I have posted often at this site on the subject of the “Dark Ages,” or post-Roman era, and specifically as it affected the British Isles following the Fall of Rome. (And yes, I do accept and use the concept of Dark Ages, and have justified my use of the term at some length). The era has multiple appeal for historians, not least because of the whole Arthurian myth, and the relation between history and legend; but also the fate of Christianity in a failed and failing state. This is a classic example where flourishing Christian communities were obliterated, and generally forgotten. That in itself justifies the focus on British conditions. Finally, it is fascinating to see what was happening in this corner of the world at the time of all those Eastern Christian religious controversies that I have published on in books like my Jesus Wars.
In Britain, the darkest of the Dark Ages is the fifth century AD, the era following the official withdrawal of Roman power in 410. At the start of that era, most of what we today call England and Wales was Roman in culture and civilization, advanced economically and quite prosperous. By the end of the century, standards of living and culture had collapsed, and much of the territory was under the control of pagan barbarians, mainly the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, but also the Irish. How the change happened is open to enormous debate, as our sources are pathetically limited. But I actually learned a lot about the workings of history – and of interpreting texts – from one specific story, that I will tell here, and in some detail. It offers a useful warning for reading history, in terms of what contemporaries do and don’t know about the recent past.
The main early source we have for this period is the work of the British monk Gildas, who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) around 540. Gildas was not a historian by intent, but that certainly does not invalidate the information he gives us. It is absurd to argue that we should not believe Gildas because he is writing a religious tract. Should we discredit every medieval source that describes miracles? When we listen to a sermon today, we may think it is a rant, but it often contains some accurate facts: few preachers are so ill-informed that they can’t even name the last couple of presidents. The preacher may hold wild and wonderful views about gay rights or immigration (say) but we can still quote them to show that these were topics of lively interest in the period under discussion. You can use such polemical sources, but with all due allowance for their biases. We extract what information we can.
Gildas tells the story of Roman Britain, and he makes plenty of howlers. His material gets very interesting indeed when he moves into the fifth century, because he is telling us about an era where virtually nothing else survives. He specifically tells us about a series of disasters faced by the British people – wars, invasions, plagues – followed by eras of recovery, before the cycle begins again. His story goes like this:
1.The First Crisis
The Romans leave. There are brutal invasions by the Picts and Scots, from what we today call Scotland and Ireland. Plagues and famines run riot.
2.Enter the Anglo-Saxons
The British then secure victory over the Picts and Scots, but misgovernment and corruption run riot. Fearing future attacks, a proud tyrant, a tyrannus decides to call in Germanic mercenaries to protect against those enemies, a very common tactic in the late Roman world. These Germans do what they have been asked to do, but they in turn become a deadly enemy.
3.The Second Crisis
The Anglo-Saxons rebel, alleging that they had not been given the supplies and rewards they had been promised. (Again, this was a very common feature of late Roman life). They undertake a near total destruction of Roman society – they massacre, they destroy cities, people starve, to the extent that many try to give themselves up to the Anglo-Saxons as slaves in the hope of surviving. Others flee abroad.
4.Revival and Recovery
The British stage a revival under various figures, most celebrated among whom was Ambrosius Aurelianus. They confine the Anglo-Saxons to eastern regions of the country, and Gildas operates in a political world that is British – that is, Roman or sub-Roman, Christian, and Celtic.
The story as it goes is feasible in broad outline (which certainly does not mean it is necessarilytrue), but Gildas is phobic about giving dates. Only once does he quote what is unquestionably a contemporary source, which is among the very few precious words to survive to us from the last days of truly Roman, Latin, Britain. Facing existential disasters, British leaders address a desperate plea for help to the powerful Gallo-Roman general Aetius, who they address as “thrice consul.” That dates the letter precisely to 446 AD. The letter then describes the horrible circumstances the British face: “the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us upon the barbarians; by one or other of these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned; and for these they have no aid.” Gildas here is unquestionably quoting a genuine document, with a precise date, and as such, this is pure gold.
