It may seem strange to call a hagiography in any way historical, but think about the other pieces that have been mentioned in this series of blogs – a legal argument with highly questionable historical materials used to further his case and a petulant and sermonizing letter written to a British chieftain who had had the temerity to enslave newly-baptized Christians.
The Vita Samsoni was written before hagiography had grown into the full-blown tool for attracting tourists it was after William the Conqueror came to England. The Life itself asserts it was written by Samson’s great-nephew, and modern scholarship has been inclined to agree. Because of this, it is not only historical but as near a primary source as Gildas can claim.
However, it was motivated by the same interest as the later saints’ lives, namely the exultation of the saint. Because of this fact, certain details cannot be trusted; e.g. claims to miracles or the black-and-white treatment of parties in various places. Fortunately, these details are easy to spot.
As an historical source, the real major flaw with using the vita is that it was written in the same format as the later saints’ lives; it is a collection of isolated incidents ordered without any particular theme or motive. It is so because of the manner in which the information within it was collected; by very old people trying to remember what had happened in their youths and recalling isolated incidents. Still, the vita gives a good summary of Samson’s life. There is no other source of the period that is so biographical in nature. The historian could wish that the author had possessed an eye for the larger picture.