The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003


Saint Gildas and the

Pestilent Dragon

A Meander through the Sixth-Century Landscape With a Most Notable Guru

W. Julian Edens
Wright City, Missouri

The historical value of the pilgrimage episode in the Life of Gildas by the Monk of Ruys is defended by advancing solutions to the problems of composition-dating, integrity of tradition, motivation, and the appearance of a dragon. An approach is taken to delimiting the date of the pilgrimage in light of the Yellow Death pandemic and the geopolitics of the contemporary Mediterranean world.




Gildas is such a critical figure for understanding sixth-century Britain that finding a datable episode in his life can not but help to illuminate the age. Such an episode is Gildas's pilgrimage to Rome and Ravenna as detailed in the Life of Gildas by the monk of Ruys in Brittany. Acceptance of this episode, however, is beset with some difficulties. These difficulties concern the dating of the "Life", the value of the underlying tradition, and the motivation behind the pilgrimage. But even more difficult to accept is the appearance of a dragon story within the episode, which might lead to its possible dismissal as fantasy.

These difficulties are addressed and, hopefully, resolved in this article. Indeed, it will be seen that these difficulties enhance rather than detract from the verisimilitude of the episode by correctly placing the observer in the sixth century milieu of Gildas. The dragon story will be shown to be protero-physical [early scientific] rather than imaginary or mythological, even without positing the existence of dragons. The dating of the composition and the motivation will be shown to be easily surmountable problems; and the tradition underlying the episode will be shown to be trustworthy.

After the reliability of the account has been established, windows of time will be delimited based upon fitting Gildas's itinerary to major sixth-century developments in Italy and the western Mediterranean. Finally, logical constraints to even closer dating will be developed for conjoining these windows to other assumptions applicable to the episode.


The Journey

Before proceeding with analysis, a summary of the episode is presented below for extraction of its principal details. The episode is found in Chapters 13 through early 16 of the Life of Gildas by the monk of Ruys [1].

Gildas leaves Ireland and Britain behind and journeys to Rome to plead for the intercessions of SS. Peter and Paul that the Lord would remit his sins, assist him in remaining steadfast in his resolve, and bring him to heaven. After a vigil and matins in Rome, he starts on a tour of the oratories of other saints, during which he performs a healing in circumstances and language very close to that of the healing performed by Peter in Acts 3, and he continues his tour (Monk, 32-35). Then the dragon incident occurs:

"...and while tarrying there for a few days visiting the oratories of the saints, he heard that the citizens of Rome were being grievously afflicted owing to the noxious breath of a dragon [pestiferum flatum draconis] which was hiding in a cavern in some mountain, and which, by its pestiferous breath [pestilenti flatu], had killed many of the Romans and of others dwelling in the neighborhood. Hearing this, St. Gildas, at an early hour in the morning, went out secretly from his inn [hospitio], and ascended the mountain, bearing a staff in his hand. After offering up a prayer, he came to the mouth of the cave; and, seeing the dragon, he called upon the name of Christ, and said fearlessly: 'In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I bid thee die at once, that the people of believers may be no more destroyed by thee'. All at once it sank to the ground and died, and its plague ceased from among the people."[2]

When Gildas finishes with the dragon, he decides to visit the oratory of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna. At the city gate, he healed a blind and dumb man. Then, on his return to Rome he is attacked by brigands, but he stops them in their tracks. When he finally decided to return home, the Almighty wouldn't permit it and commands him to Armorica [Brittany] "to magnify His mercy to us."[3]

The salient points of this story are: (1) The itinerary involves a trip to Rome, then to Ravenna, and back. (2) The purpose of the trip is to obtain remission for sins, strengthening of resolve, and entry to heaven. (3) A pestilence is attributed to a dragon. (4) Gildas secretly leaves to seek the dragon early in the morning before anyone has risen. (5) Gildas climbs a mountain with his staff to find the dragon in a cave. (6) He kills the dragon by prayer. (7) The plague ceases, and he immediately leaves for Ravenna. (8) On his return from Ravenna, he is set upon by brigands whom he stops in their tracks. (9) He is diverted to Armorica [Brittany] on his trip home.

How Gildas traveled to and returned from Italy isn't specified, but it surely was by sea. The relative cost of sea travel can only be estimated by Diocletian's price edict of 301 AD when the empire was still fairly intact. The cost of transporting across the width of the Mediterranean was equivalent to 75 miles of land transportation.[4] And if he traveled by sea, we can only speculate about who was providing transport, though there is a report from the late sixth century of Gallic merchantmen plying their trade between the continent and upper Britain.[5]


Initial Assessment

The centrality of Gildas to early British history is beyond dispute. He is the principal source for what is known of the decline of Roman Britain, the coming of the Saxons, the beginning of the Celtic monastic movement, the politics of petty British kingdoms, and the state of the British church. The influence of his work The Ruin of Britain is apparent from the use made of it by Bede and Nennius, and the works derived from them. To Gerald of Wales, he is a model to be emulated: " Of all the British writers, he seems to be the only one worth copying ... I only wish I could emulate his life and ways."[6]

But while Gildas's own work is highly regarded, apparently the same cannot be said of the Life of Gildas from which the above episode was extracted. Typical of the critics' view is Alcock, who maintains that its composition was too late to be of historical value.[7] This is a strangely inconsistent view to take by one who cites Welsh tradition as supportive for other topics.[8] Conversely, Williams demonstrates that the late dating in chapter 34 is the result of appending chapters 33 and following to an earlier Life datable to the ninth century which was itself derived from a much earlier work.[9] As the episode above is in chapters 13 through early 16, it is in the older portion of the text. This places it on par with or prior to Nennius's British History which is a major source in Alcock's Arthur's Britain.[10]

But even Williams expresses doubts about the practicality of the pilgrimage episode: "Such a pilgrimage on the part of Gildas in the late sixth century is, to say the least, unlikely."[11] But of course the question being begged is that no-one is asserting that the trip occurred in the 'late' sixth century. Indeed, it couldn't have been too late as Gildas is supposed to have died c.570.[12] It is the objective of this article to show that there were times when the trip could have occurred.

