Monday, 7 April 2014

Saint-Gildas and his Place Names

Ever since it was first inhabited, Britain has been ungratefully rebelling, stiff-necked and haughty, now against God, now against its own countrymen, sometimes even against kings from abroad and their subjects. (GILDAS)
Only very rarely does history offer us contemporary accounts written in medieval and ancient times, particularly outside the main centres of civilization, and from alternative points of view.  Gildas, a 5-6th century monk, was writing as a Briton in the Dark Ages and this is what makes his polemical writings so valuable, even though we couldn't possibly describe his work as formal history.                                                                 

His most famous work is De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, 'On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain', which outlines the story of the British people (i.e. the Britons and the Bretons) under the Romans and effectively condemns British royal and religious authorities for their cruelty and cowardice. 
Gildas saw all the devastation brought by the Saxon invaders as God's punishment for the sins of British churchmen and kings. It was in his time that the Romans left Britons to the mercy of the pagans: Picts and Scots from the North and the Germanic tribes from the East.
He could well have been a contemporary with whichever historical figure we take to be the prototype of King Arthur, but although he writes about Mount Badon, the battle in which Arthur is supposed to have won a famous victory over the Saxons, he never actually mentions Arthur.
Gildas was born in the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain, now Scotland, and was sent as a child to study under St Illtud in Glamorgan. His contemporaries included St. Samson and St. Paul of Léon
After his ordination in Ireland he returned to northern Britain as a missionary. He was called back to Ireland to help restore the Irish church which had lost its way. His Vita, 'life story', then tells tales of a  trip to Rome and Ravenna full of miracles and dragon-slaying episodes. 

Rather than returning to Britain, he settled as a hermit on the the Isle of Houat, off the Gulf of Mortbihan, where Nonnita, the mother of St David, was one of his disciples (see Y is for Yvi).
Finally, he was encouraged to found a monastery in Brittany which he built at the village now known as St. Gildas de Rhuys in Morbihan.
When he died his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift, in fulfillment of his last request. Three months later the ship was found in a creek with Gildas' body miraculously still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys where today you can find his relics in a cupboard in the vestry, a magnificent abbey (left) and a holy spring (right).

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