09.12.03, George, Gildas's De Excidio Britonum

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Prof. N.J. Higham

The Medieval Review 09.12.03

George, Karen. Gildas's De Excidio Britonum and the Early British Church. Studies in Celtic History, vol. 26. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 199. ISBN: 978-1-84383-435-9.

Reviewed by:
Prof. N.J. Higham
University of Manchester

Karen George offers a tightly written new book on the subject of Gildas's De Excidio which explores exciting new aspects of this, his major surviving work, in particular the doctrinal context into which it was launched and the internal structure which he gave it through painstaking use of symmetrical repetition. The final third of the book consists of a reprinting of Winterbottom's 1978 edition of the text marked up so as to highlight symmetrical repetition across the whole text (in bold type) and within each book (in italics).

Symmetrical repetition is certainly the easier area of these to discuss. George demonstrates that the high degree of repetition which has long been recognised within the work is, in fact, a systematic feature of the text which is used to both hold together the individual sections within it and the whole piece. Gildas's use of Lamentations as a parallel for his positioning of Britain in the present and recent past is widely recognised but it is George's contention that Gildas also took from this section of the Old Testament the technique of writing within a symmetrical structure and applied this to his own work. Recognition of this structure suggests an ordering of verses which differs from that which has up to now been used to structure the work, which has been imposed by modern editors: there are 10 such verses in the Preface, 44 in Book I (which is the same number that occurs in Lamentations I and II), 54 in Book II and 56 in Book III, giving a total of 154. Alongside these three book-length systems she also identifies 77 pairs of words occurring across the whole work, so 154 paired words, although the verses indicated by the structures of the individual books do not entirely map onto those suggested by the whole piece, which may, but need not, count against the duality of these systems. By mentioning 4 alphabetic songs in the Preface, George suggests, Gildas was signposting his own use of this system and at the same time inviting his audience to admire his skill in deploying it.

This exposition of Gildas's structure certainly has some value to the modern reader and it helps to make sense of some aspects of the work. For one thing it offers an explanation of the peculiar timeframe within which he wrote: enigmatic reference to a 10-year period between inception and "publication" makes more sense if it had to be written and re-written, polished and perfected in terms of symmetrical repetition, than if he simply put it in a drawer having written it, then decided to go ahead with it after all. It also makes sense where his choice of words otherwise seems improbable given the meaning that he was apparently intending to convey: George argues that the selection of specific terms, and even whole phrases and even passages, was on occasion subordinate to his need to provide the repetition required by his own structural method. This might also affect the ordering of his verses, which is of importance to historians when attempting to interpret his often cryptic description of the arrival of the Saxons. In particular, this may explain the appearance of the British appeal to "Agitius thrice consul," whom we are surely correct to identify as AĆ«tius in or after his tenure of a third consulship in 446, before the hiring of Saxon federate troops. It would make the history of the fifth century a great deal easier if we could place the arrival of the Saxons and their subsequent revolt earlier than 446: this is necessary both to align with the archaeological evidence, which favours the Saxon arrival in the second quarter of the century, and with the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which offers the year 441 for the fall of Britain to Saxon rule. C. E. Stevens noted over a half century ago that the appeal may have been misplaced, and suggested that it was aimed not at the Picts and Scots but at the Saxons. This exploration of Gildas's literary method makes that somewhat more likely, though not proven.

Of course, we need to assess the veracity of the systems as laid before us. In general, the evidence does seem to point to this explanation but it is important to bear in mind that some examples of repetition are not of specific words but of synonyms and this is less convincing, necessarily. There is an added concern when very minor words are claimed as part of the patterning. For example, trans is identified (31) as part of the process of systematic repetition, which is undoubtedly worrying since it occurs 8 times as a free-standing preposition and around 30 times within a more complex, compound word across the text. That it was common does not of course require that Gildas would have avoided weaving it into his repetitions but its frequency must raise questions regarding the meaningfulness of its recurrence.

The doctrinal issue is more difficult. Up to now, there has been a general consensus that Gildas wrote in comparative ignorance of Augustine's views on grace and predestination, but that his favourable quotation from a Pelagian text implied some sympathy for this position as well as a lack of awareness that it was considered heretical. George takes the very reasonable view that Britain was not so cut-off from the near continent that its churchmen would have been unaware of current debates within the Church. Contact is revealed successively by the visits of bishops Victricius (late 4th century) and Germanus (429 and later), the career of the British Faustus in late fifth-century Gaul and the various cross-Channel contacts to which Gildas himself refers both in the past and the present. What she struggles to do, however, is find much convincing evidence within the De Excidio that he really was writing from a particular doctrinal position, in favour of traditional British Christianity and against new-fangled views emanating from Augustinian thinking entering Britain from the continent. There is the occasional reference to schism, Gildas clearly opposed the current trend for Britons to go overseas (one assumes to Gaul but Ireland is another possibility) and there is certainly a strong sense that Gildas identifies himself very much with what he sees as the moral minority within the British church, but there is nowhere any serious attempt to comment on the main issues dividing him and his clerical allies from advocates of Augustinian doctrinal. George recognises the difficulty that the case is at best implicit and does not pursue this argument too strongly, merely suggesting that Gildas was addressing current doctrinal debates within the context of wider problems of immorality and the over-dependence of the Church on the tyranni.

It is equally possible, and a great deal easier to argue, that Gildas's principal concern was with the immorality of his people, led by its civil leaders and its churchmen, on account of which the protection of God had been lost. This was the characteristic mind-set of long passages in the Old Testament, including those attributed to Jeremiah. Agreed, Gildas was not arguing for processes of either economic renewal or military revival, since Old Testament prophets addressed neither. His viewpoint was dominated by the assumption that the relationship between man and God was the only significant factor underlying history and the human condition, and that depended primarily on man (in this case Briton) holding to the covenant as laid down by God via the Bible. When they were virtuous, God would reward his people by smiting their enemies, just as He had smote those of Israel in the Old Testament, but when they were sinful God would not protect them but might send them warnings and even punishments via political and/or military calamities. This was how Gildas read the Saxon conquest and loss of Britain, as something which could be rectified only via moral rejuvenation and the recovery of divine support. Certainly, schism and doctrinal error could play a significant part here and George is probably right to suppose that Gildas took a particular position as regards predestination and Augustine's views regarding grace, but in the overall scheme of his work such issues are very low key in comparison with his blazing hostility towards sin in its many guises.

This is a useful new work, therefore, which sets out new thinking on the structuring of Gildas's work and seeks to position him within the doctrinal debates of the day. It achieves both aims succinctly and opens interesting new avenues to explore, and that is an important service in itself, given the problematic nature of this most difficult of early British texts. Karen George should be congratulated on a job well done.

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Prof. N.J. Higham

University of Manchester