Still, the real issue is the integrity of the tradition underlying the text. Sigmund Freud expressed it better:

"... A long time was to elapse, however, before historians came to develop an ideal of objective truth. At first, they shaped their accounts according to their needs and tendencies of the moment, with an easy conscience, as if they had not yet understood what falsification signified. In consequence, a difference began to develop between the written version and the oral report - that is, the tradition - of the same subject-matter. What has been deleted or altered in the written version might well have been preserved uninjured in the tradition. Tradition was the complement and at the same time the contradiction of the written history. It was less subject to distorting influences - and therefore might be more truthful than the account set down in writing."[13]

The tradition behind the pilgrimage episode would have been preserved within the small closed community of the monastery where the Life was composed. Further, the monastery - St. Gildas de Ruys- was one founded by Gildas right after the pilgrimage,[14] and stories of the founder would naturally be repeated for the young novices. This oral transmission would act as a brake on too much drift in the story. Finally, there should be no need to point out the important role of memorization in the Celtic cultures.

In addition, attention can be drawn to Procopius and Gregory of Tours - two primary sources for the sixth century that no one would hesitate to cite. The former asserts that Justinian was a demon (and not in a metaphoric sense), that his mother owned up to as much -that he was fathered by a demon-, and that he had unimpeachable witnesses who had seen Justinian's head floating around and his face morphed to a shapeless mass.[15] The latter asserts gleefully that Gelimer, the last Vandal king, lost his life at the same time that he lost his kingdom.[16] He didn't; Justinian retired him to a villa. Neither of these authors had the level of control on their writing from a closed-community tradition that the monk of Ruys had.

The third difficulty with the episode is the reason for the pilgrimage. What would impel Gildas to drop everything and undertake this difficult journey? From the manifest reasons listed previously, remission of sins, pilgrimage and et cetera, it appears to this author that Gildas was performing a penance by being in exile. It might be questioned whether there could be anything in the life of this saint for which such a penance would be imposed. This will be covered below at an appropriate place, but for now it will be pointed out that penances at this time in the Celtic church were quite severe.[17]


And Here Be Dragons

While the above difficulties were met in a fairly direct manner, the appearance of a dragon in the story is more complex. It is necessary to explore as exactly as possible what is meant by "dragon" by both the author(s) and the protagonist of the story in a Brythonic context. And in so doing, a guard must be set against preconceptions regarding dragons that may not have been applicable to sixth-century Britons.

To do this, the approach is to describe the habitations of dragons in the Brythonic world. In so doing, dragons will be seen as protero-physical (i.e. early scientific) entities, causally connected to, and explanatory of, natural phenomena, rather than mythological creations. In other contexts (e.g. the Book of Revelation, or the theophanies of the Buddhist sutras) dragons are mythic creatures, and in such, a mythological approach may be appropriate; but in the Brythonic context, dragons are squarely in the natural rather than the supernatural order, even while admitting that the barrier between these is fuzzier in the Celtic world as a whole, than it is in the modern.

That dragons may or may not actually exist, in no way vitiates the above. The highway of science is strewn with the debris of abandoned hypothetical constructs that once served an explanatory purpose - phlogiston, the lumeniferous ether, animal magnetism, absolute space and time, to name a few. And so it is with dragons. The phenomena with which they were associated now have better explanations, so there's not much heard about them any more.

But as protero-physical entities, there are good reasons for supposing that the characteristics ascribed to them are dependent upon the physical environment of the particular culture positing them. For example, the Sarno, a river which runs next to Mount Vesuvius, used to be known as the Draco,[18] indubitably derived from the belching smoke and fire of the volcano. From this functional association, something of the local idea of the size of dragons can be hazarded. The same approach will be taken with the Brythonic view of dragons. The emphasis is on 'Brythonic' rather than 'Celtic' because no less an authority on early Ireland than Gerald of Wales states plainly: "There are no dragons in Ireland."[19] The reasons for this will be discussed below.

A good place to begin a discussion of the Brythonic environment is with a brief review of the geological features of Britain, with particular emphasis on Wales and the Bristolchannel. This area known in the Roman times as part of the military zone for its inhabitation by more resilient British culture -thereby requiring legionary garrisons to keep the peace- is characterized by rugged mountainous terrain, while Britain itself is notable for large areas of coal deposits. This is particularly true of South Wales where, in modern times, coal has been the mainstay industry.

From these coal beds, the name Carboniferous has been applied to the era of their geological formation. In naming other geological eras and their associated formations, the importance of the military zone of Britain is clearly recognized: Cambrian [for Wales], Devonian [for Devon], Ordovician [for the Ordovici - the classic tribe of northwestern Wales], and Silurian [for the Silures -the classic tribe of southeastern Wales]. There are noteworthy fossil-rich Triassic and Jurassic formations on the south shore of the Bristol Channel at Lyme Regis.[20] These formations as well as the Carboniferous zones and high terrain will be critical to the presentation of the geological origination of dragons.

Where there are Carboniferous formations, methane can be found -there it is called 'firedamp'; where there are swamps, methane can be found - there it is called 'marsh gas' or 'will-o-the wisp'; where there is sewage, methane can be found - there it called 'sewer gas'; and where there is intestinal digestion, methane can be found - there it is called 'flatulence'.

Methane is, of itself, odorless and colorless, but when impurities are mixed in with it- as they are in all natural processes- it can be perceived to have odor or color. Flows of methane from coal seams in Britain have been recorded nearly as high as a thousand cubic feet per minute. It is toxic [for which reason coal miners have canaries], but, more significantly, it is flammable at concentrations in air as low as 1%, and explosive between 5.5% and 14.8% (maximally at 9.4%).[21]

In the ninth century work by Nennius among the wonders of Britain is found:

"There is another wonder in Gwent [heart of modern coal country]. There is a cleft, from which the wind continually blows [ventus flat]. And when there is no wind, in the summer time, it still blows continuously [incessenter flat] from that cleft, so that no-one can stand in the front of that cleft. In British, it is called by the name of Chwyth Gwynt, in Latin Windblow [flatio venti]. It is a great wonder that wind blows from the earth."[22]

