|Saint Gildas |
|Born ||c. 494 in traditionally Strathclyde in modern Scotland |
|Died ||c. 570 in Street, Somerset or Rhuys, Brittany |
|Venerated in ||Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion |
|Major shrine ||Glastonbury Abbey, now destroyed, or Rhuys Church, extant. |
|Feast ||29 January |
|Attributes ||monk holding a Celtic bell or writing in a book |
|Patronage ||Welsh historians; bell founders |
| Saints Portal |
Saint Gildas (also known as Gildas Sapiens or Gildas Badonicus) (c. 494 or 516 – c. 570) was a prominent member of Celtic Christianity in Britain, whose renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens (Gildas the Wise). He was ordained in the Church, and in his works favored the monastic ideal. Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was a little less austere than the Rule written by his contemporary, Saint David, and set suitable penances for its breach.
The scholar David Dumville suggests that Gildas was the teacher of Vennianus of Findbarr, who in turn was the teacher of St. Columba of Iona. Thomas Stephens believed him to be the father of the bard Aneirin.
A biography of Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the 12th century, and others were written at Rhuys and elsewhere in Brittany. These later biographies say that Gildas was a son of Caw, a king in Strathclyde; he was educated by Saint Illtud at Llantwit Major (near Cardiff); he became a bell-maker by trade (and is said to have sent a bell to Saint Brigid around 519); he made a pilgrimage to Rome in 520, spent seven years at the Abbey of Rhuys in Brittany, then a year in charge of the Abbey of Llancarfan while the Abbot, Saint Cadoc was away. After 528 he moved to Street, Somerset (near Glastonbury) and built himself a llan (hermitage comprising a church and enclosure), the outline of which can still be discerned today at Holy Trinity. Around 544 he returned to Rhuys, where he remained until his death, apart from a visit to Ireland, dated to 565 by the Annales Cambriae, a chronicle found in one manuscript with a version of the Historia Brittonum. Some scholars think that Gildas of Britain and Gildas of Rhuys were distinct personages. In the Bonedd y Saint, Gildas is recorded as having at least three sons and a daughter. The unreliable Iolo Morganwg adds Saint Cenydd to the list.
Myth is inextricably entangled with history in these Lives written so long after the fact. In Caradoc's Life can be found a story telling of Gildas' intervention between King Arthur and a certain King Melwas of the "Summer Country" who had abducted Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury, where Arthur soon arrived to besiege him. However, the peacemaking Saint persuaded Melwas to release Guinevere and the two kings made peace. Arthur was certainly a vivid historical reality to the 12th century poet, but how much of Gildas' biography is legendary tradition is moot. Part of the importance of this is that Caradoc's Life suggests Gildas' pirate brother was killed by Arthur, a detail that was used to explain the absence of Arthur from Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae.
Gildas is also credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer to be delivered from evil, which contains interesting specimens of Hiberno-Latin.
De Excidio Britanniae
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Gildas' surviving written work, De Excidio Britanniae or On the Ruin of Britain, is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. The first part consists of Gildas' explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest under the principate to Gildas' time:
- Concerning her obstinacy, subjection and rebellion, about her second subjection and harsh servitude; concerning religion, of persecution, the holy martyrs, many heresies, of tyrants, of two plundering races, concerning the defense and a further devastation, of a second vengeance and a third devastation, concerning hunger, of the letter to Agitius [usually identified with the patrician Aëtius ], of victory, of crimes, of enemies suddenly announced, a memorable plague, a council, an enemy more savage than the first, the subversion of cities, concerning those whose survived, and concerning the final victory of our country that has been granted to our time by the will of God.
In the second part, opening with the assertion "Britain has kings, yet they are tyrants; it has judges, yet they are undutiful", Gildas addresses the lives and actions of five contemporary rulers: Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, Vortiporius of the Demetae (now called Dyfed), Cuneglasus apparently of 'the Bear's Home' (possibly 'the Bear's Stronghold' - Dinarth at Llandrillo-yn-Rhôs near Llandudno), and lastly Maglocunus or Maelgwn. Without exception, Gildas declares each of these rulers cruel, rapacious, and living a life of sin.
The third part begins with the words, "Britain has priests, but they are fools; numerous ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are wily plunderers." Gildas continues his jeremiad against the clergy of his age, but does not explicitly mention any names in this section, and so does not cast any light on the history of the Christian church in this period.
The vision presented in this work of a land devastated by plundering raiders and the misrule of corrupt and venial officials has been readily accepted by scholars for centuries, because not only did it fit the accepted belief of invading, destructive barbarians who destroyed Roman civilization within the bounds of the former empire, but it also explained away the awkward question of why Britain was one of the few parts of the Roman Empire that did not acquire a Romance language, as had France, Spain and Romania. However, the student must remember that Gildas' intent in his writing is to preach to his contemporaries after the manner of an old testament prophet, not to write an account for posterity: while Gildas offers one of the first descriptions of the Hadrian's Wall -- albeit highly historically inaccurate -- he also omits details where they do not contribute to his message. Nonetheless, it remains an important work for not only Medieval but English history for being one of the few works written in Britain to survive from the sixth century.
In De Excidio Britanniae, Gildas mentions that the year of his birth was the same year that the Battle of Mons Badonicus took place in. The Annales Cambriae gives the year of his death as 570; however the Annals of Tigernach date his death to 569.
Gildas in the Anglo-Saxon Period
Following the conquest of Britain described in De excidio, Gildas continued to provide an important model for Anglo-Saxon writers both in Latin and in English. Bede's Historia ecclesiastica relies heavily on Gildas for its account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, and draws out the implications of Gildas's thesis of loss of divine favour by the Britons to suggest that this favour has in turn passed to the now Christianised Anglo-Saxons.
In the later Old English period, Gildas's writing provides a major model for Alcuin's treatment of the Viking invasions, and particular his letters relating to the sack of Lindisfarne in 793. The invocation of Gildas as a historical example serves to suggest the idea of moral and religious reform as a remedy for the invasions. Likewise, Wulfstan of York draws on Gildas to make a similar point in his sermons.
- Groans of the Britons
- English historians in the Middle Ages
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