Gildas and the ‘grievous divorce from the barbarians’
M ichael Garcia
This article examines a specific phrase from Chapter 10 of Gildas’s De
Excidio Britonum. It suggests that to date, this phrase (lugubre divortium barbarorum) has not been properly understood or translated. In a new interpretation, the article argues that it refers to the breaking of the treaty between the Britons and Saxons mentioned in Chapter 23 of De Excidio
Britonum. This new interpretation expands our understanding of Gildas’s attitude towards barbarians and the British church.
In Chapter 10 of the De Excidio Britonum (hereafter DEB), Gildas said that the tombs of the martyrs had been taken from the Britons on account of the Britons’ sins and ‘lugubri divortio barbarorum’.1 To date, the interpretation of this phrase has been ambiguous, and many scholars have regarded it as a reference to some sort of geographic boundary that separated Britons and Saxons at the time Gildas was writing. But careful examination of the text suggests an alternative explanation. This article aims to clarify the meaning of this phrase and to show that it is a reference to a specific event mentioned later on in DEB, namely the breaking of the treaty between the Britons and Saxons described in Chapter 23.
Chapter 10 is part of Gildas’s history of Britain, which comprises
Chapters 4–26. This is not history in a conventional sense and is not intended to stand on its own.2 Rather, it serves to explain the situation in
Britain before getting to the main purpose of DEB, a polemic chastising the current secular leaders as well as the clergy for their moral lapse.
Chapter 9 of DEB paraphrases Book VIII of Rufinus’s Latin translation of Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which describes the persecutions 1 Unless otherwise noted, references to DEB are to the following edition, Gildas, The Ruin of
Britain and Other Documents, ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom, Arthurian Period Sources 7 (Chichester, 1978), p. 92. 2 T. O’Sullivan, The De Excidio of Gildas: Its Authenticity and Date (Leiden, 1978), pp. 48–76.
Early Medieval Europe 2013 21 (3) 243–253 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350
Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA under Diocletian.3 Chapter 10 describes the British martyrs whom Gildas believed were executed during these persecutions: Alban, Julius and
Aaron. Chapter 11 summarizes Alban’s passion,4 and Chapter 12 returns to the narrative of Rufinus’s translation of Eusebius.5 With these chapters
Gildas placed the British martyrs into the context of Christianity and its persecution across the Roman empire.6 A new translation of Chapter 10 reads as follows:
God therefore greatly magnified his mercy among us, wishing all men to be saved and calling sinners no less than those who think themselves just. And He, as a free gift, in the time of the above-mentioned persecution, as we conjecture, so that Britain would not be thoroughly darkened by the thick darkness of black night, lit for us the brightest lamps of the holy martyrs, whose tombs for their bodies and places of suffering now, if they had not been taken from the citizens through the grievous divorce from the barbarians (lugubri divortio barbarorum) as well as on account of our many sins, would instil much ardour of divine charity in the minds of the admirers: I speak of Alban of
Verulamium and Aaron and Julius of the City of Legions and the rest of the citizens of both sexes in diverse locations standing in the greatest magnanimity in the battle-line of Christ.7
Gildas claimed that the divortium, along with the sins of the British, caused the tombs and suffering places of martyrs to be taken from the
British. Gildas did not explain clearly what he meant by this, leaving room for interpretation. Some scholars maintain this ambiguity and, in translating this passage, avoid any attempt at clarifying Gildas’s meaning.
Theodor Mommsen did not comment on the phrase in his edition of
DEB in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica.8 Hugh Williams, in his 3 Eusebius and Rufinus, Eusebius Werke Bd. 2, Die Kirchengeschichte, ed. E. Schwartz and T. Mommsen (Leipzig, 1903), pp. 743–7. 4 Gildas’s account is probably based on a version of the Passio Albani. See K. George, Gildas’s De
Excidio Britonum and the Early British Church (Woodbridge, 2009), pp. 115–17. 5 Eusebius and Rufinus, Werke, ed. Schwartz and Mommsen, pp. 804–5. 6 For the origins and development of martyr cults in Britain, see M. Garcia, ‘Saint Alban and the
Cult of Saints in Late Antique Britain’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds (2010), pp. 40–94. 7 DEB, ch. 10, p. 92: ‘magnificauit igitur misericordiam suam nobiscum deus uolens omnes homines saluos fieri et uocans non minus peccatores quam eos qui se putant iustos. qui gratuito munere, supra dicto ut conicimus persecutionis tempore, ne penitus crassa atrae noctis caligine britannia obfuscaretur, clarissimos lampades sanctorum martyrum nobis accendit, quorum nunc corporum sepulturae et passionum loca, si non lugubri diuortio barbarorum quam plurima ob scelera nostra ciuibus adimerentur, non minimum intuentium mentibus ardorem diuinae caritatis incuteren: sanctum albanum uerolamiensem, aaron et iulium legionum urbis ciues ceterosque utriusque sexus diuersis in locis summa magnanimitate in acie christi perstantes dico’. 8 MGH AA, Chronica Minora 3, ed. T. Mommsen (Berlin, 1898), p. 31. 244 Michael Garcia
Early Medieval Europe 2013 21 (3) © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd edition and translation of DEB published in 1899, gave it as: ‘the disastrous division caused by the barbarians’.9 Richard Sharpe rendered it: ‘the unhappy separation due to the barbarians’.10 More recently, Andrew
Breeze translated it as: ‘the disastrous division caused by barbarians’.11
Sharpe examined the possible meanings of the phrase, speculating that the shrines of martyrs were occupied or cut off by the pagan English, or that they had at least made visits to those places impossible.12