For Chwyth Gwynt, the Latin text has Vith Gwint. Gwynt [wind] can also mean "flatulence" in Welsh [23] and 'flatus' in Latin, besides "blowing, breathing, snorting," can also mean "blast".[24] The relevance of the above is manifested by the detail in the Gildas dragon incident where the noxious breath of the dragon that kills so many Romans is rendered in the Latin text "pestiferum flatum draconis," a pestilential blast or flatus. And certainly anyone arriving at Nennius' fissure carrying a torch or lantern to inspect it would have been met by a blast. As mentioned above, another source of methane is marsh gas, and in turn of the century Wales this was called "yr ellyn dan"- goblin or fiend fire.[25]

Leaving aside the carboniferous zone, the next part of the geological landscape to be considered is the fossil-rich Jurassic formations. These formations contain easily accessible remains of prehistoric marine reptiles of different species. At least one local resident of Lyme Regis on the Bristol channel, in the early 19th century, was thriving on sales of fossils to tourists. In the days before systematic paleontology, some of these fossils were touted as "sea dragons", and "denizens of the abyss,"[26] dispelling the notion that fossil-collecting has been limited to the era of professional paleontologists. Fossil finds have been occurring for thousands of years. Fossils were used for personal adornment, and ultimately became grave goods. In that other great repository of fossils - China, they were called "dragon bones," and when pulverized were used in traditional medical preparations.

In the story of Lludd and Lleveleys in the Mabinogion dragons are entombed alive beneath the earth. Later, these same dragons, disinterred in the Emrys/Merlin stories, are the reason for the collapse of Vortigern's tower. Perhaps a geological exegesis would be appropriate in this case.

More significant than the Jurassic fossils, however, may be the Triassic fossils of gliding lizards in the Bristol Channel area.[27] These are the Kuehnesaurus fossils, which like the fossils of the Permian period Coelurosauravus found throughout Europe, and like the modern gliding lizards of the Genus Draco, possess the typical image of a dragon in having a pair of wings and four legs - and without violating the rules of skeletal homology for vertebrates. The wings are extended ribs but are retractable when not in flight. Modern gliding lizards are quite acrobatic in their aerial maneuvers and can cover quite some distance with little loss of altitude.[28] If these were the prototype for dragons, however, a downward revision of the concept of dragon size is in order: Kuehnesaurus and Coelurosauravus only have wingspans of 30 cm [12 inches], and the largest species of modern gliding lizard - Draco maximus - has only 10 cm [4 inches] [29], rather small compared to the largest pterosaur -Quetzlcoatlcus- which has a wingspan of 39 feet.[30]

It should be noted that all 15 species of the modern gliding lizard are limited to southern Asia, principally in the East Indies. Still, the conjunction of gliding-lizard fossils and larger marine lizards in the same area may have influenced the sizing of the dragons by the early Britons. On the other hand, the Nennius account specifies the ability of the buried dragons to destroy a tower, while the "Lludd and Lleveleys" account states that they are small enough to be caught in a vat of mead. What remains is a rather elastic notion of dragon size.

What is certain, however, from these accounts and the account of the Gildas dragon incident is that dragons are associated with subterranean habitations, and that is what is to be expected from the fossil distribution zone. Further, as the Gildas episode makes clear and as somewhat confirmed in the next section, dragons are associated with noxious blasts [flati] or exhalations within the earth. This is what would be expected from the Carboniferous zones of Britain.


Wyverns, Vipers and the Metamorphosis of Dragons

The geological domain by no means exhausts the functional description of Brythonic dragons. But to widen the search, it is necessary to consider what by what names dragons were known by the Britons. The word "dragon" in English is normally rendered dreic in Middle Welsh [draig in Modern Welsh] while 'dragon' is normally a plural form in Middle Welsh, though this detail seems to be ignored by those extracting meaning from 'Pendragon'.

At the turn of the century, Rhys reported about gwibers'-described as large snakes or dragons: "It is still believed all over Wales that snakes may, under favorable circumstances, develop wings."[31] This may shed light on Gerald of Wales's remark about the absence of dragons in Ireland: "Of all kinds of reptiles only those that are not harmful are found in Ireland. It has no poisonous reptiles. It has no poisonous serpents or snakes, toads or frogs, tortoises or scorpions. It has no dragons."[32] If, as Gerald asserts, there are no snakes in Ireland, and if dragons or gwibers develop from snakes, Gerald must conclude that there are no dragons in Ireland.

That gwibers meet the functionality of dragons described in the geological section above can be seen from the following report:

"Old Mrs. Davies, Plas, Dolanog, who died in 1890, aged 92, told ... that once, when she was a young woman, she went to Llanfair market, and on her way she sat on a stile, and she saw smoke and fire issuing from a hole on Moel Bentyrch, where the Gwiber, or Flying Serpent , had its abode.... she believed that both the smoke and fire were caused by the serpent."[33]

The noun gwiber in Welsh means "viper," and the verb gwibio means "flash" or "flit". The word gwiber is cognate with both "wyvern"[a two legged dragon of heraldry] and "viper" in English, both of which are derived from the Latin vipera thus:

viper < ME,OE vipera < L vipera
< ME wyvera < AF wivre (OF guivre) << OHG wipera < L vipera
(Stein 1595,1649)

From the above, it is obvious that there is considerable overlap in the conception of gwibers and dragons, and derivatively it can be concluded that dragons are not merely inhabitants of the earth producing exhalations, but are associated as well with the sky, and probably the clouds. And with this, there is linkage between the exhalations and cloud-like condensations such as would be formed when the warmer moist air of a cavern meets cooler air outside in the early morning.

In the Gildas dragon incident, Gildas secretly rises before anyone and proceeds to the mountain cave which the dragon inhabits. This is the expected behavior of a British dragon-hunter of that period. Why he did this will be considered next.


