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Gildas:  De Excidio Britonum - Concerning the Ruin of Britain

J A Giles edition

The Epistle 27 - 39

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27. BRITAIN has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent; whenever they exert themselves to avenge or protect, it is sure to be in favour of robbers and criminals; they have an abundance of wives, yet are they addicted to fornication and adultery; they are ever ready to take oaths, and as often perjure themselves; they make a vow and almost immediately act falsely; they make war, but their wars are against their countrymen, and are unjust ones; they rigorously prosecute thieves throughout their country, but those who sit at table with them are robbers, and they not only cherish but reward them; they give alms plentifully, but in contrast to this is a whole pile of crimes which they have committed; they sit on the seat of justice, but rarely seek for the rule of right judgment; they despise the innocent and the humble, but seize every occasion of exalting to the utmost the bloody-minded; the proud, murderers, the combined and adulterers, enemies of God, who ought to be utterly destroyed and their names forgotten.

They have many prisoners in their gaols, loaded with chains, but this is done in treachery rather than in just punishment for crimes; and when they have stood before the altar, swearing by the name of God, they go away and think no more of the holy altar than if it were a mere heap of dirty stones.

28. Of this horrid abomination, Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia, is not ignorant.

This same year, after taking a dreadful oath (whereby he bound himself first before God, by a solemn protestation, and then called all the saints, and Mother of God, to witness, that he would not contrive any deceit against his countrymen), he nevertheless, in the habit of a holy abbat amid the sacred altars, did with sword and javelin, as if with teeth, wound and tear, even in the bosoms of their temporal mother, and of the church their spiritual mother, two royal youths, with their two attendants, whose arms, although not eased in armour, were yet boldly used, and, stretched out towards God and his altar, will hang up at the gates of thy city, O Christ, the venerable ensigns of their faith and patience; and when he had done it, the cloaks, red with coagulated blood, did touch the place of the heavenly sacrifice. And not one worthy act could he boast of previous to this cruel deed; for many years before he had stained himself with the abomination of many adulteries, having put away his wife contrary to the command of Christ, the teacher of the world, who hath said: "What God hath joined together, let not man separate," and again: "Husbands, love your wives." For he had planted in the ground of his heart (an unfruitful soil for any good seed) a bitter scion of incredulity and folly, taken from the vine of Sodom, which being watered with his vulgar and domestic impieties, like poisonous showers, and afterwards audaciously springing up to the offence of God, brought forth into the world the sin of horrible murder and sacrilege; and not yet discharged from the entangling nets of his former offences, he added new wickedness to the former.

29. Go to now, I reprove thee as present, whom I know as yet to be in this life extant. Why standest thou astonished, O thou butcher of shine own soul? Why cost thou wilfully kindle against thyself the eternal fires of hell? Why cost thou, in place of enemies, desperately stab thyself with shine own sword, with shine own javelin? Cannot those same poisonous cups of offences yet satisfy thy stomach? I look back (I beseech thee) and come to Christ (for thou labourest, and art pressed down to the earth with this huge burden), and he himself, as he said, will give thee rest. Come to him who wisheth not the death of a sinner, but that he should be rather converted and live. Unloose (according to the prophet) the bands of thy neck, O thou son of Sion. Return (I pray thee), although from the far remote regions of sins, unto the most holy Father, who, for his son that will despise the filthy food of swine, and fear a death of cruel famine, and so come back to him again, hath with great joy been accustomed to kill his fatted calf, and bring forth for the wanderer, the first robe and royal ring, and then taking as it were a taste of the heavenly hope, thou shalt perceive how sweet our Lord is. For if thou cost contemn these, be thou assured, thou shalt almost instantly be tossed and tormented in the inevitable and dark floods of endless fire.