But here is the problem. Gildas has a narrative, and he has the one golden treasure of a datable document. So where does he put it? If you read his tract, then he inserts the document between points 1 and 2 above, after the defeat of the Picts and Scots. Hence, that must have happened around 446. Then the Anglo-Saxons came in. Not coincidentally, Anglo-Saxon tradition dated the arrival of their people in Britain in 449, the “Coming of the Saxons.” For centuries, those dates enjoyed a kind of consecrated status in English historical writing.
Many years ago, I attended the lectures of the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Peter Hunter Blair, who made a brilliant point that should have been glaringly obvious. Briefly, what Gildas has is just impossible, if you take the dates literally. Far, far, too much happens between 446 and 449, between the Appeal to Aetius and the Coming of the Saxons: we are talking the happenings of decades, not of a couple of years. So here is an alternative view: Gildas has the wrong crisis. What Gildas had to go on was a highly rhetorical Appeal roughly a century before his time, in an era of desperate crisis and near collapse provoked by barbarian invasions, and sadly, there were at least a couple of candidates for such a catastrophic time.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that Gildas simply put the dated document in the wrong place, to match up with the wrong crisis. And also, that he chose the wrong enemies, who were the Anglo-Saxons, not the Picts and Scots. In that case, the Appeal to Aetius would belong in the crisis depths described at the end of Point 3 above, and only there. Once we make that shift, the logical and chronological difficulties vanish, and the sequence of events works in a way it could not otherwise. Not only that, but the revised chronology meshes perfectly with one of the very few other solidly dated pieces of contemporary evidence that we possess. Everything falls into place.
It is overwhelmingly likely that Gildas has misplaced the document, and the circumstances it describes, by twenty years. To use a modern analogy, it is like someone today finding a cryptic letter about Allied soldiers fighting the Germans in the Ardennes, puzzling over it, and eventually deciding that it belongs in 1914 rather than 1944. In a pre-Google age, such errors were all too easy. Based on that slip about Aetius, post-Gildas historians constructed a whole bogus chronology that lingered until modern times.
With that change in mind, let’s tell that whole story again, but with plausible dates and some editorial insertions. The sequence works very well indeed, and so does the chronology:
1.The First Crisis
In 410, the Romans withdraw their protection from Britain. There are brutal invasions by the Picts and Scots, and plagues and famines run riot. Probably in the 420s, the island is wracked by warfare. The Life of a Gaulish saint named Germanus of Auxerre records him visiting Britain around 429, and intervening miraculously to help the Christian British defeat the Picts and their Saxon allies. Incidentally, Germanus’s visit suggests a deeply Christian society, at least at elite level, where society was deeply split between orthodox believers and Pelagians. Christianity was developing real local roots.
2.Enter the Anglo-Saxons
The British secured victory over the Picts and Scots, but misgovernment and corruption run riot. Probably in the late 420s, fearing future attacks, a tyrannus decided to call in Germanic mercenaries to defend against future enemies. This tyrannus was probably named Vortigern or Vertigernus, who features in later folklore in a sinister light. It is likely that Gildas originally named Vortigern in his writing, but that the name dropped out in later versions.
Through the 430s, the Germans settle and perform military tasks for the British, and they are presumably given military control over large sections of the eastern parts of the country. The Germanic presence in the country was far from new at this time (witness the force defeated by Germanus in 429, not to mention the forts of the “Saxon Shore”), but this might have been on a larger and more organized scale. In itself, using barbarian forces in this way was neither new and controversial, and Aetius himself made extensive and quite successful use of multiple ethnic groups, often settling them on lands within the empire.
3.The Second Crisis
Around 440, the Anglo-Saxons rebel, alleging that they had not been given the supplies and rewards they had been promised. They undertake a near total destruction of Roman society – they massacre, they destroy cities, people starve, to the extent that many try to give themselves up to the Anglo-Saxons in the hope of surviving. Others flee abroad, including to what we now call Brittany, “Little Britain.”
