Likewise, the traditional interpretation of the 44 years between Badon and the writing of DEB should be rejected. Gildas seems to indicate that he wrote 44 years after probably the victory of Ambrosius over the Saxon invaders, yet after the battle of Badon, which happened within living memory of a generation that had grown up in peace. This means that DEB was probably written between AD 515-20, which is confirmed the floruits found for the five kings.
Lastly, dating the siege of Badon has been impossible, since references from the earlier sources fail or are unsupported. However, the indications support a date ca. AD 500, which would fit the other evidence. Gildas, then, wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae most probably ca. AD 515-520.
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