30. What cost thou also, thou lion's whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus? Art not thou as the former (if not far more foul) to thy utter destruction, swallowed up in the filthiness of horrible murders, fornications, and adulteries, as by an overwhelming flood of the sea? Hast not thou by hating, as a deadly serpent, the peace of thy country, and thirsting unjustly after civil wars and frequent spoil, shut the gates of heavenly peace and repose against thine own soul? Being now left alone as a withering tree in the midst of a field, remember (I beseech thee) the vain and idle fancies of thy parents and brethren, together with the untimely death that befell them in the prime of their youth; and shalt thou, for thy religious deserts, be reserved out of all thy family to live a hundred years, or to attain to the age of a Methusalem? No, surely, but unless (as the psalmist saith) thou shalt be speedily converted unto our Lord, that King will shortly brandish his sword against thee, who hath said by his prophet, "I will kill, and I will cause to live; I will strike, and I will heal; and there is no one who can deliver out of my hand." Be thou therefore shaken out of thy filthy dust, and with all thy heart converted to Him who hath created thee, that "when his wrath shall shortly burn out, thou mayst be blessed by fixing thy hopes on him." But if otherwise, eternal pains will be heaped up for thee, where thou shalt be ever tormented and never consumed in the cruel jaws of hell.

31. Thou also, who like to the spotted leopard, art diverse in manners and in mischief, whose head now is growing grey, who art seated on a throne full of deceits, and from the bottom even to the top art stained with murder and adulteries, thou naughty son of a good king, like Manasses sprung from Ezechiah, Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians, why art thou so stiff? What! do not such violent gulfs of sin (which thou dost swallow up like pleasant wine, nay rather which swallow thee up), as yet satisfy thee, especially since the end of thy life is daily now approaching? Why cost thou heavily clog thy miserable soul with the sin of lust, which is fouler than any other, by putting away thy wife, and after her honourable death, by the base practices of thy shameless daughter? Waste not (I beseech thee) the residue of thy life in offending God, because as yet an acceptable time and day of salvation shines on the faces of the penitent, wherein thou mayest take care that thy flight may not be in the winter, or on the sabbath day. "Turn away (according to the psalmist) from evil, and do good, seek peace and ensue it," because the eyes of our Lord will be cast upon thee, when thou doest righteousness, and his ears will be then open unto thy prayers, and he will not destroy thy memory out of the land of the living; thou shalt cry, and he will hear thee, and out of thy tribulations deliver thee; for Christ cloth never despise a heart that is contrite and humbled with fear of him. Otherwise, the worm of thy torture shall not die, and the fire of thy burning shall never be extinguished.

32 And thou too, Cuneglasse, why art thou fallen into the filth of thy former naughtiness, yea, since the very first spring of thy tender youth, thou bear, thou rider and ruler of many, and guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear, thou contemner of God, and vilifier of his order, thou tawny butcher, as in the Latin tongue thy name signifies. Why dost thou raise so great a war as well against men as also against God himself, against men, yea, thy own countrymen, with thy deadly weapons, and against God with thine infinite offences? Why, besides thine other innumerable backslidings, having thrown out of doors thy wife, dost thou, in the lust, or rather stupidity of thy mind, against the apostle's express prohibition, denouncing that no adulterers can be partakers of the kingdom of heaven, esteem her detestable sister, who had vowed unto God the everlasting contineney, as the very dower (in the language of the poet) of the celestial nymphs? Why cost thou provoke with thy frequent injuries the lamentations and sighs of saints, by thy means corporally afflicted, which will in time to come, like a fierce lioness, break thy bones in pieces? Desist, I beseech thee (as the prophet saith) from wrath, and leave off thy deadly fury, which thou breathest out against heaven and earth, against God and his flock, and which in time wil1 be thy own torment; rather with altered mind obtain the prayers of those who possess a power of binding over this world, when in this world they bind the guilty, and of loosing when they loose the penitent. Be not (as the apostle saith) proudly wise, nor hope thou in the uncertainty of riches, but in God who giveth thee many things abundantly, and by the amendment of thy manners purchase unto thyself a good foundation for hereafter, and seek to enter into that real and true state of existence which will be not transitory but everlasting. Otherwise, thou shalt know and see, yea, in this very world, how bad and bitter a thing it is for thee to leave the Lord thy God, and not have his fear before shine eyes, and in the next, how thou shalt be burned in the foul encompassing flames of endless fire, nor yet by any manner of means shalt ever die. For the souls of the sinful are as eternal in perpetual fire, as the souls of the just in perpetual joy and gladness.