A Plague of Dragons

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the protero-physical (or at least naturalistic) quality of Brythonic interpretation of phenomena vis-a-vis the late-classical worldview than the contrasting explanations of Gerald of Wales and Procopius. Gerald, in favorably comparing the climate of Ireland with that of the Middle East, says:

"... [In Ireland there is] no disease-bearing cloud, or pestilential vapour or corrupting breeze... All the elements in the East, though created for the help of man, threaten his wretched life, deprive him of help, and finally kill him... if you drink unmixed water or merely smell dirty water with your nostrils, death is upon you... We have no fear of any breeze, piercing in its coldness, fever laden with its heat, or pestilential in what it brings...."[34]

Procopius, on the other hand, attributes the pestilence and other calamities of his day to there being a demon on the imperial throne. (Procopius 102-104) . Gerald may be incorrect, but he doesn't overstep what he perceives to be the natural order of things. Citing Jerome, he wrote: "Nature never exceeds the limits set by God who created it." (O'Meara 1978, 136) And his view of pestilence isn't far removed from the pre-viral view of influenza [Italian for "influence", or "wind blowing in"], or from the pestiferum flatum draconis [pestilential blast or flatus of a dragon] in the Gildas dragon incident. Such a view isn't so crazy when one considers the diseases borne by insect and avian vectors, or carried by ships sailing with a following wind.

Still, what pestilence is referred to in the Gildas dragon incident? There are several possibilities considered below. A good place to begin is with the pandemic of c.541-c.549, the Yellow Death. According to Procopius, this pestilence depopulated what was left of the Roman Empire. One need not take the textual mortality figure - a myriad of myriads of myriads (i.e. about a trillion) too seriously as there is some likelihood of a scribal error in duplicating "of myriads;" but the estimate intended, as Gibbon so corrects, -100 million- is horrific enough. Libya alone lost 5 million, and Procopius wrote that Italy lost more than Libya. (Procopius 130-134).

This pestilence seems to have devastated Egypt in 541,[35] and then spread across the Eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople where the death toll rose to a maximum of 16 thousand a day. At its peak, the dead were no longer buried, but were dumped in mass into an abandoned fort. The estimated total mortality for the city was 300 thousand. Even Justinian was afflicted, though not fatally, through the summer of 542.[36] Norwich alternatively places the origination of the pestilence, writing that the plague broke out in the camps of both sides during the campaign of Belisarius against the Persians. And if the origin of the pestilence is unclear, so is the diagnosis. Procopius wrote:

"Next, the Nile rose in the usual way but failed to again return at the proper time, bringing upon some of the inhabitants the suffering which I described earlier." (Procopius135).

But he further wrote that the plague followed after a series of devastating earthquakes, and that Justinian refused to expend public funds on the repair to the aqueduct at Constantinople - so that only a fraction of the previous clean water flow was available; the baths were closed, and the public fountains were the only water source for many.(Procopius, 136,171-172) Of course this would not only result in a shortage of clean drinking water, but as well an inadequate supply of water to flush the sanitary sewers. Something of this sort also occurred in Rome a few years earlier in 538 when the Ostrogoths under Vitiges, besieging the city, destroyed the aqueducts, which shut down not only the water and sewer systems, but the power source for the grain mills as well. It thus afflicted both sides in the siege as the Tiber became the common source of water: "By summer within the walls was famine, and outside disease and pestilence."[37]

The above points to three possible causes of the pandemic: bubonic plague, yellow fever, and dysentery. Absent detailed symptom description, there only remains the meager description -the Yellow Death- and its rate of transmission with which to work. It is true that Gregory of Tours provides detail consistent with bubonic plague - dysentery, fever, vomiting, and pains in the small of the back, and the use of cupping glasses to extract pus. But Gregory is describing the later epidemic of c.580. (V.34) The Merck Manual gives for bubonic plague: "... fever to 106...liver and spleen substantially swelling [providing the yellow color]... lymph nodes fill with pus..." (Berkow, Beers, and Fletcher 946-947).

On the other hand, the above situation regarding the Nile flooding suggests an outbreak of yellow fever, which is spread by the mosquito Adeles aegyptus. While this is normally a tropical or subtropical disease, and the Yellow Death is known to have reached Britain by 547 according to the 'Annals of Wales, (Nennius 45), or 549 according to current scholars [38] and to have reached Ireland by 552 according to the Annals of Tigernach entry for 664: "The plague first erupted ... 112 years since the first great plague [i.e. 552]," (Adomnan 346), but yellow fever is not unknown in northern port cities.

Another plausible cause would be the outbreak of dysentery, possibly accompanied by hepatitis, following the breakdown of the sanitation systems, with a possible epicenter in Italy. Indeed, in 539, a year after the outbreak of pestilence during the siege of Rome mentioned above, the Frankish king Theudebert was forced to retreat during an otherwise successful campaign in Italy during which he successively defeated both Ostrogothic and Byzantine armies. This was not due to any military reversals, but because the further he went into Italy, the more men he lost to disease, until 30% of his force died.[39]

But maybe there is no need to choose between these. The age seems ripe for outbreaks of all three: bubonic plague (spread by fleas from rodents, and inhaled droplets from coughs), yellow fever (spread by unusually mosquito-friendly environments), and dysentery (from the breakdown in sanitation). Indeed, these may have assaulted in succeeding waves. Certainly, The Annals of Wales records an earlier epidemic about the time of the battle of Camlann in 537: "537 the battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell. And there was plague [mortalitas] in Britain and Ireland."(Nennius 45, 85) Perhaps this was associated with the epidemic among Theudebert's men. That there was communication between Constantinople and Britain sometime in the age of Justinian was reported by Procopius: "On all his [Justinian's] country's potential enemies he lost no opportunity of lavishing vast sums of money ... as far as the inhabitants of Britain."(Procopius 138)

In any event, the very remoteness of Britain didn't seem to isolate it from either the Yellow Death or the major epidemics of the preceding or succeeding centuries, though there is mixed opinion whether there was an epidemic in fifth-century Britain. While calling attention to the Mediterranean plague of 443-445, Johnson denies there is any evidence to support its occurrence in Britain [40]. This is a curious position, given that he supports the account of plague in Gildas's The Ruin of Britain. Davis takes the opposite view, maintaining there is evidence of a plague a century earlier than the Yellow Death. But he doesn't specify what the nature of the evidence is.[41] Yet this fifth-century epidemic in Britain is clearly indicated by Gildas in 'The Ruin of Britain' as occurring just before the advent of the Saxons, which is consistent with the dating of the 443-445 Mediterranean epidemics (Gildas 25).

Several seventh-century epidemics seem to have run their courses through Britain and Ireland [in c.642, c.664, c.680, c.686] but nothing is in any way comparable with the sixth-century Yellow Death pandemic until the Black Death of the 14th century. Gerald of Wales, in the late 12th century, says that while the people called it "the Yellow Plague", the physicians called it "the icteric [jaundiced] fever"(Gerald 1978: 162).

The Yellow Death was an epidemic not only significant for its extent but for its impact on the notables of the time: Justinian, as previously mentioned, was ill through a critical summer; and St. Samson, a classmate of Gildas and bishop of St.David's, went into exile in Brittany when the plague broke out, where he became the bishop of Dol. (Gerald II.I). Lady Charlotte Guest in a note to her translation writes that in The Book of Llandav it tells how St. Teilo sailed to Brittany to escape the Yellow Plague, called in Latin "Peste Flava" and called in Welsh "y Fad Falen" [a term to be analyzed below]. (Guest 1838 v.III: 158) But the most significant notable from the frame of reference of Gildas is, of course, Maelgwn Fawr [Maelgwn the Great], prince of Gwynedd [northern Wales] who died in the Yellow Death in 549 [or 547]. Maelgwn is the leading figure among the five kings castigated in Gildas's Ruin and therefore his death helps in dating that composition as well as establishing the date of the battle of Mount Badon.[42] But it is the traditional details of the death of Maelgwn that are significant:

"And Maelgwn Gwynedd beheld the Yellow Plague through the keyhole in the church door and forthwith died. One account of the Yellow Plague is as a strange beast with yellow eyes, teeth, and hair; another describes it as a column of vapour rising from the earth to heaven and sweeping along the ground. The church where he died was thought to be Eglwys Rhos, not far from his court."[43]

When the entry for 547 in the Annals of Wales is examined, particularly in the expansive section (i.e. the part not in Harleian 3859) , one finds something that illuminates Lady Guest's term y Fad Falen:

"547 Mortalis magna in qua pausat Mailcun rex Genedotae. +Unde dicitur, 'Hir Hun Wailgun en llis Ros.' Tunc fuit wallwelen +" ["547 A great death in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. +Thus they say 'the long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos.' Then was the yellow plague."](Nennius 45, 85)

It is that last word in the Latin text - wallwelen, translated above as "yellow plague" - that bears further scrutiny. Clearly it is not Latin. It can be seen as Early Middle Welsh, if it is understood that the [v] sound in Early Middle Welsh was often represented by a "w". If it is then recognized as well that the [v] sound in Modern Welsh is represented by an "f", and if it is further recognized that "f" is the soft mutation for "m" , used when a feminine noun follows a definite article or for feminine adjectives, then the equivalence of 'y Fad Falen' and 'wallwelen' will appear. The terms are made up of mall [putrescence, rot, blast] or madru [putrefy, fester, rot] plus the feminine form of melyn [yellow]. So that wallwelen means "the yellow rot" or "the yellow blast," in Latin flatus flavus, the proposed source of the pestilenti flatu of the Gildas dragon incident.


A Saint of the Countryside

Turning the focus to Gildas himself, no greater contrast can be found to the decaying Mediterranean world than the environment of his youth and early ministry. It is true that, as pointed out by Gerald of Wales, Gildas had nothing good to say about his fellow countrymen in The Ruin of Britain, (Gerald 1978, 258) but for the countryside itself, his lyrical description displays evident pride:

"Flowers of different hues underfoot ... clear fountains whose constant flow drives before it pebbles white as snow, and brilliant rivers that glide with gentle murmur, guaranteeing sweet sleep for those who lie on their banks, and lakes flowing over with a cold rush of living water."(Gildas16-17; Monk 15)

With such a view, it is small wonder he sought out isolated places later in life. But it is his earlier years that are of interest in this article - principally the period from his birth through his pilgrimage to Rome, and this is summarized mainly by its reference to location.

Gildas was born in the fertile district along the Clyde River (Monk, 12-13), in the British kingdom of Strathclyde. He was the son of a chieftain of the region whose name in Latin was Caunus though Caradoc of Llancarvan, or a subsequent scribe erroneously names him Nau.

He had at least one sister, while the number of brothers is debatable - either four as reported in the Breton Life in which the dragon incident is found (Monk, 14-15), or twenty-four as reported by Caradoc (Monk, 84-85). Still, taking account of the strong institution of fostering among Celtic peoples, these numbers are not incompatible. Three of his brothers and a sister, like Gildas chose religious vocations, while another brother, named in Latin Cuillum, Hueil, Huail, became a somewhat independent-minded chieftain. (Monk 14-17, 90-91). The later tradition of Caradoc has it that he was killed by Arthur on the Isle of Man because of his rebelliousness (Monk, 92-93), though a different Welsh tradition found by Lady Charlotte Guest has it that he was beheaded by Arthur because of rivalry with Arthur for the affection of a lady, for mocking him, and for breaking an oath. She further writes that the beheading-block can still be seen in the village of Rhuthyn. (Guest 1838 v.II, 335-336) Gerald of Wales recounts the tradition that the reason for the absence of any mention of Arthur in The Ruin of Britain is because of this killing:

"The Britons maintain that when Gildas criticized his own people so bitterly, he wrote as he did because he was so infuriated by the fact that King Arthur had killed his own brother, who was a Scottish chieftain. When he heard of his brother's death, or so the Britons say, he threw into the sea a number of outstanding books which he had written in their praise and about Arthur's achievements. As a result, you will find no book which gives an authentic account of the great prince." (Gerald 1978: 259)

Gildas was sent at an early age to be schooled by St. Illtud, Latin Hiltudus, as were other notables of the age- Paul of Leon, Samson of Dol, and Maelgwn Fawr. The course of study was what could be predicted by anyone who has read Gildas's Ruin:

"The blessed Gildas was therefore established under a master's learning in the school of divine scripture and of the liberal arts. ... he was distinguished for wisdom, was constant in reading the scriptures..."(Monk 16-19; Gildas 35).

