Gildas and Bede, Models of insular history (17th August 2016)

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Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (BL MS Arundel 74, f.1)

Next Meeting: 17th August 2016 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In the classical and late antique periods, continental writers were the main authors of insular history. The historical works by Julius Caesar and Tactius dominated the Roman view of Britannia and its people, while Orosius and Isidore of Seville included short geographical descriptions of Britain in their historical works, which were later used by insular writers.

In the early Middle Ages, two writers emerged who offered a more comprehensive view of the early history of Britain: Gildas and Bede.

Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (c. 540)

Gildas’ De Excidio is the earliest insular history of Britain. The early books focus on the Roman and Anglo-Saxon conquests of Britain, while the later books are more polemical, and are intended to condemn tyrants and the clergy. De Excidio is a salvation history, with the Britons presented as God’s chosen people who are akin to the Israelites in the Old Testament. The mode of Gildas’ history is essentially tragic, and he frequently laments how corruption and tyranny has consumed Britain and its people.

Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731)

Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the present day (731). The first book includes an account of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and while Bede borrowed material from Gildas, he emphasises how God’s favour passed from the Britons to the Saxons instead. The first book ends with Saint Augustine’s mission to England in 597, and the following books account for how Christianity spread among the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the twelfth century, several historians began to write regnal histories that relied on Gildas and Bede. William of Malmesbury wrote a history of Anglo-Saxon England that continued up to the present day (1127), while William of Newburgh focused on the period from the Norman Conquest to the end of the twelfth century. Henry of Huntingdon chose to write a history of Britain from the foundation of Britain to the present day, and he continually revised and expanded his work, which eventually ended in 1154. Henry quotes Bede at length in the early books of the Historia Anglorum, and he also rationalises Bede’s account of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, insisted that neither Gildas nor Bede had adequately accounted for the early insular history of Britain, and his Historia regum Britanniae records the deeds of the kings of Britain from foundation of Britain to the death of Cadwalladr in 682.

The prologues that we will be discussing are testament to the legacy of Gildas and Bede, and their models of insular history.

Questions for discussion

  • What is the function of history? Do the historians all agree on the moral purpose of history?
  • How do the historians present themselves? What sort of authorial personas do they adopt?
  • What is the significance of the various literary authorities that these writers invoke in their prefaces? (i.e. The Bible, classical and Christian authors, oral and written sources)
  • In his introduction, Lake suggests the commission topos is a ‘rhetorical device designed to influence the audience’s view of the author’. Do the dedications absolve the historians of their responsibility (as Lake suggests), or do they reveal the types of social networks that they operated it?
  • Do you think these prologues are a collection of topoi or do the individual author’s feelings predominate?
  • How do the twelfth-century historians construct Gildas and Bede as authorities?
  • In the twelfth century, many historians moved away from the annalistic style of historiography. How do they construct their historical frameworks in their prologues? Do they identify any important themes that might inform their histories?
  • Why do you think that William of Newburgh attacks Geoffrey of Monmouth so vehemently?