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Gildas, Letters. (1899). pp. 257-271. 


I. OF EXCOMMUNICATION GILDAS SAYS: Noah did not wish to exclude his son Ham, the teacher of the magic art, from the ark or the communion of his table. Abraham did not shrink back from Aner and Eschol in the fight with the five kings. Lot cursed not the banquets of the Sodomites. Isaac did not refuse to share his table with Abimelech, and Acarath, and Phicol, the captain of the soldiers; but, after eating and drinking, they sware to one another. Jacob had no fear to hold communion with his sons, whom he knew to worship idols. Joseph did not refuse to share the table and cup of Pharaoh. Aaron did not cast away the table of the priest of the idols of Midian. Moses also entered into |259 hospitality and peaceful entertainment with Jethro. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not avoid the feasts of publicans, so that he might save all sinners and harlots.

II. RESPECTING ABSTINENCE FROM FOODS GILDAS SAYS: Abstinence from fleshly foods without love is profitless. Better therefore are those who fast without great display, and do not beyond measure abstain from what God has created, but anxiously preserve a clean heart within (from which they know is the issue of life), than those who refuse to eat flesh or delight themselves in worldly foods, who ride not in vehicles and on horseback, and because of these things regard themselves as superior to others. To these men death enters by the windows of pride.

III. RESPECTING THE LAST DAYS GILDAS SAYS IN HIS EPISTLES: Excessively evil times shall come, and men shall be lovers of self, covetous, boastful, haughty, railers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, impure, without natural affection, without peace, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, holding the good in hate, traitors, headstrong, puffed up, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Many shall perish doing evil, as the Apostle says having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, being ignorant |261 of God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they do not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. They find fault with all brethren who have not, along with them, carried out their inventions and presumptions. These, whilst they eat bread by measure, glory on that account beyond measure: whilst they use water, they drink at the same time of the cup of hatred: they take their enjoyment simultaneously of dry dishes and back-biting; as they lengthen their vigils, they nevertheless brand certain men while soundly sleeping, saying as if to the feet and other members: "If thou be not head, as I am, I shall count thee as nothing." This assurance is given, not so much out of love as of contempt, at the time when they are musing on their leading principles; they prefer servants to lords, the common herd to kings, lead to gold, iron to silver, the prop (to the vine). In this way they give preference to fasting over love, to vigils over righteousness, to their own imagination over harmony; they prefer the cell to the church, severity to humility, in fine, man to God. They are bent not on what the Gospel, but on what their own will commands; not what the Apostle, but what pride teaches; without observing that the position of stars in heaven is unequal, and that the offices of angels are unequal. These are men that fast, which, unless they follow after other virtues, profits nothing. The others, taught of God, with full purpose follow after love, which is the highest fulness of the law, since the harps of the Holy Spirit say All our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment. But these bellows of the devil say, perhaps to better men whose angels see the face of the Father, Hold aloof from us, for ye are unclean. To this the Lord makes answer, These will be smoke in my wrath and fire burning continually. Not those that despise brethren: the Lord calls the poor blessed, not the haughty poor but the meek; neither the envious, but those that weep for either their own or others' sins; those who hunger and thirst, not for water with scorn of other men, but for righteousness; nor those who hold others in contempt, but the merciful; those not of a proud but of a pure heart; not those severe to others, but the peace-makers; not those who bring wars, but those who suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, are certainly the men who possess the kingdom of heaven. |263 

IV. OF MONKS, GILDAS SAYS: Those who come from a meaner monastery1 to a more perfect----from one whose abbot has so far degenerated from God's work that he deserves not to be received to the table of saints, but to be accused of the crime of fornication, not as a matter of suspicion but of patent evil----such monks receive to you, without scruple, as men fleeing from the flame of hell, holding no consultation whatever with their abbot. Those, however, whose abbot we do not exclude from the table of the saints because of evil report, we ought not to receive against his will. How much more 2 ought we not to receive those coming from abbots that are holy, and in no other way suspect except that they possess cattle and carriages, either because of the custom of their country or their own weakness, things which do less injury to their owners, if it be with humility and patience, than to those who hold ploughs and fix mattocks in earth with prejudice and pride.

