Friday, April 20, 2018

London - After the Romans (part one)

By Walter Besant

The only authorities for the events which took place in Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries are Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are other writers - Etherwerd, for instance, who copied the Chronicle, and adds nothing; Nennius, whose work, edited by on Mark the Hermit, in the tenth century, was found in the Vatican. The first edition was published in London in the year 1819, in the original Latin, by Rev. William Gunn. Nennius gives a brief account of King Arthur and his exploits, but he affords little or no information that is of use to us. The work of Richard of Cirencester is extremely valuable on acccount of its topography; it is also interesting as the work of the first English antiquary. But he belonged to the fourteenth century, and has added nothing to the history, of which he knew no more that we ourselves can discover. The book named after Geoffrey of Monmouth is not worth a moment's serious consideration. In Bede's Ecclesiastical History passages may be found which throw side lights onto this period but they are few.

St. Gildas, called Badonicus, is supposed to have been born about the year 520, in Wales. He wrote about the year 560 and is therefore contemporary with the events of which he speaks. His book contains a vast quantity of rhetoric to a very small amount of history. Unfortunately for him, he was called by his admiring fellow-monks in his lifetime, Sapiens - the Sage or Sapient. Perhaps in order to live up to this designation, he was fain to regard himself with so much respect as to assume the garb and language of a prophet, and with what he thought prophectic force, which we now perceive to be ecclesiastical inflation and exaggeration, he proceeded to admonish princes and people of their sins. Every age, to the ecclesiastical prophet, as to the secular satirist, is an age of unbounded profligacy; of vice such as the world has never before witnessed; of luxury advanced to heights hitherto untrodden; of license, wantonness, riot unbridled and unparalleled, insomuchas that Jerusalem, even under the soft influences of Ahola and Aholibah, was righteous and pure in comparison.

No doubt Gildas lived in a most trying and disappointing time. Things went wrong and things went from bad to worse. His own people were defeated and driven continually westward; they couldn not even hold together and fight side by side against the common enemy; religion was forgotten in the fierce struggles for life, and in the fiercer civil dissensions; Saxon, Angle, or Jute, all were alike in that none had any reverence for priest or for Church; the worst passions were aroused. Yet one cannont but think that a lower note might have been struck with greater advantage; and now that it is impossible to learn how far the prophet's admonitions brought repentance to the kings, one regrets that a simple statement of the events in chronological order as they ocurred was not thought necessary to complete a historical work.

As regards the alleged luxury of the time, the monk wrote from a dismal cell, very likely wattled, draughty and cold; his food was poor and scanty; his bed was hard; life to him was mere endurance. The roasted meats (and vegetables), the soft pillows and cushions, the heated rooms of the better sort, seemed wicked luxury, especially when he thought of the conquering Saxon and his ruined country. Of course in every age the wealthy will surround themselves with whatever comforts can be procured. We are in these days, for instance, advanced to an inconceivable height of luxury. One would like to invite the luxurious Cuneglass to spend a day or two with a young man of the present day. Those who were neither rich nor free lived hardly, as they do to this day; those who were young and strong, even though they were not perhaps trained to the use of arms, easily learned how to use them, and when it came to victory or death, they soon recovered the old British spirit.

This is not the place, otherwise it would be intersting to show what a long and gallant stand was made by these people, whom it is customary to call cowardly and luxurious - these ancestors of the gallant Welsh. It is manifest that a period of two hundred yeaers and more of peace almost profound, their frontiers and their coasts guarded for them by the legions of Rome, must have lowered the British spirit. But they quickly recovered. The Arthurian epic, it s certain, has some foundation in fact, and perhaps poor King Cuneglass himself, the bear and butcher, wielded a valiant sword.

In our next installemnt - the facts related by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

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