Gildas is remembered as the author of De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain). The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, who made use of De Excidio in his Historia Ecclesiastica, calls him the Britons’ “own historian” (HE I, 22), but, though he touches on history, it was not Gildas’ purpose to write a ‘history book’.
Whatever my attempt shall be in this epistle, made more in tears than in denunciation, in poor style, I allow, but with good intent, let no man regard me as if about to speak under the influence of contempt for men in general, or with an idea of superiority to all, because I weep the general decay of good, and the heaping up of evils, with tearful complaint. On the contrary, let him think of me as a man that will speak out of a feeling of condolence with my country’s losses and its miseries, and sharing in the joy of remedies. It is not so much my purpose to narrate the dangers of savage warfare incurred by brave soldiers, as to tell of the dangers caused by indolent men. I have kept silence, I confess, with infinite sorrow of heart, as the Lord, the searcher of the reins, is my witness, for the past ten years or even longer; I was prevented by a sense of inexperience, a feeling I have even now, as well as of mean merit from writing a small admonitory work of any kind.De Excidio Britanniae §1
De Excidio is essentially a long sermon concerned with the evils which the Britons have brought on themselves by their sinful behaviour. Gildas singles out five contemporary British rulers for particular criticism (§§28–36), of whom the last to be addressed, though “first in wickedness”, is named, in Latin, Maglocunus. Gildas’ Maglocunus is conventionally identified with Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd (Mailcun rex Genedotæ), whose demise during a mortalitas magna (‘great death’, i.e. a plague) is recorded in Annal 103, equating to the year 547, of the the Annales Cambriae A-text. Since Gildas must have lambasted the king whilst he was still alive, a date in the region of 545 is often proposed for the composition of De Excidio. However, the validity of the unsubstantiated date attributed by the Annales Cambriae, a relatively late source, to Maelgwn’s death is suspect.[*]
The chronological water is further clouded by a remark Gildas makes – in the surviving text (§26) its meaning is not at all clear – concerning “the siege of Badon Hill” (an unidentified site, where the Britons defeated the Anglo-Saxons). Gildas seems to say (other interpretations are available) that he was born in the same year as the siege, and that he was writing in the forty-fourth year, one month of which had already passed, since the siege (i.e. he was writing 43 years and 1 month after). The Annales Cambriae (A-text, Annal 72) indicate that “the battle of Badon” took place in 516 (another date for which there is no substantiation). By these tokens, simple arithmetic would date De Excidio to 559, which is, of course, after Maelgwn is said to have died.[*] Bede, though, whose own copy of De Excidio must have been earlier than any surviving copy (the earliest is 10th century[*]), in his paraphrase of Gildas, says (HE I, 16) that the interval “about 44 years” was the time that elapsed between the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain and their defeat at the siege of Badon Hill – making no connection to the time when De Excidio was written.
Some scholars, drawing inferences from Gildas’ text, prefer to date De Excidio as early as the end of the 5th century.[*] The Annals of Ulster, however, place Gildas’ death in 570 (this date is echoed by the Annales Cambriae).
At any rate, the debate about just when Gildas was writing continues, as, indeed, does the debate about just where he wrote – the most popular suggestion seems to be somewhere in south-western Britain.
Gildas De Excidio Britanniae translated by Hugh Williams