Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Legendary History of Britain: St Germanus of Auxerre and how the process worked

If we think of medieval writers as first and foremost, writers, facing writing problems, and dealing with their problems within the framework of their understanding of narrative, the results can be illuminating. Rather than looking at theories of practice, one can observe practice at work. 

From Gildas to Bede to Nennius, from Nennius to Geoffrey to Wace, from Wace to Laȝamon, the Legendary History can be imagined as a Work in Development, with successive writers shaping the material. It’s not the same as successive versions of history, with each one getting closer to ‘the truth’. It’s a developing narrative where what controls the development is how the writers understood the art of storytelling. 


While Saint Germanus of Auxerre plays a very brief role in Vortigern’s story, the incident illustrates how The Legendary History worked as a process. It also suggests something positive about Laȝamon as story teller.

First the history, the problem and the process, then the result, because one of the more startling moments in Vortigern’s story, or in the whole of Laȝamon's Brut,  occurs when Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, meets with the Saint and delivers a speech that is probably Lawman’s invention. 

Who was Saint Germanus of Auxerre?

St Gemanus of Auxerre is an historical character. He’s as real as anyone can be in the fifth century. There’s more evidence for his existence than there is for Vortigern, Hengist or Arthur (which isn’t saying much). One commentator even extends that list to include Saint Patrick#. 

He visited Britain, from Gaul, in the early fifth century to combat the Pelagian heresy, possibly twice, at the request of the British church. While there he did not meet anyone called Vortigern, but he did lead a British force to victory over a mixed army of Picts and Saxons. Modern historians debate the reality of a second visit, and contest the plausibility of the ‘Alleluia Victory’, but the majority accept the historical reality of the Saint. His life was written in the late fifth century, and there are independent chronicle references to his visit, placing the first one in or around 429. He died on the continent before 450.

A writing problem.

Imagine you’re writing The Legendary History. Germanus presents you with three problems.  
1)    The purpose of the visits 
2)    The timing of the visits
3)    The visits are too well known to ignore.

1)    The purpose of the visit was simple: to combat the Pelagian heresy. There is no suggestion that the visitors were also asked to combat Paganism, or back sliding Christians. And there is no mention of any King. 
2)    The problem of timing is equally simple. Germanus visited in 429. According to Bede’s calculations, the Saxons (Hengist and Horsa) don’t arrive until 449/450.  
3)    In his note on this incident in Laȝamon, Madden pointed out that Geoffrey of Monmouth simply couldn’t leave such a famous figure out of the narrative. Bede tells the story of the visit at length, in his History of the English Church and People. It takes him five chapters (17-21) in book one.  Vortigern is nothing more than a name, Arthur isn't even that. 

Germanus later appeared in Nennius (though ‘Nennius’ may have got his saints confused). He tries to convert and redeem an incestuous Vortigern and failing, prays him to death. 
By this point Germanus’s story had already slid into the world of folk tales. His miracles have become less Bede’s muted proof of the saint’s holiness and more the extravagant actions of a powerful magician. 

Germanus, therefore is a fine example of what happens when you try to reconcile the legendary history with Bede, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle let alone with ‘history as we define it. Quite often, you can’t.

But if you take up the challenge to incorporate this incident into the narrative, then you have to try to make it meaningful within the narrative.

The process.

Madden may have been right, and Geoffrey may have felt that Germanus had to be in the story. But Geoffrey’s treatment is almost dismissive. And his placing of the incident doesn’t make a lot of sense.

He knew why Germanus had come to the country. ‘It was in this time [Vortigern has just married Rowena] that St Germanus, the Bishop of of Auxerre came, and Lupus Bishop of Troyes, with him, to preach the world of God to the Britons; for their Christian faith had been corrupted not only by the pagans but also by the Pelagian heresy, the poison of which had affected them for many a long day. However, the religion of the true faith was restored to them by the preaching of these saintly men. This they made clear almost daily by frequent miracles, for through their agency God performed many wonders which Gildas has described with great literary skill in his treatise.’ P160 

The throw away reference to ‘Gildas’ (he means the text we ascribe to Nennius) might be sarcastic as the miracles in the Historia Brutonum are exaggerated. But Just as Geoffrey has removed the incest motif in Vortigern’s story, he has left out the Saint’s dramatic role in Vortigern’s end. If Geoffrey knew the Britons had asked for help he doesn’t mention it. The incident is pointless in this version. It’s wedged between the wedding of Vortigern to Rowenna and evidence of Hengist’s growing influence over Vortigern.  It could be cut out and the story would not be affected.

But the narrative is already exerting its pull. There’s nothing in Bede, or the life of Saint Germanus, about combating paganism. The theological enemy is heresy. But If St Germanus arrived after Hengist, and if Hengist was corrupting the Britons, then it’s logical that the saint would need to do something about that. It’s also logical, in narrative terms to get rid of the saint as the divine killer of Vortigern. For Geoffrey’s narrative, it’s necessary for Aurelieus to kill Vortigern. And the incest motif can be dropped as well. 

The Variant version of the Historia, which is probably Wace’s source, moves the story to later in the narrative, after Vortimer has defeated Hengist and become King. And this might suggest the Variant is later than the Vulgate rather than earlier. If Geoffrey, for all his narrative sense, moved the incident earlier he was having a bad day.

Perhaps the Vulgate’s writer could not understand why Geoffrey had a holy man sorting out the church under such an unholy King.  But the move makes narrative sense. Having got rid of Hengist, his legacy has to be erased. 

The Variant is just as confused as to what the Saint was doing. In this version, the saints (plural) have come to stamp out ‘the Arian or Pelagian heresy’ as well as the impact of Hengist.    

Either Wace doesn’t understand Geoffrey’s reference to Pelagius, or the Variant’s ‘Arianism and Pelagianism’; he thought it uninteresting, or it just seemed out of place. Germanus is sent by ‘Saint Romain ‘ (Sainz Romainz) which looks like a dramatic misreading of ‘the roman pope’. Religion is restored and the people returned to the faith. However, even though the faith is restored, ‘Hear what devilry was perpetuated’.

Lawman must have picked up on the potential significance of the episode for his portrayal of Vortimer. He will expand it in a surprising way (see next post) giving the episode a significance it does not have in his sources. 

The initial narrative problem is one of chronology and it is simply ignored. It is impossible to   reconcile Bede and Geoffrey, and since Wace is committed to following Geoffrey, or the Variant, or both, he didn’t need to waste time in the attempt. 

It’s easy to forget a medieval author had very limited access to information. It wasn’t possible to ‘evaluate the sources’ as a modern student learns to do. Once the incident becomes embedded in the story, the process begins which sees the incident changing as the writers make it fit into the narrative and answer the question:  Why are you telling us this?  

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For Laȝamon's answer, see next post. 

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