Thursday, December 06, 2012

Abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands

'Its plains are spacious, its hills are pleasantly situated, adapted for superior tillage, and its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. It is decked, like a man's chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.' - Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, c 547
Gildas was the first writer of history in Britain and this rather lovely description of the country's landscape was taken up and adapted by later writers.  The rivers that offer 'a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks' are mentioned again six hundred years later in the first paragraph of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannia.  But just a few pages on from this charming vision, we read of Brutus, the legendary Trojan who will found the race of Britons, 'twirling his battle-axe' and slaughtering the men of Aquitaine.  There he and his men 'burned the cities far and wide, heaping up fire upon fire.'  Still, when he does finally arrive in the 'best of islands', he settles down and establishes a new city on the Thames: Troia Nova, later known as London - where I'm sitting now writing this blog post.

The Saint Petersburg Bede manuscript

Another early chronicle, The Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731) also opens with a description of Britain, longer but less poetic than that of Gildas (one of his sources, along with Orosius, Julius Solinus and Pliny the Elder).  After giving us its location and dimensions, he is soon, like an old fashioned geographer, listing its chief produce... 'Britain is rich in grain and trees, and is well adapted for feeding cattle and beasts of burden. It also produces vines in some places, and has plenty of land and water fowl of divers sorts; it is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels; seals are also frequently taken, and dolphins, as also whales; besides many sorts of shell-fish, such as mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours, red, purple, violet and green, but chiefly white. There is also a great abundance of snails, of which the scarlet dye is made, a most beautiful red, which never fades with the heat of the sun or exposure to rain, but the older it is, the more beautiful it becomes. It has both salt and hot springs, and from them flow rivers which furnish hot baths, proper for all ages and both sexes, in separate places, according to their requirements.'

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