The Legacy of Gildas
Constructions of Authority in the Early Medieval West
STEPHEN J. JOYCE
Dr Joyce, welcome to the Medieval Herald! We’d like to begin with a brief account of your studies to date, please, and hear what it was that first drew you to the Middle Ages and, of course, to Gildas.
Well, formal study here at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has culminated in a PhD focussing on Gildas. Why Gildas? Well, as a child, I was obsessed by Leslie Alcock’s archaeological work at South Cadbury: “Was this Camelot?” While King Arthur has been all but abandoned by academic historians, Gildas still stands tall as a potential light on a Dark Age.
Now we have to ask: who was Gildas, when did he live and what did he do?
Well, there’s the rub. While we have some surviving works, we don’t know much about him, and when he lived is a matter of intense debate. As such, he has developed many different guises over the centuries. Generally, we can say that he wrote in Britain sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries, that he was highly educated, and that he was a cleric. He is really significant in that he is one of only two identifiable people describing the British Isles in the fifth century, the other being Patrick of the green beer.
Tell us about his writings. Is De excidio Britanniae the most significant?
He is survived by a few works, but only two – the De excidio and fragments of a letter – are currently deemed to be by him. The De excidio is certainly his most significant text, both because it is a lengthy and complete work, but also because it has a historical section. This historical section is the only narrative detailing the arrival of the English in Britain, so you can imagine how important it is. However, the fragments of his letter are also significant in terms of their contribution to canon law and are much understudied. The book examines both.
What is his core message about kingship in the period? Was it consistent with the view of the Church?
Well, this is what the book examines. Most of the focus has been on Gildas’s history, but most of his De excidio is a complaint about kings and clerics. Because Gildas spends most of his time complaining about kings and clerics, he is often seen as a ‘whinger’. The reality, however, is that he offers biblical examples of how to be a good king and a good cleric, so his ‘Complaint’ is really a ‘Mirror for Princes’. The uncertainty over dating means that the De excidio may well be the first medieval ‘Mirror for Princes’ and this has implications for how, when, and where medieval kingship first developed. There are two forms of Christian government vying for power in this period: a New testament model, based on Roman imperial authority; or an Old testament model, based on the kingdom of Israel. Understandably, the church is split: in the West the latter wins out, in the East, the former survives.
It sounds like he stood at a crucial turning point in the history of Britain/the Britons. Do you think he believed that? How did he view the world around him?
Yes, he believed he stood at a crucial turning point: he saw himself as a prophet whose warning to his people was divinely inspired. Gildas viewed the world as a place where God acted in history: the current sins of his people would lead to divine judgement and loss of sovereignty; keeping God’s laws would lead to peace and stability. His was very much an Old Testament conception of the world.
How did the world view Gildas? Who read his works and what impact did they have?
Again, this is the rub. Because the British Isles is often regarded as peripheral to events unfolding in Europe in the early medieval period, Gildas is not seen as widely read, nor is he seen as having much impact. This is despite Columbanus citing the authority of Gildas when communicating with Pope Gregory the Great. The book attempts to lift Gildas out of this ‘blinkered’ view: after all, the British Isles had significant impact on Roman imperial authority in the fourth and early fifth centuries. Why stop there?
Your book sets out to redefine our image of Gildas. Why does he, and his work, need reappraising?
Precisely because he may well be one of the earliest medieval political theorists. This has significant implications because it implies that the Roman Empire did not fall in the West but was overthrown by an active Christian political revolution drawing on political models from the Old Testament.
What impact do you hope your book will have? That Gildas’ role is more widely acknowledge, that his works are read or that his works are read in a different light?
I hope the book will contribute to ending the persistent idea of the British Isles as being peripheral to the political and cultural developments of Europe in the early medieval period. As such, yes, Gildas should be more widely acknowledged, his works should be more widely read, and we should read all works from this period with an understanding of the importance of the Bible in shaping contemporaneous views.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m working part-time with a research team on a new edition of the seventh-century Irish text, De Duodecim Abusivis Saeculi, but I’m hoping the book will elevate interest in my research and lead to ongoing full-time work expanding on the book’s findings. It’s really tough out there in the humanities, and in early medieval history in particular, so here’s hoping for 2022.
And finally, what has been your experience of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?
Online conferences can work if they are smallish, I think, but honestly, I’m an in-person guy. Being at a conference is viscerally thrilling; being at an on-line conference, less so.
Stephen J. Joyce
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STEPHEN J. JOYCE is a Research Fellow on the ARC Discovery Project, Addressing Injustice in the Medieval Body Politic: From Complaint to Advice, based in the School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies at Monash University. His research focuses on the British Isles in the early medieval period.
Image: “Saul Anointed by Samuel” in Cyclopaedia of university history: an account of the principal events in the career of the human race from the beginnings of civilisation to the present time. From recent and authentic sources, vol.1, by John Clark Ridpath (Cincinnati, OH: Jones Brothers Publishing co.) 1890. Image courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Archive.org, Public Domain.