Who kicked them out?

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • St Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint by Roy Flechner
    Princeton, 320 pp, £22.00, March, ISBN 978 0 691 18464 7

What do we know about St Patrick? Most people could probably place him in Ireland, amid every short cut to Irishness – shamrocks, Guinness, lots of green things – while a little more knowledge may attach to him the legend that he is responsible for Ireland’s lack of snakes, having ordered them all to leave. The picture becomes more complicated for those who have discovered that he wasn’t Irish at all but from somewhere in the island of Britain, captured and enslaved by Irish raiders, escaping home and then returning to the land of his captivity, to convert the Irish to Christianity and preside over the Irish Church as bishop in Armagh.

Patrick is unusual among major-league patron saints in having bequeathed us two records of his authentic writing. One is a testy autobiographical tract known as the Confessio; it provides the narrative of his youth, capture, flight from and return to Ireland, written in a distinctly defensive tone. Even more unbuttoned in crossness is the Letter to Coroticus, a bad Christian ruler of somewhere in Britain, who had among much other naughtiness enslaved fellow Christians. The Letter denounces Coroticus’ wickedness in his slave raids on Ireland, urges the freeing and return of the victims, and calls on all Christians to shun the tyrant and his soldiers until they repent.

These texts are astonishingly personal survivals, from an age that has left precious few substantial texts of any sort. They are bright little flashes amid the literary darkness of these islands as the Western Roman Empire crumbled. Yet frustrations quickly mount. When precisely were they written? Fourth, fifth or sixth century ce? And what do they actually mean? Significantly, the cult of Patrick flourished for centuries largely without them: they were forgotten for nearly a millennium until rediscovered in the early 17th century by Patrick’s formidably scholarly Protestant successor in the see of Armagh, James Ussher (1581-1656).

Before Archbishop Ussher’s rescue job, much picturesque material adhered to Patrick, including the herpetological cleansing of his adopted land. It is undoubtedly the case that the island of Ireland boasts no native snakes. If we follow medieval assumptions and discount the possibility that snakes never made it to Ireland in the first place, someone must have been responsible for kicking them out. That great feat was first credited to another hugely popular Celtic saint, Columba or Colm Kille, first abbot of Iona, and to judge from literary sources, it was five hundred years later, in the 13th century, that Patrick stole the honour. His association with the shamrock is yet more recent: an 18th-century Catholic hagiographer claimed that he used its leaf to illuminate the theological complexities of the Trinity. The writer may have taken his cue from the first joint appearance of Patrick and the shamrock in visual form: on the coinage issued in the 1670s under the patronage of the Protestant government in Dublin. The first St Patrick’s Day parade didn’t take place until 1903, and then not actually on St Patrick’s Day. Out of all this attractive confusion and happenstance, can we recover a ‘genuine’ Patrick from our long-lost pair of texts? Many have tried. Roy Flechner seeks to unite those efforts in his own way, while also describing the saint’s encrustation of legend; all done for the general reader with commendable economy.

Patrick provides some tantalisingly specific details about himself, including the name of the place he came from: Bannavem Taburniae, which was somewhere in the twin Roman provinces of Britannia Inferior (‘lower’, but north) and Superior (‘upper’, but south). Competition for the honour of being Patrick’s birthplace has been fierce among locations as widely dispersed as south-west England, Wales, Cumbria and south-west Scotland, the criterion being the geographical vulnerability of ‘Bannavem’ to Irish slave raiders, plus the fact that some claim was made at some stage in the past. The medieval monks of Glastonbury, always alert for ways to augment the holiness of their already charismatic site, put in a spirited bid for association with Patrick, and they have found support from some modern scholars. Yet the existence of a modest if comely early Tudor chapel of St Patrick in the precinct of Glastonbury Abbey tells us little about what really happened a thousand years earlier. Flechner lists various possibilities for identification without plumping for any in particular, though he pays some respect to a proposal by Charles Thomas, a great scholar of early British Christianity, that Bannavem was a place on Hadrian’s Wall now called Birdoswald. Birdoswald consisted of a wall-fort and an adjacent civilian settlement of the modest variety called a vicus, the very word used by Patrick to describe Bannavem. Archaeological excavation suggests a life for this vicus extending more than a century after the Roman imperial legions left Britannia in 410. We know from an inscription found there that it was called Banna.