ITEM.----When the ship is wrecked, who can swim, let him swim.

But whatever superabundance there be of worldly things to a monk, must be referred to luxury and wealth; and what he is driven to possess by necessity, not by choice, so that he shall not fall into want, will not be counted to him for evil. For the principal ornaments of the body, belonging to the head, ought not to scorn the inferior ones, and it is not right for the constant utilities of the. hands to be haughty towards the higher things. Is it not the case, |265 that neither these nor those (the head), can say to each other, We have no need of you, being things which appertain to the common benefit of the same body? I have said these things, so that bishops may know, that, just as the inferior clergy ought not to despise them, so also ought not they to despise the clergy, as the head ought not the other members.

V. GILDAS SAYS: An abbot of the stricter rule 3 should not admit a monk of another abbot somewhat more lax. Also, the more lax should not detain his monk when inclined to stricter ways. 

Priests and bishops have in truth an awful judge, to whom, not to us, it appertains to judge of them in both worlds.

VI. GILDAS.----Cursed is he that moves boundaries, certainly those of his neighbour. Let each 4 abide wherein he was called with God, so that neither be the chief changed, except by the will of those subject to him, nor the one that is subject obtain the place of a superior, except with the advice of an older. What things are honourable with us, we surround these with fuller honour. It is therefore salutary for bishops and abbots to judge those subject to them, whose blood, if they rule them not well, the Lord will ask at their hands: let those that are disobedient to fathers be as the gentiles and the publicans; and to all men, both good and bad, besides those subject to them, that word of the apostle applies, counting all men, etc. |267 That judgment about the uncertain issue of life has come to pass when we read in scripture of an apostle lost by covetousness, and a thief, by confession, carried to heaven.

VII. ITEM.----It is better for co-bishops and co-abbots, as well as fellow-subjects, not to judge. As to men of evil odour in anything bad, let men, however, in no way make fully clear that they think of them by report, but gently rebuke them with patience. These men, as far as they can conscientiously do it, they ought to avoid as men suspected (but without excommunicating them as really guilty and excluding them from their table, or from church communion) when some cause, arising from necessity, or agreement, or public speaking, demands it. Let them reprove those men that they do not act rightly, because we cannot pass condemnation upon them for this. While they communicate unworthily, it may be that we, by our evil thoughts, arc communicating with demons. But those whom we know without any doubt to be fornicators, unless they do penance in the regular way, we exclude from communion and table, to whatever order they have belonged by rule. As that saying is, If any man is named a brother and is a fornicator, etc. It is on account of well-proved cases of great sins,5 for no other reason, that we ought to exclude brethren from the communion of the altar and of our table, when the time demands it. |269 

VIII. GILDAS.----To the wise man truth shines from whatsoever mouth it has issued forth.

IX. GILDAS.----Miriam is condemned with leprosy, because she agreed with Aaron in blaming Moses on account of his Ethiopian wife. This we should fear who disparage good princes because of indifferent faults.6


X. GILDAS SAYS: The Britons are contrary to the whole world [enemies to Roman usages not only in the mass, but also in tonsure, because, along with the Jews, they serve the shadows of things to come rather than the truth].7 |271 

XI. THE ROMANS SAY:8 The tradition is that the tonsure of the British took its origin from Simon Magus, whose tonsure reached only from ear to ear, following the very excellence of the tonsure of sorcerers, by which only the fore part of the forehead was wont to be covered. But that the first originator of this tonsure in Ireland was a swine-herd9 of King Loegaire mac Neill, is made evident by the word of Patrick. From him nearly all the Irish assumed this tonsure. |273 

[Selected footnotes renumbered and placed at the end]

1. 2 Loco viliore. The word locus by itself stands not rarely for " monastery," as in Columbanus' letter, primae conversionis loca reliquunt, where also conversio means the assumption of the monastic life. The Welsh compound, mynach-log, shows the same word (monachi locus).