The Monk of Ruys, who wrote the Breton Life, as does his translator Hugh Williams, places the school on the island of Llanilltud near the coast of Dyfed in southwestern Wales (Monk,20-24), but others -notably Lewis Thorpe and Michael Winterbottom- place it at Llantwit / Llantud Major in Glamorgan . (Gerald 1978: 88 n.72; Gildas 153 note)

Gildas, after finishing with Illtud's teaching, went to Ireland for post-graduate studies in divinity and philosophy, and after ordination he proceeded to northern Britain to minister and to refute heretics, though what would have passed for heresy among these unsophisticated folk is problematic. (Monk, 24-29). Later, he returned to Ireland preaching the gospel, correcting heretics, and organizing churches, seemingly along the models of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. (Monk 30-31).

Even as late as Gerald of Wales's day, Ireland was a pristine island, as his comments on the salubrious climate noted above show. In Gildas' day, Ireland had no cities, the places seemingly mentioned as such being either monasteries or royal fortified residences. It was the Norwegians in the age of the Vikings who established cities - the trading centers: Wicklow, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, and of course Dublin - and introduced the first coinage to the island. (Chadwick 102-107).

It was from these bucolic environments that Gildas undertook his pilgrimage to Rome, and it is appropriate to look again at his motive for this trip. As mentioned above, it appears to be a penitential exile, which requires an inquiry into what this saint could have done to warrant such a severe penance. Nothing is known for sure, but from the little that is known of his life, the most likely candidate seems to be concerned with the killing of Gildas' brother by Arthur. Perhaps his reaction to this was anger more than grief; perhaps he did more than verbalize this. Attention should be directed to Gerald of Wales's description of Gildas' destruction of books, a precious item until the advent of mass printing.

Caradoc of Llancarvan may supply a clue to this when he writes of the meeting between Gildas and Arthur with the chief bishops and abbots of Britain where the two of them were reconciled. Arthur accepted the penance imposed, and though nothing is said of a penance for Gildas, he left at this point for Rome. (Monk, 94-95) And so the adventure began.

One can only speculate about his reaction to the war-ruined city that had been mistress of the classical world, but it is certain to anyone who has been to a third-world city whose sanitation system is in disrepair that the stench of the place must have been overpowering. The rising fumes of sewer gas may or may not have created a pyrotechnic display, but an awareness of them surely rose to his consciousness, particularly if he were hearing entreaties of petitioners at the oratories during his tour. And so he acted.


Beneath Mediterranean Skies

Before proceeding further with Gildas on pilgrimage, a review must be taken of significant events gyrating about his destination, and this will require going back more than a century before his arrival in Italy.

Of all the barbarian peoples pouring into the Empire in the fifth century, none was in greater need of a press agent than the Vandals, whose very name is now associated with wanton destruction. That the Vandals were a rough crowd is beyond question but that their destructiveness was pointless, or even particularly vicious when compared with other barbarians or the civilized empires of that day is negated by observing what they were creating or recreating - a revival of the Carthaginian Empire.

Whether this was the aim of Gaiseric when he transported his people in his new fleet from Spain to North Africa in 428 isn't obvious, but in viewing the results of his campaigns, it is clear that the idea entered his mind at some point, particularly after Carthage itself had become his in 439. Even a cursory look at any decent historical atlas will show that the kingdom of the Vandals was coextensive with the Carthaginian Empire as constituted before the First Punic War.[44] It included the North African coast from the border with Egypt westward to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. It also included within the western Mediterranean: Sardinia, Corsica, Eastern Sicily, and the Balearic Islands. Uniquely among the barbarian kingdoms, it was recognized as an independent sovereignty by the western Roman emperor -Valentinian- in 442 and by the eastern emperor -Zeno- 32 years later.

Also uniquely among the barbarian kingdoms and like the ancient Carthaginians, Gaiseric achieved what he did through the projection of naval power. Even his sack of Rome in 455 originated from a naval assault to the Tiber, and it was hardly the disorganized affair that the word "vandal" implies. After negotiations with Pope Leo the Great -famed for talking Attila out of Italy on an earlier occasion - terms of the sacking were agreed upon: no killing, no torture (to force the revealing of hidden assets), no wanton destruction of public buildings. The Vandals were, after all, Christians -albeit heretics. For two weeks they systematically removed everything of value from the city: gold and silver from the churches, the temple menorah taken by Titus at the fall of Jerusalem, and even half the gilded copper roof from the temple of Jupiter. The loot was crated up and shipped back to Carthage along with three Roman princesses, one of whom was later wed to Huneric, the son the Gaiseric.

It took thirteen years for the emperor in Constantinople to prepare a reprisal; the western emperor was in no position to do anything. In 468 the emperor Leo sent an armada of a thousand ships carrying an estimated 100,000 personnel to attack Carthage. After the soldiers had disembarked, the fleet was destroyed by the Vandals, leaving the Romans without supply. The Romans capitulated in the field, and the men were enslaved until ransomed at a later date. The next emperor -Zeno- signed a peace treaty, formally recognizing the full sovereignty of the Vandals in 474. This was a tacit acknowledgment of the western Mediterranean as beyond the Imperial pale.

These events have left material evidence of their impact on British trade with the Mediterranean:

"In the West [of Britain] the earliest closely dated imports are some Class A dishes beginning 460-470. It seems probable that in the middle fifth century, the Mediterranean was effectively closed to East-West traffic by Vandal pirates based on the coast of North Africa. Only when this was suppressed did the trade become possible."[45] Additionally, the Class Bi amphorae (wine and oil containers) which date from the late 5th to the late 7th century have been found as well. And at Degannwy, Carnarvonshire, "the remains of the age of Maelgwn include about a dozen shards of East Mediterranean amphorae of Tintagel class B datable to the late fifth or sixth century."[46]

Nor were the Vandals themselves incapable of rising to a higher cultural level. Three years after the peace treaty with Zeno, Gaiseric died. His grandson, Hilderic - the son of Huneric and the Roman princess - became the next king. Hilderic was orthodox like his mother, rather than heretical, which eased the religious situation, and he is reported to have had a rather pacifistic nature. This may have meant no more than that he pursued a policy of prosperity through trade, rather than conquest. But this peaceful period was not to last. In his dotage, Hilderic was killed in 531 by Gelimer, one of his nobles, who then ascended the throne. Two years later, in the summer of 533, the emperor Justinian responded to this assassination by sending an army in 500 ships with 92 warships, led by Belisarius. The surprise of the attack was complete, the Vandal fleet and half the Vandal army having been decoyed to Sardinia. After winning a set piece battle outside the city against such forces as Gelimer could muster, Belisarius entered Carthage in September 533. Through the winter, Gelimer launched such counter-attacks as he could, but he finally surrendered in March 534. He was sent to Justinian who retired him to a villa in Galatia, and the Vandal prisoners were drafted into the Byzantine army and sent to the Eastern Front.[47]

The important thing about these events is that even after Carthage fell, the Vandal fleet was still at large and, as in the days of the foundation of the Neo-Carthaginian Empire, it can be presumed that there was an interruption in shipping through the western Mediterranean from late 533 until the surrender of Gelimer and likely, even some time afterward.