33. And likewise, O thou dragon of the island, who hast deprived many tyrants, as well of their kingdoms as of their lives, and though the last-mentioned in my writing, the first in mischief, exceeding many in power, and also in malice, more liberal than others in giving, more licentious in sinning, strong in arms, but stronger in working thine own soul's destruction, Maglocune, why art thou (as if soaked in the wine of the Sodomitical grape) foolishly rolling in that black pool of shine offences? Why dost thou wilfully heap like a mountain, upon thy kingly shoulders, such a load of sins? Why dost thou show thyself unto the King of kings who hath made thee as well in kingdom as in stature of body higher than almost all the other chiefs of Britain) not better likewise in virtues than the rest; but on the contrary for thy sins much worse? Listen then awhile and hear patiently the following enumeration of thy deeds, wherein I will not touch any domestic and light offences (if yet any of them are light) but only those open ones which are spread far and wide in the knowledge of all men. Didst not thou, in the very beginning of thy youth, terribly oppress with sword, spear, and fire, the king shine uncle, together with his courageous bands of soldiers, whose countenances in battle were not unlike those of young lions? Not regarding the words of the prophet, who says, "The blood-thirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days," and even if the sequel of thy sins were not such as ensued, yet what retribution couldst thou expect for this offence only at the hands of the just Judge, who hath said by his prophet: "Woe be to thee who spoilest, and shalt not thou thyself be spoiled? and thou who killest, shalt not thyself be killed? and when thou shalt make an end of thy spoiling, then shalt thou thyself fall."

34. But when the imagination of thy violent rule had succeeded according to thy wishes, and thou west urged by a desire to return into the right way, night and day the consciousness of thy crimes afflicted thee, whilst thou didst ruminate on the Lord's ritual and the ordinances of the monks, and then publish to the world and vow thyself before God a monk with no intention to be unfaithful, as thou didst say, having burst through those toils in which such great beasts as thyself were used to become entangled, whether it were love of rule, of gold, or silver, or, what is stronger still, the fancies of thy own heart. And didst thou not, as a dove which cleaves the yielding air with its pinions, and by its rapid turns escapes the furious hawk, safely return to the cells where the saints repose, as a most certain place of refuge? Oh how great a joy should it have been to our mother church, if the enemy of all mankind had not lamentably pulled thee, as it were, out of her bosom! Oh what an abundant flame of heavenly hope would have been kindled in the hearts of desperate sinners, hadst thou remained in thy blessed estate! Oh what great rewards in the kingdom of Christ would have been laid up for thy soul against the day of judgment, if that crafty wolf had not caught thee, who of a wolf wast now become a lamb (not much against thine own will) out of the fold of our Lord, and made thee of a lamb, a wolf like unto himself, again? Oh how great a joy would the preservation of thy salvation have been to God the Father of all saints had not the devil, the father of all castaways, as an eagle of monstrous wings and claws, carried I thee captive away against all right and reason, to the unhappy band of his children? And to be short, thy conversion to righteousness gave as great joy to heaven and earth, as now thy detestable return, like a dog to his vomit, breedeth grief and lamentation: which being done, "the members which should have been busily employed, as the armour of justice for the Lord, are now become the armour of iniquity for sin and the devil;" for now thou dost not listen to the praises of God sweetly sounded forth by the pleasant voices of Christ's soldiers, nor the instruments of ecclesiastical melody, but thy own praises (which are nothing) rung out after the fashion of the giddy rout of Bacchus by the mouths of thy villainous followers, accompanied with lies and malice, to the utter destruction of the neighbours, so that the vessel prepared for the service of God, is now turned to a vessel of dirt, and what was once reputed worthy of heavenly honour, is now cast as it deserves into the bottomless pit of hell.