We gather from this passage that the monastic communities in Biitainhad no regular order of intercommunion with one another, every monastery being independent of every other; whereby, in cases of degeneracy on the part of an abbot, the monks were encouraged to abandon him by the ready reception offered in another monastery. This might be a locus perfectior, and the desertion was carried out without any communication with the abbot, when the un-cleanness of his life was evident to all. The Hibernensis, xxix, 12, directs that a monk is bound to leave a wicked abbot (debet monachus. abbatem valde malum deserere). But if the abbot of an " inferior" monastery were in church communion, monks that left him were not to be received except with his assent, even though they were in search of a more perfect discipline. As between monasteries, there evidently existed no higher authority to command uniform rules of life: it was that early time of their history when the character of individual cloisters was determined and known by the character of the abbot himself, who was generally the founder. A new and extensive development of monasticism was taking place, the result of that revived religious life which, first in Wales and afterwards in Ireland, was inspired by Gildas and by the friends who urged him to write the De Excidio; in Ireland it began with Finnian, a disciple of Gildas, at Clonfert; never theless the time was naturally productive also of great diversity and gradation of reputed " perfection," and the fervour which caused it stamped out the indolent bad abbot, by countenancing desertion on the part of his monks.

2. 1 Quanta magis. One seems to find here a wise moderation on the part of Gildas, wherein he does not yield to the excessive growing strictness that may have prevailed in some quarters. There existed suspicion of some abbots, because they performed their journeys riding, or in carriages, instead of barefooted, with the simple staff. But Gildas is willing to make concessions upon the ground of habit or weakness, so that monks who deserted abbots upon such pleas as these were not to be received into the better (perfectior) monastery.

ITEM, ETC. Only found in Hibernensis; there it immediately follows superbia.

3. 1 The growing difference between monasteries meets us again here, but now differentiated by the Rule, the Regula, of each, though personified as well in the character of the abbot. One rule is more lax, remissior, the other more severe, districtior; the victory, however, at this period was for the latter. The present direction, while favouring the growing tendency, by instructing the less strict abbot in no way to curb the ardour of a monk who aims at a severer life, is intended to soften an inevitable change; this it does by recommending that the monastery of the stricter rule should not open its doors too readily to monks who may abandon the less strict community.

4. 2 Hibernensis, xxxviii, 31, from Unusquisque to obtineat, with the heading: " Respecting remaining in every vocation." Episcopis abbatibusque: the bishop and the abbot seem to be placed on a par in this extract, and therefore one might be led to infer that we have here an indication of a tendency in the direction of that cloistral pre-eminence which is regarded as so marked a feature of Celtic ecclesiastical life. How indefinite the idea regulating the relation of monasteries to the more ancient episcopal organisation of the Church were in the West, even after the middle of the fifth century, is shown by the long dispute between Faustus,'abbot of Lerins, and Theodore, bishop of Frejus. The monastery, as such, was the home of a community of laymen; the abbot at its head might be a layman; any cleric who entered it was a layman in relation to his abbot, and to the other members of the fraternity. But the cleric was also bound by the usages of the episcopal organisation, which had had its own growth in the Church previous to the rise of monasticism. A presbyter owed obedience to his bishop; a bishop had a high and definite authority in the Church as to worship, and discipline----perhaps all the higher, where, as in Gaul, the metropolitan system was but imperfectly developed, or in Britain, where it had never existed. How, then, were these older powers and relations to be kept intact, face to face with the absolute authority of an abbot? In Gaul the position of the bishop became secure in general acceptance, as superior to the abbot and his monastery with certain fixed limitations, but in Britain and Ireland the position of the abbot seems to have acquired an increasingly more independent character.* The obedience due to him is regarded by Gildas here as parallel to that of the clergy to their bishop.

* For Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries we may refer to the canons of the third Council of Aries, A.D. 455; Thomassinus, Vetus et Nova Disciplina, I, Lib. iii, c. 26. Hefele, Conciliengesch., ii, 583. The sense of an earlier time is, in a very interesting way, as usual, shown by Jerome in his Ep. 14, 8, ad Heliod., e.g., Sed alia, ut ante perstrinxi, monachorum est causa, alia clericorum. Monachus si ceciderit, rogabit pro eo sacerdos; pro sacerdotis lapsu quis rogaturus esset? also Ep. 52, ad Nepotianum.

