The following comparisons arose from a discussion on Arthurnet, in summer 2007, of the end of Ch. 25 and beginning of Ch. 26 in Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae, the only early account we have of the Britain in which Arthur would have operated. This particular passage is crucial because it mentions the battle of Badon, and later writers claimed Arthur had led the Britons there. Also, it offers a chronological datum–44 years between two events–which would allow us to date that battle if we understood clearly what Gildas is saying. Those most active in the discussion were Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Kevin Bowman, and Judy Shoaf. First comes Kevin Bowman’s translation, then 3 versions of the original Latin text, then 3 other translations, and finally a breakdown of the Latin sentences into component parts, with translation.
Kevin Bowman’s translation
(1) I have rendered “purpura nimirum indutis,” Gildas’ description of Ambrosius’ deceased parents as “decked in scarlet, no doubt.” Winterbottom places a different emphasis on the “certainty” conveyed by nimirum. More controversially, I have translated “purpura” as “scarlet” instead of purple. This is to emphasize the aspect of “purpura” as being the color of oxygenated blood, which Gildas relies upon elsewhere. Gildas, I believe, is making a pun regarding the circumstances of Ambrosius’ parents’ death [i.e. martyrdom], and is not, as it has conventionally been read, seriously asserting anything about the nobility of Ambrosius’ family.
(2) The relative “quique” (i.e., “qui” + the enclitic conjunction “que”) which begins the clause with the forty-forth year, I am translating with the antecedent, “annum”, the “annus”/”year” of the siege of Mount Badon.
(3) I also have treated the same “annum” as the antecedent of the relative “qui” in the last clause establishing the year of Gildas’ birth.
(4) Finally, I have interpreted the month that has passed as describing when the siege of Mount Badon occurred, not when Gildas was born.
The earliest witness we have to Gildas is the use made by the Venerable Bede of his text in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Based on the 11th and 12th c. mss. of Gildas’s work, it is clear that Bede rewrote Gildas considerably. His version of the passage (book 1, ch. 16) in question is as follows:
AT ubi hostilis exercitus exterminatis dispersisque insulae indigenis, domum reuersus est, coeperunt et illi paulatim uires animosque resumere, emergentes de latibulis, quibus abditi fuerant, et unanimo consensu auxilium caeleste precantes, ne usque ad internicionem usquequaque delerentur. Utebantur eo tempore duce Ambrosio Aureliano, uiro modesto, qui solus forte Romanae gentis praefatae tempestati superfuerat, occisis in eadem parentibus regium nomen et insigne ferentibus. Hoc ergo duce uires capessunt Brettones, et uictores prouocantes ad proelium, uictoriam ipsi Deo fauente suscipiunt. Et ex eo tempore nunc ciues, nunc hostes uincebant, usque ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis, quando non minimas eisdem hostibus strages dabant, XLmo circiter et IIIIo anno aduentus eorum in Brittaniam.
[But when the army, the hostile natives having been exterminated or dispersed, returned home, they began a little to get back their strength and spirit, emerging from the hiding-places to which they had fled, and with one accord praying for heavenly help that they would not be killed or destroyed. They had, at that time, Ambrosius Aurelianus as their leader, a modest man, who perhaps alone of the Roman stock had survived the aforesaid tempest, in which his family, which bore a royal and distinguished name, were killed. With him leading the Britons gathered strength, and provoking the conquerors to battle, got the victory thanks to the favor of God himself. And from that time on, now the citizens, now the enemy triumphed, up to the year of the siege of Badon hill, when they administered a not inconsiderable slaughter to the enemies, about 40 and 4 years from their arrival in Britain –J.S.]
Below are two manuscript versions of this passage from the De Excidio Britanniae . A lengthy clause modifying the subject “reliquiae” (“remnants[of the Britons]”) is italicized in the first example and omitted from others, including translations, though the full sentence is analyzed below (and also survives, much toned down, in Bede). Texts courtesy of Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, supplemented from his website!
roborante deo reliquiae quibus confugiunt undique de diuersis locis miserrimi ciues, tam audie quam apes alueari procella imminente, simul deprecantes eum tot corde et, ut dicitur, innumeris ‘onerantes aethera uotis’, ne ad internicionem usque delerentur, duce ambrosio aureliano uiro modesto, qui solus forte romanae gentis tantae tempestatis collisione occisis in eadem parentibus purpura nimirum indutis superfuerat, cuius nunc temporibus nostris suboles magnopere auita bonitate degenerauit, uires capessunt, uictores prouocantes ad proelium, quis uictoria domino annuente cessit.
ex eo tempore nunc ciues, nunc hostes, uincebant, ut in ista gente experietur dominus solito more praesentem israelem, utrum diligat eum an non; usque ad annum obsessionis badonici montis, nouissimaeque ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis, quique quadragesimus quartus, ut noui, orditur annus, mense iam uno emenso, qui et meae natiuitatis est.
…roborati a deo celi…
duce itaque ambrosio aureliano uiro modesto, qui solus fortis superfuerat de romana gente occisis parentibus purpura indutus in eadem collisione tante tempestatis, cuius etiam nunc nostris temporibus suboles magnopere ab auita bonitate degenerauit, uires capescunt, uictores prouocantes ad proelium, quibus uictoria domino annuente ex uoto cessit.
et ex eo tempore nunc ciues, nunc hostes, uincebant, ut in ista gente experietur dominus solito more superstitem israelem, utrum diligat eum an non; usque ad annum obsessionis Badonici montis, nouissimaeque ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis, quo quadragesimus [quartus], ut noui, or[itur] annus, mense uno iam emenso, qui et meae natiuitatis est annus.
Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’s comments on the various versions:
The Avranches Manuscript: Dumville has suggested it may preserve better readings, most notoriously in giving us the name of tyranno uortigerno).
It looks to me as if Bede had a manuscript of Gildas with features of both the Avranches and the Cottonian versions; does this mean that Mommsen’s text – which has become the standard – retains inferior readings because of his reliance in MS Cotton Vitallius A.vi? This might mean that we should treat the quo quadragesimus quartus… annus seriously (and the ablative quo more directly connects us with eo tempore than Mommsen’s reading).
We also need to recognise that Bede read his version of the text as implying that the siege was in the forty-fourth year after something (and he assumed that it was from the Adventus Saxonum, which I find highly implausible, knowing how Gildas felt about the Saxon furciferi!).
J. Shoaf’s comments:
The Cotton ms. version looks to me to be closer to the sentence structure Gildas would have used in the early 6th century. The Avranches version has a more relaxed, medieval/vernacular word order. The reviser/copyist does not trust the Latin endings to convey syntactical relationships: Gildas’s “roborante deo” and “romanae gentis” become “roborati a deo” and “de romane gente,” with prepositions to clarify what goes with what. Gildas’s “tantae tempestatis collisione” (which goes with “superfuerat,” survived) is moved after the “in eadem” (in Gildas referring to the family killed in “the same” tempest which AA survived). He/she is trying to break Gildas’s sentences down into more digestible chunks without losing anything. Bede’s simplification is masterful, Avranche’s confused.
It is still of course possible that Avranches (or Bede) preserves elements of the original text which were for some reason omitted from the mss. with which Mommsen worked.
To repeat Keith’s points, Bede famously eliminated the reference to Gildas’s birth and placed Badon about 44 years after the coming to Britain of the Saxons. While Gildas implies that the battle of Badon was a God-given triumph of the Britons over the wicked Saxon “furciferi”, it seems possible that Bede read this backwards and is saying that the “enemies” defeated at Badon were the Britons and the virtuous “cives” were the (at that time quite uncivic) Anglo-Saxons.
These are all translations of the Mommsen (Cotton) text, omitting the italicized passage. Notes on the translations follow below. Phrases in square brackets are paraphrases.
J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals, 1891
[The poor remnants of our nation, being strengthened by God] …took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.
J. Shoaf comment:
Giles implies that Ambrosius’s family were elevated to the purple (one possible interpretation of “clothed with purple”, emphasizing the passivity of the parents thus clothed). See Winterbottom’s note below.
Giles takes as the subject of the verbs at the end of ch. 25 AA’s degenerate descendents. The former seems to be correct, “reliquae” being a plural for the verb “capessunt” and the participle “prouocantes,” However, while “suboles” (progeny) is singular, and the verb “capessunt” and participle “provocantes” are plural; their subject should be “reliquiae,” the “remnants” of the British.
Giles follows Bede in making the 44 years into the time from the time of the landing of the Saxons (Gildas’s Chapter 23) until the battle, though he acknowledges Gildas’s reference to his own birth as well.
Michael Winterbottom, 1978 (transcribed by Kevin Bowman)
God gave strength to the survivors…. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentlemen who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way. From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up to till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed.
Notes (J. Shoaf):
This translation breaks up what is one long long sentence into shorter ones. Otherwise a meat and potatoes “classic” interpretation, including the identification of the present moment as “44 years since Badon and my birth.”
Coe & Young, Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend, 1995
[The survivors, strengthened by God, were led by] a gentleman, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who perhaps alone of all the Romans had survived the impact of such a tempest; truly his parents, who had worn the purple, were overcome in it. In our times his stock have degenerated greatly from their excellent grandfather. With him our people regained their strength, challenged the victors to battle and with the lord acceding it fell to us. From then on now our citizens, and then the enemies conquered; so on this people, as the Lord is accustomed, he could make trial of his latter day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted up until the year of the seige of Badon Hill, almost the most recent defeat of the malefactors and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; and as I know since then 44 years and one month have already passed.
Excerpts from Winterbottom’s notes, with comments:
“CERTAINLY. The Latin might alternatively mean ‘his parents, who had certainly worn purple’.”
(Kevin Bowman: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and others have convinced me that Winterbottom probably should have gone with the alternate translation here)
“PURPLE. /Purpuram sumere/ is the late empire term for to ‘become emperor’; /induere/ carries a slight suggestion of ‘assume without adequate qualification’. “
(Shoaf: this seems to be the shade of meaning that Giles was going for.)
“THE YEAR. The battle was fought in the year of Gildas’ birth, about 43 years before he wrote. He wrote before the death of Maelgwn, in the mid sixth century Justinian plague, in or before 550 (33.1 note); and before the monastics became a mass movement, in the 540’s (65.2 note). The date should therefore be in the 490’s.”
Analysis & translation of the Latin text
This is based on Mommsen’s edition. Last sentence of ch. 25:
(1) phrase + clause locating the action in time (not quoted in the transcriptions above): tempore igitur interueniente aliquanto, cum recessissent domum crudelissimi praedones, [After some time had passed, when the cruel predators had withdrawn from the land,]
(2) phrase about God’s involvement: roborante deo [with God helping]
(3) subject of main clause: reliquiae, [those who were left,]
(4) “quibus” clause modifying subject: quibus confugiunt undique de diuersis locis miserrimi ciues, [to whom the miserable citizens fled, from all sides and from various places,]
(5) simile clause parallel to (4): tam avide quam apes alueari procella imminente, [as eager as bees to their hive, a storm being imminent,]
(6) phrases and clauses modifying subject of “quibus” clause: simul deprecantes eum tot corde et, ut dicitur, innumeris ‘onerantes aethera uotis’, ne ad internicionem usque delerentur, [at the same time praying with all their hearts, and, as the poet says, “loading the air with prayers,” that they would not be destroyed unto death,]
(5) adverbial phrase: duce ambrosio aureliano uiro modesto, [with Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, for leader,]
(6) clause relative to Ambrosius in the preceding phrase: qui solus forte romanae gentis tantae tempestatis collisione occisis in eadem parentibus purpura nimirum indutis superfuerat, [who perhaps alone of the Roman stock survived the impact of the great storm in which his parents, who certainly wore the purple, died,]
(7) second clause relative to Ambrosius: cuius nunc temporibus nostris suboles magnopere auita bonitate degenerauit, [whose descendents now in our time have greatly degenerated from their ancestor’s goodness,]
(8) verb of main clause (subject reliquiae): uires capessunt, [gathered strength]
(9) verb phrase modifying subject (reliquiae): uictores prouocantes ad proelium: [provoking the victors to battle;]
(10) new “quibus” clause, evidently with “reliquiae” still the antecedent, and phrase about God’s involvement: quis uictoria domino annuente cessit. [to whom, with the Lord’s approval, victory fell.]
(1) phrase locating beginning of action in time: ex eo tempore [from that time on]
(2) subject: nunc ciues, nunc hostes, [now the citizens, now the enemies]
(3) verb: uincebant; [won;]
(4) clause expressing divine purpose: ut in ista gente experietur dominus solito more praesentem israelem, [so that in this people God tested, in his usual way, the Israel of today’]
(5) clause dependent on the preceding: utrum diligat eum an non, [whether it loved him or not,]
(6) phrase locating end of action in time: usque ad annum obsessionis badonici montis, [up until the year of the siege of Badon Hill,]
(7) phrase modifying “siege” in preceding phrase: nouissimaeque ferme de furciferis non minimae stragis, [the latest and not least slaughter of the criminals,]
(8) clause locating (6) in time: quique quadragesimus quartus, ut noui, orditur annus, [of which the 44th year, as I know, has begun,]
(9) verb phrase modifying the time in (8): mense iam uno emenso, [already a month having passed]
(10) clause relating to time: qui et meae natiuitatis est. [which is also my birthday/the year of my birth.]