The Empire Strikes Back

Unlike the Neo-Carthaginian Empire of the Vandals, the kingdom of the Ostrogoths in Italy was considered to be at least nominally part of the Roman Empire. It had been established in 488 by Theodoric who held the titles of patricius [patrician] and magister militium [commander-in-chief] in the name of the emperor in Constantinople. Nor was Theodoric an uncultured man; he had been reared in the imperial court at Constantinople as a hostage.

He seems to have been an able ruler of both his Gothic and Italian subjects; and despite his adherence to heresy, he receives favorable comparison to Justinian by Procopius for preservation of Roman institutions and infrastructure. Procopius singles out for particular mention Theodoric's retention of the ceremonial guard in Rome, though Theodoric's capital was Ravenna, and his distribution of food to beggars. (Procopius 172-173) Still, he seems mostly to be remembered today for ordering the death of the philosopher Boethius, one of his counselors.

Theodoric's death in 526 was followed by a sequence of coups by his Gothic successors, so that by the time of Belisarius's invasion of Italy, the crown was held in the slipping grasp of Theodahad. Justinian had realized the current weakness in the Gothic command structure and in 535 had sent Belisarius and his army, including large contingents of barbarian mercenaries, to compel Italy back to imperial control. Theodahad's garrison made a valiant if futile defense of Naples in the spring of 536; and when Naples fell to Belisarius, Theodahad was deposed in consequence and executed. A fairly able commander, the elderly Vitiges, was acclaimed king by the Goths, but his first action probably left the Goths baffled. Vitiges ordered the Gothic army to fall back north to Ravenna to reinforce and regroup. Belisarius crept north, finally entering an undefended Rome in December 536.

Anticipating a major counterattack by Vitiges's renewed army, Belisarius spent the winter stocking foodstuffs and receiving some reinforcements as he prepared for a lengthy siege. It began in March 537. Rome was completely invested until March 538, and the aqueducts bringing water into the city were destroyed by the Goths. Only when pestilence broke out in his own army did Vitiges lift the siege and go on the defensive, holding ground between Rome and Ravenna.

Following this retreat by Vitiges, Milan in the far north went over to the Byzantines, though it was recovered by Vitiges in early 539 with the help of Burgundians. A terrible slaughter and destruction followed its recapture, as the Goths had considered the defection of Milan, the largest city in Italy at the time, as unpardonably treacherous. These events were followed by the expedition of Theudebert the Frank which was turned back only by the outbreak of an epidemic. The primary effect of the Frankish invasion was to force the Goths back to Ravenna after they sustained considerable battle losses. In early 540, Vitiges was tricked into turning Ravenna over to Belisarius following a series of bad-faith negotiations and dubious diplomatic moves. Following this capture, Belisarius returned to Constantinople, leaving Italy in the hands of his much less capable lieutenants.


The Man Who Would Be King

Belisarius's capture of Vitiges should have been the effective conclusion of the war. The remaining Goths, down to only 1000 effective fighting men, held only the two small enclaves of Verona and Pavia under their new king Hildebad. But by an almost miraculous combination of incompetence on the part of the new Byzantine military command, and predation by the new imperial administration, the Goths managed to regain everything north of the Po by the end of 540 with the support of the local population who looked back nostalgically on the days of Gothic rule. Following the successive assassinations of Hildebad and his successor Earic for what appears to have been personal reasons, the Goths elected one of the most remarkable men of the sixth century to lead them to a reversal of fortune, Totila. Totila was not only a superior military leader, but more importantly someone of keen political instincts, an astute sense of the needs of the local population, and insight into the value of propaganda.

Totila rallied the Goths and appealed to the Italians of the lower classes, promising land reform for the peasants, and liberation for the slaves. He characterized the Byzantines as alien Greeks, interested only in denuding Italy of its wealth. This worked; even the imperial troops responded. This was war in the guise of revolution, and it was a war by sea as well as by land with all the stops pulled. By the summer of 542, Totila controlled all Italy except pockets around Rome, Ravenna, Florence, and Naples and two Byzantine relief fleets had been sunk. By May 543, Naples was in Totila's hands and in the summer of 544, he moved on Rome. At that time, Belisarius was belatedly sent back to Italy but with only a few inexperienced soldiers, no money for mercenaries, and no overall authority. With the Goths now holding the territory between Rome and the sea, and with the Gothic fleet defensively positioned in the Tiber, Belisarius vainly attempted to relieve the city, but to no avail. In December 546, Byzantine garrison troops opened the gates to the Goths. The population of Rome had by then dropped to 500. In 547, the Byzantines again recaptured the city, but again lost it in 550. In early 549, Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople, and it was up to the octogenarian eunuch Narses to lead the reconquest.[48]

In January 550, when the Byzantine garrison again opened the gates of Rome to the Goths, the Goths settled into the near-empty city, and the Gothic fleet went off to plunder the remaining Byzantine enclaves. This was the situation when Narses assumed command. Unlike Belisarius, Narses took the time to gather the resources he needed. In the summer of 552 he marched an army of 35,000 around the Adriatic to Ravenna. He then headed south as Totila moved north on the Via Flamina. The two armies met, with a disastrous outcome for Totila. His army was soundly beaten, he was killed, and the Byzantines recaptured Rome for the last time in the war.