Several things help confirm this dating. One is a near-contemporary entry in a Gallic Chronicle, which under the year 441 notes that “The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule.” Or another variant from a Gallic source at this time, “Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons.” I have no idea how the Gallic writers are assessing this, but something happens in 441, something dramatic or ugly enough to attract attention across the Channel. (Like everything else in this era, that Chronicle entry has of course been multiply assailed).
And then, in 446, we have the firmly dated appeal to Aetius – also in Gaul.
Less certain in date, but probably from this time, is the incredible hoard of Roman treasure found in Hoxne, in Suffolk, in 1992. Apart from stunning quantities of gold and silver items, the hoard included some fifteen thousand Roman coins, running in date to around 410. However, the coins had been clipped and used in other ways since that date, suggesting a gap of some decades before they were buried, and a date around 440 would work well. We have no idea who buried the treasure, whether it was a very rich family, or (less likely) a band of Germanic raiders who had raided such a family, and was hiding loot. What we do know is that they – whoever they were – never came back to collect this vast treasure, suggesting that they were dead, exiled, or otherwise incapacitated. That suggests the deep chaos of the time, and probably the elimination of the old landed elites. Ambrosius’s own family had been killed in the wars.
Hoards of this kind are particularly likely to appear in eastern England and East Anglia, exactly the regions most likely to be hit by Anglo-Saxon raiding. Hoards can in some circumstances represent deliberate ritual deposits, but in the context of the age, they are much more likely to be the remnants of a shattered society seeking desperately to preserve its goods.
Gildas paints a terrifying picture of what must be the 440s:
For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. … In this way were all the settlements brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams; the inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church, both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown down to the ground, and, sad sight! there were seen in the midst of streets, the bottom stones of towers with tall beam cast down, and of high walls, sacred altars, fragments of bodies covered with clots, as if coagulated, of red blood, in confusion as in a kind of horrible wine press: there was no sepulture [burial] of any kind save the ruins of houses, or the entrails of wild beasts and birds in the open … Some of the wretched remnant were consequently captured on the mountains and killed in heaps. Others, overcome by hunger, came and yielded themselves to the enemies, to be their slaves for ever, if they were not instantly slain, which was equivalent to the highest service. Others repaired to parts beyond the sea, with strong lamentation… Others, trusting their lives, always with apprehension of mind, to high hills, overhanging, precipitous, and fortified, and to dense forests and rocks of the sea, remained in their native land, though with fear.
This is not based on first hand observation, and the text strongly recalls Biblical exemplars, such as Jeremiah. Also, Gildas may not be describing the universal experience of the whole of southern Britain, but he is surely recalling traditions of wars and massacres in particular regions.
Obviously, no contemporary British account survives to tell us of the misery experienced by those forced to flee their communities, facing the hourly danger of massacre, rape, or mass enslavement. Oddly, though, we do have exactly such a first hand account from these very years, from the region of what we would call Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. The Life of Saint Severinus describes just such a crisis of war and invasion, and the destruction of the Roman provinces of Noricum and Pannonia in the 450s. Among other things, it is a great pioneering work of the refugee experience. Every agonized word should be read carefully by British historian of the post-Roman era, especially those who tend to minimize the barbarian incursions.
To put this all in wider context, Augustine of Hippo died in 430, shortly before his city fell to the Vandals (Germanic barbarians), following a brutal siege and mass starvation. He would have sympathized powerfully with the plight of his fellow Romans in Britain. This is also the most intense era of the “Jesus Wars” in the Eastern Empire, with the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The year 451 also witnessed Aetius’s victory over Attila the Hun.
4.Revival and Recovery
The British stage a revival under various warlord figures, most celebrated among whom was Ambrosius Aurelianus. This would have been chiefly in the 450s and 460s, leading to decisive battles like the siege of Mons Badonicus, Mount Badon, around the 490s. British armies confined the Anglo-Saxons to eastern regions of the country, and Gildas operates in a political world that is chiefly British – that is, Roman or sub-Roman, Christian, and Celtic.