5. 6 Principalium vitiorum. The fourth of the Instntctiones of Columbanus treats of "The eight leading vices" (De octo vitiis principalibus). Octo sunt vitia principalia, quae mergunt hominem in interitum; gula, fornicatio, cupiditas, ira, tristitia, accedia (a)khdi=a, in old English accidie), vana gloria, superbia; that is, gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, bitterness, vain glory, pride. The list is first met with in Cassian's Institutes, bk. v, i, and Collat., v, 2, which formed the basis for all similar lists current in the Celtic Churches. We have the same also in the Regula of Columbanus, c, 8.

6. 1 These words do not appear in the Cambridge MS.; they are taken from Hibern., xxxvii, 5, under the heading, " Princes are not to be censured upon a trivial charge."

7. 2 This extract from Hibern., lii, 6, seems exceedingly doubtful as assigned to Gildas: the first four words may be his, but the remainder will be best regarded as a gloss added by the compiler of the Irish collection, at a time when the Church of Ireland had adopted Roman customs, while the British churches still held aloof.

In the first four words of X. we hear an echo of the opening chapters of the De Excidio; the remainder repeats assertions made during the Conference at Whitby, when North Britain was won over by the influence of Wilfrid to the adoption of Roman usages; it repeats also the main argument advanced by Aldhelm of Malmesbury, in the letter which he wrote to the king and bishops of Damnonia, by the direction of the Council of Hatfield. Wilfrid, in that Conference of 664, maintains that Picts and Britons " fight with foolish toil against the whole world;" that they derive their custom (in this case their observance of Easter) from a time " when the Church was judaizing in many things " (Beda, H. E., iii, 25; Aldhelm's letter, Man. Germaniae Hist., Epp., iii, 231-235).

Although the extract cannot be regarded as conveying to us any words of Gildas, it has, nevertheless, a real interest as a summary of points in which the Church of Britain was " contrary to the whole world." From Beda's History and Aldhelm's letter we gather that the Britons were particularly regarded as stiff-necked, because of their unwillingness to change in three or four usages. These were, the time of the celebration of Easter, the tonsure, and their mode of administering the rites of baptism; a fourth is introduced in this Extract which may well have been included in the " alia plurima unitati ecclesiasticae contraria," mentioned by Beda (H. E., ii, 2). This is the British Liturgy, or Missa. Compliance with Roman customs brings to the Irish Church this new conviction, that the Churches of Britain were schismatic; "the precepts of your bishops," Aldhelm is bold to say to them, " are not in accord with the Catholic faith." The Roman system represented a newer, better development of church life: British (and Irish) opposition, on the other hand, was in reality mainly a reluctance to break with the past, by a people tenacious in their adherence to everything old: however, after a long and bitter strife, the Irish, the North British, the Picts, and eventually the Welsh, consented to the changes required of them. Yet the conformity was but partial, as we learn from the fragments remaining to us, and particularly as to Ireland, from the Life of St. Malachias, who became Bishop of Armagh in the year 1126. If we note the chief points' in which the British were regarded in church life as " hostile to Roman customs (moribus Romanis)," they seem to be the four following:----

1. The British liturgy: it was in no way strange that in Britain there should be a liturgy, or missa, different from the Roman; several extant Gallic forms show that great diversity prevailed in Gaul and Germany until the time of Charles the Great. There is a Prankish capitulary of the year 742, which even ordains that every priest was to draw up for his own use a book of the altar-service, subject to the approval of the bishop. A similar diversity must have prevailed in Ireland and Britain during the sixth century; in the anonymous Catalogue of Irish Saints, the Second Order (c. A.D. 599-665) is described as having diversae missae, and also as having " received a missa from the Britons David bishop, Gillas (Gildas) and Docus" (Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, ii, pp. 492-493). Unfortunately, no documents of this peculiarly Celtic liturgy have survived; the Stowe Missal, of which Todd and MacCarthy place the authorship about seventy years after the death of Gildas, and Warren brings down to the ninth century, shows a predominant Roman character, though with numerous traces of old Celtic features; these again plainly indicate a close relationship with Gallican liturgical forms.

