Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Gildas, Letters. (1899). pp. 255-257. Introduction to the Letters.








AN attempt is made in the Introduction to give an account of the pieces printed in the three following appendices.----This contains (a) the history of the Fragments, which are here printed from the text found in Haddan and Stubbs' Councils, i, 108, and Wasserschleben's Irische Kanonensammlung, 2nd edition, 1885; (b) a survey of the place occupied by Penitentials, as to origin and purpose, in the life of the Western Church, and their probable rise among the Churches of Britain and Ireland; (c) a comparison of other ancient Loricae with the one that has been preserved bearing the name of Gildas, together with a statement of grounds upon which its authority has been favourably maintained.



THE text printed here is that found in Haddan and Stubbs' Councils, i, 108, which is based upon a MS. preserved at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, written in the ninth or tenth century. The second part of the MS. (pp. 11-109) contains a collection of Canons, consisting chiefly of extracts from the writings of the leading ancient church writers, but among them extracts from writings of Patricius and Gildas. These latter are introduced by the simple praefatory note, dicit Gildas or Gildas ait. But the same words of Gildas, though in briefer compass, are also found in a collection of Irish Canons, made at the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth century, consisting of sixty-two Books with capitula or sub-sections, which Wasserschleben has twice edited. I use the second edition (1885). We shall call the Cambridge and the Irish collections C. and H. respectively. Now it may be gathered that the compiler of these Irish Canons, about A.D. 700, and the writer of the Cambridge MS., about A.D. 900, had both used an older collection first made in Ireland. At that time certain writings of Gildas, besides the De Excidio, were well known among the Irish, and, presumably, among his own countrymen. From H. we have the title affixed to three, Gildas in his letters respecting the last days, that is, his own days: Gildas was writing of |256 what to him were modern times, when startling developments were taking place, with the usual accompaniment of anxiety and sober joy.

There were thus extant Letters of Gildas that held a high place in the estimation of the Churches of Britain and Ireland early in the seventh century. Of this we have confirmatory evidence in a letter of Columbanus, written about A.D. 595-600, to Pope Gregory the Great. (See the letter in full before Vita I.) In that letter, while requesting the opinion of Gregory on three points, he mentions the interesting fact that Gildas, or Giltas as he calls him, had written of those bishops that were irregularly ordained, because guilty of Simony. These words may be regarded as describing the second main part of Gildas' De Excidio (cc. 62-110). But Columbanus further mentions a correspondence between Vennianus and Gildas, respecting the monks who were abandoning their monasteries for the better seclusion of desert places. Seebass, in Zeitschrift f. Kirchengeschichte, xiv, 437, concludes that Vennianus must be, not Finnian, the founder of Clonard, who died about 549, but Finnian of Maghbile (Moville), whose death is placed by some in 588, by others in 610. The question is an exceedingly difficult one, as the evidence seems conflicting and confused; yet one is certainly safe in the assertion that a considerable time must have intervened between the writing of the De Excidio and the penning of letters that would supply such |257 extracts as these. The whole perspective is changed. Further, if Finnian, the founder of Clonard, died about 549, then it is natural that we should find Gildas' correspondent in the later Finnian of Moville. One is almost tempted to seek the sources of some of these extracts in writings of a different kind: there were published at Louvain, in 1667, a collection of the writings of Columbanus made some five years previously by Fleming, and these contain short sermons or addresses to monks, called Instructions. They have been lately edited separately by Seebass, in the Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte, xiv, 76-92. We know how faithfully Columbanus clung in Gaul to the usages of his native Ireland; so that in these very Instructiones, we may discern a usage which originally came from Wales, whence the newer monastic institutions of Ireland had been, directly or indirectly, inspired. Such addresses by Gildas, if preserved might furnish matter for quotation to a writer who was drawing up a collection of Canons.

One is particularly impressed by two features in these extracts. In the first place, there breathes through all a strong spirit of moderation that is quite unlike the character in which Gildas has been clothed by the imagination of many writers; in the second place, they show that Monasticism and the Church, in its regular organization, are drawing closer together than could have been the case at the time when Gildas wrote his indignant appeal to bishops, and to clergy generally, in the De Excidio.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2003.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press SPIonic font, free from here.

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts