St. Gildas (c. 500–570), also known as "Gildas the Wise" or Gildas Sapiens, was a British churchman and writer. His sermon De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain) includes the only significant historical narrative written in Britain in the 5th or 6th centuries. The translations used here have been taken from Wikisource
De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain)
- [Descriptio Britanniae] Campis late pansis collibusque amoeno situ locatis, praepollenti culturae aptis, montibus alternandis animalium pastibus maxime covenientibus, quorum diversorum colorum flores humanis gressibus pulsati non indecentem ceu picturam eisdem imprimebant, electa veluti sponsa monilibus diversis ornata, fontibus lucidis crebris undis niveas veluti glareas pellentibus, pernitidisque rivis leni murmure serpentibus ipsorumque in ripis accubantibus suavis soporis pignus praetendentibus, et lacubus frigidum aquae torrentem vivae exundantibus irrigua.
- Translation: [Description of Britain] Its plains are spacious, its hills are pleasantly situated, adapted for superior tillage, and its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. It is decked, like a man's chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.
- Section 3.
- Et tacens vetustos immanium tyrannorum annos, qui in aliis longe positis regionibus vulgati sunt, it ut Porphyrius rabidus orientalis adversus ecclesiam canis dementiae suae ac vanitatis stilo hoc etiam adnecteret: "Britannia", inquiens, "fertilis provincia tyrannorum".
- Translation: I shall also pass over the bygone times of our cruel tyrants, whose notoriety was spread over to far distant countries; so that Porphyry, that dog who in the east was always so fierce against the church, in his mad and vain style added this also, that "Britain is a land fertile in tyrants."
- Section 4.
- Gildas's quotation is in fact from St. Jerome's Epistula 133.9.
- Interea glaciali figore rigenti insulae et velut longiore terrarum secessu soli visibili non proximae verus ille non de firmamento solum temporali sed de summa etiam caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente universo orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento delatoribus militum eiusdem, radios suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta, Christus.
- Translation: Meanwhile these islands, stiff with cold and frost, and in a distant region of the world, remote from the visible sun, received the beams of light, that is, the holy precepts of Christ, the true Sun, showing to the whole world his splendour, not only from the temporal firmament, but from the height of heaven, which surpasses every thing temporal, at the latter part, as we know, of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, by whom his religion was propagated without impediment, and death threatened to those who interfered with its professors.
- Section 8.
- Interea non cessant uncinata nudorum tela, quibus miserrimi cives de muris tracti solo allidebantur.
- Translation: Meanwhile the hooked weapons of their enemies were not idle, and our wretched countrymen were dragged from the wall and dashed against the ground.
- Section 19.
- Gildas here describes post-Roman Britons on Hadrian's Wall defending it against the Scots and Picts below. This bizarre image, familiar to students of British history for generations, is belied by a more recent translation which runs, "Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground." (Michael Winterbottom (trans.) Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works (1978) p. 23).
- Igitur rursum miserae mittentes epistolas reliquiae ad Agitium Romanae potestatis virum, hoc modo loquentes: "Agitio ter consuli gemitus Britannorum"; et post pauca querentes: "repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur".
- Translation: Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—"To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons". And again a little further, thus:—"The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned".
- Section 20.
- These "Groans of the Britons" were sent to the Roman military leader Flavius Aetius in Gaul, in response to the invasion of Britain by the Angles and Saxons.
- Tum erumpens grex catulorum de cubili laeanae barbarae, tribus, ut lingua eius exprimitur, cyulis, nostra longis navibus.
- Translation: A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in their ships of war.
- Section 23.
Quotes about Gildas
- Gildas's On the Ruin of Britain is not an attempt at a reasoned account of his times: it is...a brilliant vitriolic diatribe on the wickedness of all things British and the virtue of all things Roman. It is a sermon, obscure, learned and immensely difficult to read, almost as though the writer's pen were choked with the fury of his words.
- Richard Barber The Figure of Arthur (1972) pp. 42-43.
- Considering the avowed purpose of his work, which is rather hortatory than historical, we are fortunate indeed to be given so much first-hand information by this embittered preacher.
- Prae aliis itaque Britanniae scriptoribus, solus mihi Gildas...imitabilis esse videtur.
- Translation: Of all the British writers he seems to me to be the only one worth copying.
- Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Cambriae (The Description of Wales), First Preface (1194); translation from Gerald of Wales (trans. Lewis Thorpe) The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales (1978) p. 214.