2. Tonsure: this second point of difference played an important part in the schism between the British and English, that is the Roman, Churches. The British tonsure, here described as being frontal from ear to ear, and not coronal like the Roman, is also, in similar words, twice described in the Catalogue of Irish Saints, ab aure usque ad aurem. A full account of the beliefs held respecting these two, the Roman derived from St. Peter, and a symbol of the one Church, the British from Simon Magus, and a symbol of schism, will be found in the letter of Aldhelm referred to above, and in the interesting letter of Abbot Ceolfrid to Naibron, King of the Picts, reproduced at length in Beda's History, v, 41 (p. 342 in Plummer's edition).

3. Celebration of Easter: the third point of difference, though not actually mentioned here, may, notwithstanding, be the real implication of the reference to Jews (cum ludaeis). When the fourteenth day of the vernal moon fell upon a Sunday, the Roman and Eastern Churches celebrated Easter upon the following Sunday, in order to avoid holding the feast on the same day as the Jews: the Celts, however, following a more ancient usage, observed their Easter even on the fourteenth moon, provided it were the Sunday, and so appeared to act "with the Jews" (Beda, H.E., ii, 2; v, 21). One inconvenient result, in practical life, of this difference, is pointed out by Beda; that is to say, two neighbouring churches might be engaged at the same time, the one in the glad joyous services of Eastertide, the other in the severe exercise of Lenten fasts.

4. Mode of " completing" baptism: this fourth point we find advanced by Augustine in his conference with the British bishops: one of his three final demands was, that they should complete the ministry of baptism according to the usage of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church (ut ministerium baptizandi juxta morem sanctae Romanae et apostolicae ecclesiae compleatis). On the meaning of this compleatis one may adduce the following facts among others. In the Life of St. Brigid we read of a vision where two priests anoint the head of a girl, "completing the order of baptism in the usual way" (ordinem baptismi complentes consueto more); the Stowe Missal prescribes the anointing on the forehead (in cerebrum in fronte) with chrism, to be performed by a presbyter: St. Bernard, in his Life of St. Malachi, mentions the (to his mind) absence of the rite of confirmation in Ireland, and (as understood by him) its restoration through St. Malachi as one of the consnctudines sanctae Romanae ecclesiae (Opp., tom. i, 1473). Irish and British thus seem to have preserved an older custom, called Eastern, because it has to this day continued in Eastern Churches, wherein chrism was administered by a presbyter; that is, to revert to Augustine's word, wherein baptism was " completed" in a non-Roman fashion.

8. 1 This Fragment may be found printed and quoted as part of Fragment X, but the introductory words, Romani dicunt, seem to demand a separate place. They, and the whole, are certainly impossible as words of Gildas; in the second edition of Wasserschleben's Kanonensammlung they appear as Hibern.^ lii, 6, and are printed "Romani dicunt," with " Gildas ait" preceding, under the general title: De tonsura Brittonum et solemnitate et missa. By " Romans" must be understood those who, in the English Church, represented the Roman contention that the native Celtic Church was deviating from "the unity of the Catholic Church," by its persistent attachment to the frontal tonsure. While the British regarded their peculiar tonsure as derived from St. John, calling it tonsura S. Johannis, or even from St. James (tonsura S. Jacobi) the English gave it a schismatic character and origin by tracing it to Simon Magus.; in Ireland, those of the same way of thinking, found a heathen origin, by tracing it to the swine-herd of King Loegaire mac Neill (A.D. 428-463). The one fiction can be no more credible than the other, as the universality of the custom proves; traces of it were to be found even on the Continent during the sixth and seventh centuries (Vide Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, p. 509).

9. 2 Subulcum: this word is regarded by some as a proper name, whereby the originator of the Irish tonsure is made to be Subulcus, a son of King Loegaire, instead of his swine-herd. Filii, however, stands here for mac=Welsh map. According to the Book of Armagh (c. 9), this heathen king, who remained a heathen, notwithstanding his formal conversion, reigned at Tara, when St. Patrick visited him and performed many wonders in his presence. In the Analecta Bollandiana (i, 555), the name is printed Loiguire nomine filius Neill.

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