Gildas: The Monk Who Began the Historical View


With the coming of the Battle of Badon Hill we have the first of our “official” historical sources for the period of Arthur’s life: Gildas.

Gildas was a monk, and his telling of the Roman exodus and subsequent Saxon conquests are moving and filled with pious hindsight. Nonetheless, we can look at his De Excidio Britannia and find vivid illustrations of how people lived then, what they feared and accomplished, and how they responded to their country’s livelihood being threatened by yet another foreign invader.

Gildas seems to have a bitter-old-man bent about him, beginning his work with such quotes as these: “The subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.” It is clear, then, what is good and what is evil. (Monks, after all, know these kinds of things.)

Gildas also has a certain flair for the dramatic, as evidenced here: “The Roman legion had no sooner returned home in joy and triumph, than their former foes, like hungry and ravening wolves, rushing with greedy jaws upon the fold which is left without a shepherd, and wafted both by the strength of oarsmen and the blowing wind, break through the boundaries, and spread slaughter on every side, and like mowers cutting down the rip corn, they cut up, tread under foot, and overrun the whole country.”

Now, Gildas is condensing into one dramatic sentence the whole of the Saxon conquest of the eastern seaboard of Britain. The Romans, for all their plunder and cruelty, yet kept Britannia safe from “uncivilized” barbarians like the Saxons and Picts, Gildas seems to be saying. In a sense, the Romans are portrayed as both good and evil, with their good elements being favored by God and their evil elements maybe overlooked a trifle in light of all the good they did, namely providing the aforementioned protection.

Gildas mentions Vortigern, as he should, his being a large part of the story of the Saxon conquest, and terms Vortigern a great fool who listened not to the counsel of his advisors or of God. (Gildas in just about every major part of his epistle links events on Earth to God’s favor or lack thereof.) And Gildas also mentions Ambrosius Aurelanius, whom some have called Arthur but whom more traditional sources call the forerunner of Arthur. Gildas, at last, mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, calling it “Bath-hill,” in this way lending even more credence to the idea that Badon Hill was indeed near Bath. But nowhere does Gildas mention the name Arthur. Scholars continue to debate the reasons for this; perhaps there are none. Gildas describes Britain in the aftermath of Badon Hill as a wasteland, free from foreign influence for the foreseeable future but destined to be a rebuilding project for years to come.

It is a bleak picture indeed that Gildas paints for us, a picture of good and evil, of brave deeds and foolish deeds, of hunger and want, of loss and hopes for repentance. Gildas was the first but by no means the last monk to write of this time, for it was the clergy who kept the histories in those days, and for that we can be thankful.