The Goths made one more attempt to salvage their kingdom by racing Narses to Naples. Teia now commanded the Gothic army which battled the Byzantines near Mount Vesuvius. Again, Narses was successful; Teia was killed and the Goths were allowed to depart Italy with only their lives and moveable property.[49]

Still, the most that the Byzantines had accomplished lasted but sixteen years, less time than the war itself. In 568 a new people arrived to repopulate Italy, the Lombards. They established a kingdom in the north with a capital at Pavia, and two independent duchies in the south at Spoleto, and Beneventum. The Byzantines retained only small pieces of Italy in the south, and a narrow corridor connecting Rome and Ravenna.

And at this point, the critical question must be asked: with all the above mayhem going on, when could the pilgrimage of Gildas have taken place? This will be answered in the next section.


The Logic of a Sixth Century Itinerary

It should be clear from the three preceding sections that scheduling Gildas's journey would not be an easy matter. Gildas must travel from the British Isles to Rome, then to Ravenna, back to Rome, and then on to Brittany. The primary constraints on such a trip are twofold: (1) the presence of belligerent forces, either besieging one or the other of the two cities, or interposed between them; and (2) the denial of the western Mediterranean for passage. The first constraint produces three time intervals when travel between Rome and Ravenna was practical. (1) Before 536 when Belisarius marched on Rome as Vitiges retreated to Ravenna, or even before the spring of 536 when Belisarius began operations in Italy proper during this period the Rome to Ravenna corridor was in Ostrogothic control. (2) The period between the capture of Vitiges's Ravenna in early 540 and the beginning of the reign of Totila in late 541 during this period the Rome to Ravenna corridor was in Byzantine control. (3) The period between October 552 when Teia was defeated by Narses and 568 when the Lombards began to arrive during this time the corridor was again in Byzantine control. The second constraint, the denial of passage in the western Mediterranean, serves to restrict the first interval further to before late 533 when Belisarius landed in North Africa but the Vandal fleet remained at large.

These three intervals will be simplified in designation to "before 533," "540-541," and "552-568." It should be said at this point that they are all three within the lifetime of Gildas (c.500 to c.570). When compared to other details in the pilgrimage episode, in the Breton Life generally, and in other Gildasian material, further limitations on the date will occur, not all of which are logically compatible. But by assessing these details, more accurate dating of the episode and validation of the details will be possible.

Thus, with the pestilent dragon incident, 540-541 becomes the most likely period for the pilgrimage, the Roman clean water supply being devastated, epidemics having broken out in the Gothic army in 538, in the invading Frankish army in 539, in Egypt in 541, and Constantinople in 542. Such a choice also illuminates the robbers incident occurring during Gildas' return from Ravenna. This band may have been stragglers or deserters from either of the opposing belligerents, or from Theudebert's expeditionary force.

For another example, one cannot logically accept the interval 540-541 and the later assertion in the Breton Life that when the pilgrimage was completed, Gildas arrived in the neighborhood of Rhys before he was 30 years of age (Monk, 36-39) because this would be fourteen years before the he composed The Ruin of Britain at which time Maelgwn Fawr (d.547/549) was still alive, and Gildas was 44. (Gildas 28, 32) But if one accepts the 549 date for the death of Maelgwn Fawr, the assertion of the monk of Rhys that Gildas composed his work 10 years after he had left the British Isles (Monk, 42,43), the date of his departure could have been as late as 539, which is just close enough to have undertaken the pilgrimage to Rome and Ravenna in the 540-541 interval, more than likely in early 540. If this is indeed the narrow date for the pilgrimage, it follows that the Ruin would have been composed in 549, the very year of the death of Maelgwn Fawr , and that Gildas would have been born in 505, which would then be the date of the battle of Mount Badon.

Now there are many such logical examples that can be generated from the consideration of the time interval for the pilgrimage, but the last to be considered in this article concerns the bell-for-the-pope incident. In the Life by Caradoc of Llancarvan (Monk, 93-95), one of the items on Gildas's list of things to do in Rome is to present a bell to the pope. This incident is generally compatible with all three intervals though the 552-568 window will require modification of the earlier terminus. The pope, Vigilius, was absent from Rome from November 545 until his death, spending a year in Catania Sicily before moving to Constantinople, then in the midst of theological controversy. He remained there until Dec 553 before sailing for Rome. He never made it, dying in Syracuse in Feb 554. Thus, acceptance of this incident would require modification of the third window to 554-568.



1) The pilgrimage of Gildas is a jewel among British Dark-Age accounts in that it forces attention to events beyond a parochial British context. The boundary conditions for analysis are now seen to include the most distant regions of the Mediterranean world.

2) Objections to the Breton Life containing the story of the pilgrimage based on its date can be overcome by defending its composite nature based upon an earlier manuscript, and showing the integrity of the tradition which acts as a control on the account.

3) The motivation of Gildas for making the pilgrimage is suggested to be the making of a penitential exile, possibly related to events surrounding the death of his brother.

4) Difficulties with the presence of a pestiferous dragon incident within the story are dealt with by showing that dragons were, in a Brythonic context, seen to be part of the natural order, rather than the fabulous - and this view derives from the geological nature of Britain. As conceived by the Britons, dragons are creatures of rocks, air, and clouds , and this is explanatory of Gildas's method of hunting the dragon near Rome.

5) Three possible diseases are shown to be explanatory for the Yellow Death pandemic, and a conjunction of any of these is not ruled out. Epicenters of the contagion are suggested and relations to other epidemics is demonstrated. Terminology for the yellow death is derived from jaundice and the notion of blasting.

6) Gildas's years prior to the pilgrimage are spent in clearly non-urban settings, and so his view of the natural order was the view of a Briton of the countryside.

7) The war-time conditions in the western Mediterranean and in Italy delimit three periods when Gildas' pilgrimage could be made: before 533, 540-541, and 552-568.

8) The presence of pestilence in Rome during Gildas' pilgrimage makes the interval 540-541 the more likely window.

9) This interval, when conjoined to other details in the age of Gildas, has some importance in determining the dates of the birth of Gildas, the battle of Mount Badon, and the battle of Camlann.



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Copyright © W. Julian Edens, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved.