Transitions – the whimsical words of Gildas

A piece of fiction about Gildas, the alleged author of ‘On the Ruin of Britain’ in sixth century Britain

 

When my Lord calls me to him, to read to him from my youthful work, I rush, as much as an old man can, to do his bidding. His fire is always high and warms me for the first time all day. Sometimes the wood is wet and the fire smokes, or the wind blows down the small chimney and forces the smoke to spread throughout the cold and drafty woody hall. It can make it hard to breathe and speak the words my Lord wants to hear.

I used to fear that my Lord would grow tired of his game and banish me from the great hall, forcing me to shiver in my room, no more than a damp cell in the cellars. I know better now.

He feeds me, clothes me and keeps me warm. Few would think to keep an old, nearly blind man from his death. Quite often I fall asleep before the fire so that I can stay warm all night long, only stumbling back to my cell by the grey light of dawn.

My lord is a hard man and yet he seems to understand his role and perform it well. I’m no longer surprised by this. He’s a great man and can speak the Latin of my youth even if no one else in the hall can.

He’s much less a barbarian than I expected. He’s clever enough to know who I once was and to have read my work and understood its significance. Whilst I didn’t write under my own name, my friends and colleagues knew that it was I who’d written the words and that it was I who lambasted all the tyrants in my land. Worse, they knew that it was I who criticized the vilest of them all by failing to mention him at all, damning him more with my silence than with my words.

In my youth I rebelled against the changes that were infecting my land and I wrote a sermon. I feared for my people and called for them to redeem their ways: to let God back into their lives so that the Saxon raiders could be defeated with God’s help. I meticulously researched my sermon, writing it in my God’s Latin.

Every night my Lord makes me read the miswritten words of my youth. I start at the beginning of my sermon and by the end of a few weeks I’m finished and must start again.

Sometimes my lord doesn’t really listen to my words. He’s too busy drinking and laughing with his friends and underlings. Yet, whenever I reach my descriptions of the weak and twisted former tyrants of my land, I know that he’s quiet and listening to my words, his intelligent eyes, laser like and penetrating. I once puzzled over this but now I understand why he listens so intently.

Whilst he may not be the sort of leader I demanded in my youth, I think that he does his best to live up to the ideals that I described. He doesn’t debauch himself or look for an easy way out of the difficult situations he finds himself in. I think that he’s listening to me because he wants to ensure he doesn’t become one of those tyrant’s I speak of.

Whilst everyone else thinks I was a youthful fool and an idiot, he hopes to live up to my archetype. He wants to be the person I called for and asked my God for. He wants to be better than all who’ve gone before.

I’m not one of my lord’s advisers and I’m never called upon to give my counsel. I’m old and shabby and though loath to say it, smelly. Yet in my own way I think I counsel my lord every night. It’s better than being one of his advisers. I’m safe in the knowledge that he listens to me and heeds my warnings, unlike his warriors who shout in vain to be heard.

The land of my birth is changed. The Saxon raiders wanted our wealth but took our land. They robbed the native British people of the lives they thought they’d have. There are no longer flourishing towns where the wealthy and well educated converse in Latin amongst elaborate stone buildings.

Instead there’s a new language and Latin is only preserved amongst a few wondering priests. The towns are busy and bustling but lacking in stone buildings. There are no longer any lawgivers who need to speak the language of the Empire of the Caesars.

There’s a new world and nothing is as it was meant to be when I was a child, when I watched the soldiers with their head gear and hooded visors march smartly throughout the land.

It‘s taken me many years but now I see things so much more clearly than when I was first brought here, against my will and screaming my innocence. I see that my Lord is right to do what he does and to rule the way he does.

I’m honest enough to admit that in the grand scheme of things nothing fundamental has actually changed under the Saxon overlords.

My lord’s father, the man I besmirched by not writing about him so long ago, was little different to the men in Rome who used to send their written orders. He had the same needs and wants. On balance, he was a better man for his ambition was smaller and easier to achieve.

I realise that I’m honoured. I may live in the cold and the dirt and be filthy and smelly, but I’m witnessing the beginnings of something good and new.

My Lord understands this and I hope that when my body is too tired to go on, he’ll remember the passages I read to him and continue to be a good and just lord as the Roman England of my youth becomes the Saxon England of the future.

Anglo Saxon or more correctly, Anglo-Danish England and the Norman Conquest

I’m an Anglo-Saxonist at heart (or indeed any ‘British’ kingdom from about the year 500-1000). I don’t know why, but I love everything about this time period. Although my first passion was Elizabeth I and some of the Tudors, II read mostly about the years 500 until the Stuarts but get a little ‘bored’ when it becomes more modern (I know why but I’m not confessing to that here). 

Yet, many people seem to think that British history starts with ‘1066 and all that’ and having been doing some research of late, I think I just might have devised a reason for this.