35. Yet neither is thy sensual mind (which is overcome by the excess of thy follies) at all checked in its course with committing so many sins, but hot and prone (like a young colt that coveteth every pleasant pasture) runneth headlong forward, with irrecoverable fury, through the intended fields of crime, continually increasing the number of its transgressions. For the former marriage of thy first wife (although after thy violated vow of religion she was not lawfully thine, but only by right of the time she was with thee), was now despised by thee, and another woman, the wife of a man then living, and he no stranger, but thy own: brother's son, enjoyed thy affections. Upon which occasion that stiff neck of thine (already laden with sins) is now burdened with two monstrous murders, the one of thy aforesaid nephew, the other, of her who once was thy wedded wife: and thou art now from low to lower, and from bad to worse, bowed, bent, and sunk down into the lowest depth of sacrilege. Afterwards, also didst thou publicly marry the widow by whose deceit and suggestion such a heavy weight of offences was undergone, and take her, lawfully, as the flattering tongues of thy parasites with false words pronounced it, but as we say, most wickedly, to be thine own in wedlock. And therefore what holy man is there, who, moved with the narration of such a history, would not presently break out into weeping and lamentations? What priest (whose heart lieth open unto God) would not instantly, upon hearing this, exclaim with anguish in the language of the prophet: "Who shall give water to my head, and to my eyes a fountain of tears, and I will day and night bewail those of my people, who are slaughtered." For full little (alas!) hast thou with thine ears listened to that reprehension of the prophet speaking in this wise: "Woe be unto you, O wicked men, who have left the law of the most holy God, and if ye shall be born, your portion shall be to malediction, and if ye die, to malediction shall be your portion, all things that are from the earth, to the earth shall be converted again, so shall the wicked from malediction pass to perdition:" if they return not unto our Lord, listening to this admonition: "Son, thou hast offended; add no further offence thereunto, but rather pray for the forgiveness of the former." And again, "Be not slow to be converted unto our Lord, neither put off the same from day to day, for his wrath doth come suddenly." Because, as the Scripture saith, "When the king heareth the unjust word, all under his dominion become wicked." And, the just king (according to the prophet) raiseth up his region. But warnings truly are not wanting to thee, since thou hast had for thy instructor the most eloquent master of almost all Britain. Take heed, thereof, lest that which Solomon noteth, befall thee, which is, "Even as he who stirreth up a sleeping man out of his heavy sleep, so is that person who declareth wisdom unto a fool, for in the end of his speech will he say, What hast thou first spoken? Wash thine heart (as it is written) from malice, O Jerusalem, that thou mayest be saved." Despise not (I beseech thee) the unspeakable mercy of God, calling by his prophet the wicked in this way from their offences: "I will on a sudden speak to the nation, and to the kingdom, that I may root out, and disperse, and destroy, and overthrow." As for the sinner he doth in this wise exhort him vehemently to repent. "And if the same people shall repent from their offence, I will also repent of the evil which I have said that I would do unto them." And again, "Who will give them such an heart, that they may hear me, and keep my commandments, and that it may be well with them all the days of their lives." And also in the Canticle of Deuteronomy, "A people without counsel and prudence, I wish they would be wise, and understand, and foresee the last of all, how one pursueth a thousand and two put to flight ten thousand." And again, our Lord in the gospel, "Come unto me, all ye who do labour and are burdened, and I will make you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart, and ye shall find repose for your souls." For if thou turn a deaf ear to these admonitions, contemn the prophets, and despise Christ, and make no account of us, humble though we be, so long as with sincere piety and purity of mind we bear in mind that saying of the prophet, that we may not be found, "Dumb dogs, not able to bark;" (however I for my part may not be of that singular fortitude in the spirit and virtue of our Lord, as to declare, "To the house of Jacob their sins, and the house of Israel their offences;") and so long as we shall remember that of Solomon, "He who says that the wicked are just, shall be accursed among the people, and odious to nations, for they who reprove them shall have better hopes." And again, "Respect, not with reverence thy neighbour in his ruin, nor forbear to speak in time of salvation." And as long also as we forget not this, "Root out those who are led to death, and forbear not to redeem them who are murdered;" because, as the same prophet says, "Riches shall not profit in the day of wrath, but justice delivereth from death." And, "If the just indeed be hardly saved, where shall the wicked and sinner appear? If as I said, thou scorn us, who obey these texts, the dark flood of hell shall without doubt eternally drown thee in that deadly whirlpool, and those terrible streams of fire that shall ever torment and never consume thee, and then shall the confession of thy pains and sorrow for thy sins be altogether too late and unprofitable to one, who now in this accepted time and day of salvation deferreth his conversion to a more righteous way of life.

