Saint Gildas and the Pestilent Dragon A Meander through the Sixth-Century Landscape With a Most Notable Guru
W. Julian Edens
The Heroic Age: Issue 6 Spring 2003
The historical value of the pilgrimage episode in the Life of Gildas by the Monk of Ruys is defended by advancing solutions to the problems of composition-dating, integrity of tradition, motivation, and the appearance of a dragon. An approach is taken to delimiting the date of the pilgrimage in light of the Yellow Death pandemic and the geopolitics of the contemporary Mediterranean world.
Gildas is such a critical figure for understanding sixth-century Britain that finding a datable episode in his life can not but help to illuminate the age. Such an episode is Gildas’s pilgrimage to Rome and Ravenna as detailed in the Life of Gildas by the monk of Ruys in Brittany. Acceptance of this episode, however, is beset with some difficulties. These difficulties concern the dating of the “Life”, the value of the underlying tradition, and the motivation behind the pilgrimage. But even more difficult to accept is the appearance of a dragon story within the episode, which might lead to its possible dismissal as fantasy. These difficulties are addressed and, hopefully, resolved in this article.
Indeed, it will be seen that these difficulties enhance rather than detract from the verisimilitude of the episode by correctly placing the observer in the sixth century milieu of Gildas. The dragon story will be shown to be protero-physical [early scientific] rather than imaginary or mythological, even without positing the existence of dragons. The dating of the composition and the motivation will be shown to be easily surmountable problems; and the tradition underlying the episode will be shown to be trustworthy. After the reliability of the account has been established, windows of time will be delimited based upon fitting Gildas’s itinerary to major sixth-century developments in Italy and the western Mediterranean. Finally, logical constraints to even closer dating will be developed for conjoining these windows to other assumptions applicable to the episode.