Return to Pelagianism


Sometime before AD 494, probably in the preceding decade, Constantius of Lyon wrote the Life of Germanus, bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. In it, he records a visit by Germanus to Britain in AD 429, a story more familiar in its later retelling by Bede. The importance of the account is that it is almost the only record of events in Britain for which a date can be assigned between the departure of the Romans circa AD 410 and the arrival of Augustine at Canterbury almost two hundred years later.

Admittedly, this account of a saint's life is hagiography and not history; but it does provide the basis for inferences about a period of which very little is known. Constantius relates, for instance, that Germanus preached in churches, at cross-roads, and out in the countryside. The words civitas, oppidum, urbs, municipium, territorium, or the terms cives or provinciales do not occur in his description of Britain, although these terms are used in the description of Gaul and Italy. The inference is that there were no inhabited towns in Britain at this time, at least in the region which Germanus visited, nor were the Britons considered Roman citizens or provincials. He also speaks of a Briton "of tribunician power," presumably implying that, although the person was not a tribune, he had what, in Gaul, would have been considered its equivalent authority.

Germanus was sent to Britain to defend the church there against Pelagianism, which recently had manifested itself. (Unless the two visits have been conflated and there really only was one, Germanus was obliged to return to Britain at some later time, again to combat Pelagianism.) The heresy was being promulgated by a certain Agricola, himself, the son of a Pelagian bishop. What is intriguing is that Pelagianism had been condemned in AD 418 by both the emperor and the pope, as well as a council of bishops. For Agricola now openly to preach its doctrine in Britain suggests that this distant island was beyond their power to silence him. Still, he could be refuted.

Two decades had passed since the Britons had revolted and expelled the Romans. They now defended themselves against increasing attack by Saxons and Picts. One such encounter can serve as an example of the historian's task, what can be inferred from the record, and what must be argued from silence.

Constantius says that Germanus baptized the army that was to fight these raiders, which raises several questions. One is why the local bishops did not perform the ceremony, themselves. Assuming that they were present, it may be possible that the bishops deferred to the envoy from Rome. Or they may have been adherents of the heresy now discredited by Germanus. But, if the local bishops were Pelagians, who, then, had invited Germanus to Britain? And why does Constantius not remark on the matter? How much more glorious for Germanus to succeed if the local bishops had fought valiantly against the heresy but could not suppress it.

As to the baptized soldiers, it is not certain whether they were pagan or Christian. Constantius writes that it was Lent, which argues that the men were Christian; otherwise, the season would have had little meaning for them. And, if Christian, even though not yet baptized, they more likely would have understood Latin and been the inhabitants of local towns and villas, rather than pagans, who lived in the countryside and spoke only Celtic.

But Constantius is silent on all these matters.

Nennius mentions Germanus in his Historia Brittonum, where he relates that the Saxons first were received by Vortigern in AD 428.

"In his time Germanus came to preach in Britain, and became famous among them by his many powers, and many were saved through him, and many came to perdition."

At a council assembled by Germanus to condemn Vortigern for an incestuous relationship with his daughter, the king attempted to convince the assembly that the child belonged to Germanus. When the boy confessed that Vortigern was his father, he fled in disgrace. The saint followed in an attempt to break the illict union, fasting until the fortress to which Vortigern had retreated suddenly was destroyed by fire sent from heaven and swallowed up in the earth. Germanus reared the boy, himself, who was said to have founded a monastery that still stood.

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