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Gildas (c. 494 - c.570) was a prominent member of Celtic Christianity in Britain, renowned for his learning and literary style. He was ordained, and in his works favored the monastic ideal. Fragments of letters he wrote reveal that he wrote 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 N. Dumville suggests, based on his research, 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 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, King of 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 Bride 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 (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. He later (c.544) returned to Rhuys, where he remained until his death, apart from a visit to Ireland, dated by the Annales Cambriae, a chronicle found in one manuscript with a version of the Historia Brittonum, to 565.
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' brother was killed by Arthur. This has been used to explain the absence of Arthur from Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae.
De Excidio Britanniae
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, a chronicle that relates
- 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 ], 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, Vortipor of the Demetae (now called Dyfed), Cuneglasus of "the Bear's Stronghold" (Din Eirth, possibly Dinarth 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, 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.
- De Excidio Britanniae translated by John Allen Giles .
- Another e-text of the Giles translation is available at Project Gutenberg.
- The Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan .
- Gildas and The History of the Britons commentary from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume 1, 1907–21.
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