Stephen J. Joyce’s new book presents a major new investigation into the shadowy figure of Gildas, his influence and representation.
“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.”
It might be strange to lead a blog on Gildas with Douglas Adams’s more nuanced abstraction of the flawed adductive reasoning represented by the Duck Test, but in an essential way we do have to consider whether Gildas is, indeed, a duck. Much has been made of how the British Isles related to the continent in the opaque period after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. While scholars have moved away from a dark-age ‘Brexit’ to continued contact, there is still a sense that Britain and Ireland are somewhat ‘peripheral’ to the major political and ecclesiastical developments in western Europe from the fifth and sixth centuries, when the West shifted from a Roman imperium to the beginning of medieval kingdoms. Thus Gildas, who looks like a classically educated scholar from the fifth century, quacks like a monk influenced by senior monastic figures from the fifth century, is not seen as a well-connected and culturally sophisticated monastic duck from the fifth century, but rather as an aberrant, old-fashioned, and introspective clerical duck from the sixth century. As one of only two identifiable witnesses to the Christian culture of the British Isles in the fifth and/or sixth centuries (the other being Patrick, conversely seen as poorly educated but equally disconnected), this possibly anachronistic image of Gildas has continued to influence an impression of a moribund British Isles, abandoned by the Romans, languishing in a politically and ecclesiastically fragmented sea at the edges of civilisation, and unable to contribute actively and meaningfully to the dynamic changes on the continent. In this context, Gildas is that ugly duckling that never left his pond.
Yet when the Irish dove Columbanus, following established migratory routes to the continent, wrote to that noted companion of doves, Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, he referred to Gildas as a significant authority on ecclesiastical matters, a veritable swan. Explanations for this ‘avian’ exchange between two of Europe’s most intelligent men have tended to downplay the conversation: Columbanus is talking, but Gregory is not listening, and certainly not replying. It seems somewhat strange that Columbanus would refer to Gildas to make a significant point in an important argument with someone who does not know who Gildas is. Hence this book.
This book seeks to end the hybrid image of the British Isles as both connected to yet absent from the significant political and cultural changes wrought by the end of the Roman Empire in the West. It does so by standing more firmly with connection. In this wide-ranging exploration, Gildas is a duck who, as a representative of the Christian culture of the British Isles, contributed significantly to the evolution of authority in the early medieval West. Whether he is a sixth-century duck or a fifth-century duck, I will leave to you to decide. That Gildas is an influential, well-connected, and culturally sophisticated duck, I am certain, well as certain as a scholar of the dark ages can be. Which is an argument mostly from silence, of course. I present my Duck Test. May it be nuanced and not flawed.
STEPHEN J. JOYCE is a Research Fellow on the ARC Discovery Project, Addressing Injustice in the Medieval Body Politic: From Complaint to Advice, at Monash University. His research focuses on the British Isles in the early medieval period.