The Anglo-Saxons, or the Anglo-Danish, or the early ‘English’ kingdom(s) if you prefer, arise out of the mists of the past (don’t use that naughty phrase about the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon England) as shadowy characters that can never be quite fully glimpsed. They didn’t live in ‘castles’ as we know them, they didn’t fight on horseback with shiny armour and swords and triangular shields, they actually liked their women (go Anglo-Saxons) and they seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, quite welcoming to any who came to their shores (in general), or maybe I should say that they were quite good at co-habiting with different nationalities. They used funny words, like witan and aetheling. They had funny names like Aethelred and Aethelflaed and their houses were built from wood.

Now the Normans, they’re a whole different society. They just about did all those things above, and had good proper names like William and Henry and Matilda. They’re familiar to us and even though they changed the national language from Old English with a bit of Latin, to mostly French and a bit more Latin, those words became a part of our society and we accept them as normal. The Norman Conquest was no steady infiltration, as it appears the original Anglo-Saxon settlers initiated, and then the Vikings, and then the Danish. No, the Norman Conquest swept the board clean, and into the void, they poured all aspects of their society and it was very different to anything that had gone before.

The onset of feudalism, the highly stratified society that formed all combined with the other changes to make what had gone before even more alien. And of course, the chroniclers of that period helped to disperse those ideas down to today’s historians.

Effectively, some sort of jarring rift occurred with the Norman Conquest. 1065 became the last year of one ideal that had governed Anglo-Saxon England for nearly 600 years, and 1067 became the first year of an ideal that would govern from then on, and in doing so, made everything that had gone on before seem too strange for modern audiences to even comprehend, or want to comprehend. And it’s a shame because the Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture and a fascinating history, that was so much more than having a fight with France, or trying to ‘nick’ the throne from your father, or your brother, or your uncle, or trying to take over the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish.

The entire outlook of Anglo-Saxon England was different to the Normans and that’s why I think many people don’t bond with the Anglo-Saxon age. The lack of familiarity makes it too hard, too uncomfortable and maybe, too much work! So, hats off to all my fellow Anglo-Saxonists. Enjoy untangling the web of unfamiliarity and remember, when it all gets a bit too much, you can always take a ‘breather’ in the post Conquest period!

 

Academic or ‘commercial’ history?

I’ve been reading a number of books of late, and the dazzling difference between academic and commercial history has made itself frightfully clear on a number of occasions. I’m not going to name any names but in the last week alone, I’ve read an account of the fifteen year run up to the Norman Conquest that shocked me (in fact I’ve read two), and likewise, I’ve read about four different interpretations of events at Eamont in 927 (I’m working on a novel about the battle of Brunanburh in 937 which can be found on wattpad).

There seem to be a number of reasons for such vast differences of opinion and I think much of it has to come down to the ‘sources’ that historians use, and how sceptical they are, or not, about those sources. In recent years (to clarify, in academia recent years i.e. the last fifty), there have been many new critical interpretations of the early sources available for the pre Norman Conquest period, and clearly, this has a ‘knock-on’ effect to any past interpretations. Those who work in academia work to the latest interpretations, but the more general readership doesn’t move with any changes to academia and that means that outdated ideas are still current and accepted by many.

Of course, another problem for commercial history is that it needs a tag-line to sell. And these claims are often a little outrageous and wholly incorrect. I doubt it’s the author’s fault although maybe it is. If they’ve managed to ‘hook’ an agent and a publisher they’ve made their way through a huge slush pile of query letters and opening chapters. And that can only be because someone thinks it’ll sell. Maybe there’s an anniversary coming up, or a resurgence in interest in that time period (need I say the Tudors!) or a TV and film that touches on the issue. For whatever reason, the author has managed to get their work published, and then the publisher needs to sell it. But, can it really be classified as ‘history’ when it’s riddled with mistakes and errors? Who checks all the facts and makes sure that they’re credible? I haven’t yet found the answer to that.

In the meantime, I’ll have to retreat to the word of academia and the Library, because academic history books are somewhat on the expensive side. (I suppose it’s similar to my aversion to ‘history’ documentaries on the TV. I don’t watch them. They make me cross!)

I admit it, I’m a history nerd!

There seems little point in denying it any longer, and so, I confess to being a history nerd. Although, perhaps not in the way you might think.

I’m not a date person or a ‘fact’ person. My main issue is indeed with supposed ‘facts’ handed down to us by ‘history’ books. How do we know these are ‘facts’? What are the ‘facts’ based on? I find this especially true when historians or authors are trying to present a comprehensive account of the past.

My research for the Earls of Mercia series has highlighted the problem to me time and time again, and so whilst I do more research, I plan on blogging a bit about what I discover and sharing my thoughts on how historical events could be better portrayed. I have the first faint stirrings of an idea of how this could be accomplished, but I’ll hold fire on speaking about it now.

So, if any of you are still awake (this is why I’m saying I’m a nerd!) I plan on blogging about once a week about the Earls of Mercia, well about Leofwine for the time being, and how we ‘know’ what we ‘know’.

For Earls of Mercia fans, you can find some more details on my website.

http://www.earlofmercia/moonfruit.com