At the risk of trying to jump on a bandwagon that’s long since passed by, I want to explore in this article what The Gildas Option might look like, taking St Gildas’s The Ruin of Britain (also known as On the Downfall and Conquest of Britain) written in the 6th Century as my starting point.
Reading Michael Winterbottom’s 1978 edition, I was struck by these comments from John Morris’s introduction:
Gildas did not write in vain. On the contrary, few books have had a more immediate and far-reaching impact than his. He uttered what tens of thousands felt. His readers did not reform political society. They opted out. They had a precedent. Two hundred years earlier, in the eastern mediterranean lands, immense numbers had dropped out of a corrupt society to seek solitary communion with God in the deserts; but their sheer numbers forced them to form communities. Their western imitators had hitherto aroused little response; apart from the clergy of some cathedrals and a few high-powered seminaries, Latin monasticism was ‘torpid’ by 500 A.D., and had inspired only a few pioneers in the British Isles when Gildas wrote. But within ten years monasticism had become a mass movement, in South Wales, Ireland, and northern Gaul. Its extensive literature reveres Gildas as its founding father, named more often than any other individual.
The Gildas Option, whatever it was, seems to have worked, which is reason enough for us to look at it again, 1500 years later. So what was Gildas’s argument and what were the remedies he suggested? To answer those questions, we need to see beyond the often flowery rhetoric – he described the invading Scots and Picts, for instance, as being “like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock when the sun is high” – to his analysis of Britain’s problems.
Gildas is often presented as a Monty-Pythonesque prophet, thundering against the sins of British, blaming them for the incursions of the unholy Anglo-Saxons. And it is certainly true that he did not hold back with his criticisms: “My reproach might be gentler,” he wrote; “but what is the point of merely stroking a wound or smearing it with ointment when it already festers with swelling and stink, and requires cautery and the public remedy of fire?”
Nonetheless, his sharp words were made with a positive end in view. “In this letter,” he wrote, “I shall deplore rather than denounce; my style may be worthless, but my intentions are kindly. What I have to deplore with mournful complaint is a general loss of good, a heaping up of bad. But no one should think that anything I say is said out of scorn for humanity or from a conviction that I am superior to all men. No, I sympathise with my country’s difficulties and troubles, and rejoice in remedies to relieve them.”
If the first problem he identified was the political chaos that broke out after the Romans left, his remedy was the moral reformation of the governing classes. Gildas had very stern words for the politicians of his day – in Michael Winterbottom’s translation, he threw “word-rocks” at them – but he wrote in this way because he knew that morally good governance was possible.
However, the problems of Britain could not simply be laid at the door of politicians. Gildas also turned his fire on churchmen: “Britain has priests,” he wrote, “but they are fools; very many ministers, but they are shameless; clerics, but they are treacherous grabbers.” The Church was also in clear need of renewal, he believed.
Political and religious reform was high on Gildas’s agenda but so too was what we might anachronistically call lay renewal. Writing about the time after the Irish and the Picts pulled back, he identified another problem: “In this period of truce the desolate people found their cruel scars healing over. But a new and more virulent famine was quietly sprouting. In the respite from devastation, the island was so flooded with abundance of goods that no previous age had known the like of it. Alongside there grew luxury.” This famine of abundance is perhaps what links his age most obviously to our own.
The Gildas Option might consist, then, in political, ecclesiastical and lay renewal, though maybe we shouldn’t look to The Ruin of Britain as a 6th century version of The Benedict Option. What really mattered was what Gildas did. Having identified the errors of his people’s ways, he concentrated on monastic reform. One form of community was renewed by another.