Text: De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas (c.482-c.570) was a Brythonic-speaking churchman, possibly from southern Scotland, who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae “On the Ruin of Britain” (in Latin). Although there is considerable debate between scholars about the date of this text, it was likely completed by 547. In this work, Gildas, in manner of an Old Testament prophet, condemns five British kings of his era: Constantine of Damnonia (Devon?), Aurelius Conanus (identity unknown), Vortipor of Demetia (aka Dyfed, Wales), Cuneglasse (of Gwynedd, Wales), and Maelgwn (of Gwynedd, Wales). Although Gildas condemns them on religious pretexts, he may have had some political or personal grievances with them. Although this is a problematic text, it is one of the only textual remains of sixth-century Britain.

The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from edition in Hugh Williams, edit and trans. The Ruin of Britain. Cymmrodorion Record Series, No. 3. (1899).

§ 4. This island [Britain], proud and stubborn, since it was first inhabited, is ungratefully rebelling, now against God, at other times against fellow citizens, sometimes even against the rulers over the sea and their subjects. For what deeper baseness, what greater unrighteousness, can be or be introduced by the recklessness of men, than to deny to God fear, to worthy fellow citizens love, to those placed in higher position the honour due to them, without detriment to the faith – than to break faith with divine and human sentiment, and having cast away fear of heaven and earth, to be governed by one’s own inventions and lusts?

I will, therefore, leave out those errors which torment all humankind; nor do I enumerate the truly diabolical monstrosities of my native country, which nearly surpass those of Egypt in number. Some of these can still be seen, with ugly features, inside or outside of their deserted walls, with their usual fierce features. Nor do I condemn the mountains, valleys or rivers, once destructive, but now suitable for the use of man, which the ignorant once worshipped.

I keep silence also as to the long years of savage tyrants, who are spoken of in other far distant countries. Porphyry, the rabid eastern dog in hostility to the Church, added this remark also in the fashion of his madness and vanity; “Britain,” he says, “is a province fertile in tyrants.”

I will only attempt to comment on those evils which the island has both suffered and inflicted upon other and distant citizens in the times of the Roman Emperors. I shall do it, however, to the best of my ability, not so much by the aid of native writings or records of authors, inasmuch as these (if they ever existed) have been burnt by the fires of enemies, or carried far away in the ships which exiled my countrymen, and so are not at hand, but shall follow the account of foreign writers, which, because broken by many gaps, is far from clear.

§ 8. [During the Roman occupation] The teachings of Christ, the true sun, came to this island stiff with frost and cold in a far distant corner of the earth remote from the visible sun. He spread, not only from the temporal firmament, but from the highest arc of heaven beyond all times, his bright gleam to the whole world in the final days, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar. At that time Christianity was spread without any hindrance, because the emperor, contrary to the will of the senate, threatened with death informers against the soldiers of Christ.

§ 14. After this, Britain was robbed of all her armed soldiery, of her military supplies, of her rulers, cruel though they were, and of her vigorous youth who followed the footsteps of the above-mentioned tyrant [Maximus] and never returned. Completely ignorant of the practice of war, Britain was, for the first time, open to the attacks of two foreign tribes of extreme cruelty, the Scots from the north-west, the Picts from the north; and for many years continues stunned and groaning.

§ 19. As Roman troops returned to Italy, the terrible hordes of Scots and Picts eagerly came forth out of the tiny boats in which they sailed across the sea, just as, when the sun is high and the heat increasing, dark swarms of worms emerge from the narrow crevices of their holes. Differing partly in their habits, yet alike in one and the same thirst for bloodshed – in a preference also for covering their villainous faces with hair rather than their nakedness of body with decent clothing – these nations, when they found out that our helpers had gone home and refused to return to Britain, became bolder than ever and seized the whole northern part of the land as far as the Wall, expelling the inhabitants.

§ 23. At that time all members of the assembly, along with the “Proud Tyrant” [a pun on the name Guorthigirn aka Vortigern] were blinded; such is the protection they find for their country – it was, in fact, its destruction – that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island [of Britain], like wolves into folds, in order to repel the northern Britons. Nothing more hurtful, certainly, nothing more bitter, happened to the island than this. What utter depth of darkness of soul! What hopeless and cruel dulness of mind! The men whom, when absent, they feared more than death, were invited by them of their own accord, so to speak, under the cover of one roof: “Foolish princes of Zoan,” as is said [in the Bible], “giving unwise counsel to Pharaoh.”

Then a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness burst out in three ships of war under full sail, with omens and divinations. They had a prophecy which they believed fervently that they would occupy the country to which the bows of their ships were turned for three hundred years, and that they would devastate it for one hundred and fifty. They first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island and, under the supervision of the unlucky tyrant, acted as mercenaries intending to fight for the country, but in fact intended to attack it.

To these the mother of the brood, finding that the first contingent had succeeded, sent out also a larger raft-full of accomplices and wretches, which sailed over and joined itself to their bastard comrades. From that origin, the seed of iniquity, the root of bitterness, grows as a poisonous plant, worthy of our deserts, in our own soil, furnished with rugged branches and leaves. Thus the barbarians admitted into the island, and succeeded in having provisions supplied them, as if they were soldiers and about to encounter, as they falsely pretended, great hardships for their kind entertainers. These temporary provisions closed, as the saying goes, the dog’s jaws. Then they complained that their monthly supplies were not sufficient, intentionally colouring their opportunities, and declared that, if larger rewards were not given to them, they would break the treaty and lay waste the whole of the island. They made no delay to follow up their threats with deeds.

§ 25. Some of the wretched Britons that remained were consequently captured on the mountains and killed in heaps. Others, overcome by hunger, gave themselves up to the enemies to be their slaves for ever, if they were not instantly slain, which was equivalent to the highest service. Others departed to overseas lands crying bitterly […]

§ 33. And you [Maelgwn], o island dragon, who has killed and expelled many of the tyrants mentioned previously: although I mention you last, you are first in wickedness, exceeding many in power and at the same time in malice, more generous, more sinful, strong in warfare, but stronger in what destroys your soul. O Maelgwn, why do you wallow ignorantly in such an old black pool of crimes, as if drunk with the wine that is pressed from the vine of Sodom? Why do you tie to your royal neck (willingly, I add), such irredeemable heaps of crimes, like high mountains? Why do you show yourself to Him, the King of all kings, who made you superior to almost all the kings of Britain, both in kingdom and in the form of your stature […] In your early years, accompanied by the bravest warriors, whose countenance in battle was like that of young lions, did you not most bitterly crush your uncle, the king, with sword, and spear, and fire?

§ 34. […] When the attention of your ears has been caught, you do not listen to the praises of God sung melodiously by Christ’s followers with its sweet rhythm and the song of church melody, but your own praises, which are nothing; the voice of the rascally crew yelling out like drunken revelers, full of lies and foaming phlegm, so as to spew it on everyone near them. In this way the vessel, once prepared for the service of God, is changed into an instrument of Satan, and that which was deemed worthy of heavenly honour is cast into the abyss of Hell, as it deserves.

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