37. And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, "Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; "I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon. Let, therefore, God's holy prophets, who are to mortal men the mouth of God, and the organ of the Holy Ghost, forbidding evils, and favouring goodness, answer for us as well now as formerly, against the stubborn and proud princes of this our age, that they may not say we menace them with such threats, and such great terrors of our own invention only, and with rash and over-zealous meddling. For to no wise man is it doubtful how far more grievous the sins of this our time are than those of the primitive age, when the apostle said, "Any one transgressing the law, being convicted by two or three witnesses, shall die, how much worse punishment think ye then that he deserveth, who shall trample under his foot the Son of God?"

38. And first of all appears before us, Samuel, by God's commandment, the establisher of a lawful kingdom, dedicated to God before his birth, undoubtedly known by marvellous signs, to be a true prophet unto all the people, from Dan even to Beersheba, out of whose mouth the Holy Ghost thundereth to all the potentates of the world, denouncing Saul the first king of the Hebrews, only because he did not accomplish some matters commanded him of our Lord, in these words which follow: "Thou hast done foolishly neither yet hast thou kept the commandments of our Lord thy God, that he hath given thee in charge; which if thou hadst not committed, even now had our Lord prepared thy reign over Israel for ever, but thy kingdom shall no farther arise." And what did he commit, whether it were adultery or murder, like to the offences of the present time? No, truly, but broke in part one of God's commandments, for, as one of our writers says, "The question is not of the quality of the sin, but of the violating of the precept." Also when he endeavoured to answer (as he thought): the objections of Samuel, and after the fashion of men wisely to make excuses for his offence in this manner: "Yea, I have obeyed the voice of our Lord, and walked in the way I through which he hath sent me;" with this rebuke was he corrected by him: "What! will our Lord have burnt offerings or oblations, and not rather that the voice of our Lord should be obeyed? Obedience is better than oblations, and to hearken unto him, better than to offer the fat of rams. For as it is the sin of soothsaying to resist, so is it the offence of idolatry not to obey; in regard, therefore, that thou hast cast away the word of our Lord, he hath also cast thee away that thou be not king." And a little after, "Our Lord hath this day rent the kingdom of Israel from thee, and delivered it up to thy neighbour, a man better than thyself. The Triumpher of Israel truly will not spare, and will not be bowed with repentance, neither yet is he a man that he should repent;" that is to say, upon the stony hearts of the wicked: wherein it is to be noted how he saith, that to be disobedient unto God is the sin of idolatry. Let not, therefore, our wicked transgressors (while they do not openly sacrifice to the gods of the Gentiles) flatter themselves that they are not idolaters, whilst they tread like swine the most precious pearls of Christ under their feet.

39. But although this one example as an invincible affirmation might abundantly suffice to correct the wicked; yet, that by the mouths of many witnesses all the offences of Britain may be proved, let us pass to the rest. What happened to David for numbering his people, when the prophet had spake unto him in this sort? Thus saith our Lord: "The choice of three things is offered thee, choose which thou wilt, that I may execute it upon thee. Shall there befall thee a famine for seven years, or shalt thou flee three months before thine enemies, and they pursue thee, or shall there be three days' pestilence in thy land?" For being brought into great straits by this condition, and willing rather to fall into the hands of God who is merciful, than into those of men, he was humbled with the slaughter of seventy thousand of his subjects, and unless with the affection of an apostolic charity, he had desired to die himself for his countrymen, that the plague might not further consume them, saying, "I am he that has offended, I the shepherd have dealt unjustly: but these sheep, what have they sinned? Let thy hand, I beseech thee, be turned against me, and against the house of my father;" he would have atoned for the unadvised pride of his heart with his own death. For what does the scripture afterwards declare of his son? "And Solomon wrought that which was not pleasing before our Lord, and he did not fill up the measure of his good deeds by following the Lord like his father David. And our Lord said unto him, Because thou hast thus behaved thyself, and not observed my covenant and precepts, which I have commanded thee, breaking it asunder; I will divide thy kingdom, and give the same unto thy servant."




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