The Anglo-Saxons did not of course vanish , and they won sweeping victories from the mid-sixth century onward. Making their advances immensely easier were the after-effects of the great plague that raged across Europe in the 540s, which approached the destructive levels of the later Black Death. In 577, the West Saxons finally captured the old Roman heartland in and around Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester, which two centuries before had been the core of the wealthy rural villa society.
In several other blogs, I have discussed the impact of these various wars and disasters on Britain, and the transition to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that emerge in the early middle ages. At least some of the Anglo-Saxon leaders were interbred with British elites, and I have described elsewhere how the kingdom of Wessex owed its foundation to some kings with suspiciously British Celtic names. Contrary to some historians, though, I definitely believe that many or most non-elite British people did suffer a disastrous decline in prestige and wealth, as indicated by the near disappearance of their language from most of what became England. They did not all wake up one morning and decide to start speaking Anglo-Saxon, as a means to social mobility. (This is sometime called the elite emulation model).
I get somewhat frustrated when I read modern accounts suggesting that Roman Britain collapsed pretty much of its own accord, and the Anglo-Saxons were some kind of marginal later migration picking up the pieces. Um, and what language are these modern historical narratives written in? A linguistic descendant of British Latin? No, they are in English, a language with virtually no British Celtic loan words. (All the Latin loanwords are from much later eras, after the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity). That does suggest a whopping transfer of population and cultures, does it not? Or put another way, a catastrophe, and a tectonic event of ethnic replacement and subjugation.
Normally, too, such revisionist accounts simply ignore the sparse literary evidence we do have for the era, because it does not fit their assumptions. You simply can’t do that. Like it or not, Gildas – to take the best known example – is there, it exists, and it can’t be ignored. So are priceless items like the Gallic Chronicle, the Appeal to Aetius, and the Life of Germanus. They all speak of defeat, disaster and massacre.
Reinforcing that impression of catastrophe is the genetic evidence that has emerged over the past decade or so, and especially the study of the Y chromosome passed on in the male line. This suggests a heavy predominance of Anglo-Saxons in the later English gene pool, at the expense of British-Celtic men, who stood very little chance of passing on their genes. Obviously, that turnover was much more marked in some areas than others, but according to some interpretations, around a million British men alive around 400 failed to leave an enduring genetic legacy. British-Celtic women, in contrast, did survive in large numbers, but at humble levels of status.
Furthermore, Christianity survived in eastern England, it was in a very marginal way.
If large British-Celtic minorities did survive in the new Anglo-Saxon world, we have to find some way to explain the linguistic transformation. Some modern scholars have suggested that the two races existed in a kind of apartheid relationship.
A large scholarly literature on Britain in this era points to the impact of multiple factors quite apart from the new invaders, including famine, plague, and climate change, and each contributed to the systematic crisis. Economic dislocation played a critical role, with the collapse of the coinage-based economy, and the evaporation of the Roman Army in Britain as a source of demand. As much as the famous barbarians who invaded and occupied territory, nautical pirates made the sea routes impossible and seized Roman treasure ships, grabbing the money that should have paid the legions. That contributed powerfully to severing Britain from the empire, and to the ensuing economic collapse. All these factors played their cumulative part, and created a perfect storm: this is what Dark Ages are all about. Each of these elements would in its way contribute to a demographic crisis, and a general collapse of populations.
None of those factors, in my view, was as significant as the incessant cycle of wars and invasions, which would have contributed overwhelmingly to economic collapse, the disruption of food production, and widespread depopulation. To that extent, Gildas had his narrative priorities exactly right.
Next time, I will discuss the warlord societies that emerged out of these disastrous conditions, and how they supplied the context for the creation of emerging British and Irish Christianity.
As I post quite a bit in these late Roman/post Roman topics, it might be useful to share my working bibliography, which you can find here.