Puzzlingly, Flechner does not interrogate the name Bannavem Taburniae as closely and sceptically as he does other elements of Patrick’s reminiscences. When the saint or his secretary first wrote down his tracts, it is unlikely that he wrote with any spaces between his words, since that was not then the custom in handwriting. The ungainly division of the name in the ninth-century manuscript that is now our earliest copy of the lost original is implausible in any language of late Roman Britannia. Provide a different spacing for the words: separate out ‘Banna’ (as in Birdoswald); transform ‘vem ta’ into the word ‘Venta’, a common Romano-British placename usage for a market centre; add a word describing the local catchment area of the market as is customary with these ‘Venta’ names, and you have a plausible ‘Banna Venta Burniae’, pretty well nailed down as Birdoswald. It is 17 miles from the Roman regional centre of Luguvalium, now called Carlisle. Carlisle’s continuing urban bustle would give a context for the offices held by Patrick’s father, Calpornius, who was both a deacon of the Christian Church and a ‘decurion’, a quite specific title for an official in the elaborate local government system of the Roman Empire. He lived near Banna in a villula, a diminutive of villa, describing a small version of the classic country house of the Roman elite. Villae have been excavated all over lowland England, particularly within the footprint of the former province of Britannia Superior.

Bearing all this in mind, Flechner suggests that Patrick has been placed too late in the story of insular Christianity, and that he should be looked for in the last century of functioning Roman rule in Britannia – i.e. before 410 – rather than in the fifth century. His case hinges mainly on the contention that the mention of the villula and Calpornius’ office of decurion do not sit well with the collapse of Roman institutions at the beginning of the fifth century, as well as the fact that no villa has been found north of the Tees. These arguments are not at all decisive. A villula is not a villa, and we have no idea what might have been in the mind of a very provincial Romanised Briton when he used the word before or after 410, other than in reference to ‘a little home’ – he could have been using it accurately, or with false modesty, or with pretension. Many a ‘Balmoral’ arose in the 20th-century avenues of London’s Metroland, most of them resplendent in false half-timbering over pebbledash rather than boasting Scottish Baronial turrets amid a grousemoor. Carlisle and Birdoswald, one would think, provide a perfectly likely setting for a twilight post-Roman and Christian world, where local people of power anchored themselves in the continuing institutions of the British Church, and clung to urban titles such as decurio in order to describe their otherwise indefinable local status. In this coastal area sheltered by the Pennines against the remorseless drift of ‘Saxon’ culture from across the North Sea, there was still plenty of mileage in being sub-Roman for a good while after 410.

Some historians have tried to push Patrick into the sixth century, the opposite chronological direction from that suggested by Flechner. Such a late date poses other contextual problems, and we can safely lay it aside. We return, then, to a traditional fifth-century dating for Patrick. This has commonly been seen as believable not only because it fits the evidence of his two surviving writings, but also because it is suggested at least twice by rare independent literary snippets of information from the period. Manuscript ‘Annals’ survive from sixth-century Ireland: these are documents in which scribes have jotted down notable occurrences in the tables that list the variable date of Easter year by year, and they place Patrick’s death once in an entry for 457, and elsewhere in 493. Obviously the two dates can’t both be right, but at least when the notes were made the mood music was that this important event had occurred in the later fifth century, only decades before the scribes made their notes. Another independent early source from Gaul, a fragment from a chronicle by the early fifth-century ecclesiastical politician Prosper of Aquitaine, introduces a rival luminary who predated Patrick in a Christian mission to Ireland: Palladius, sent from Rome as an inaugural bishop for Ireland in a convincing and precise 431 ce. The ninth-century Armagh source preserving this circumstantial 400-year-old fragment from Prosper added the unhelpful and probably mendacious confusion that Palladius was also called Patricius (Patrick), though it went on untidily to mention a ‘second bishop’, solely named Patricius. A date of 431 for Palladius the pioneer bishop works well with the other sources which place Patrick later in that same century, and suggests that the British leader was second on the scene though in a similar timeframe.

Patrick’s own writings do not mention Palladius, but that does not impugn the authenticity of either saint. The British bishop may have had very good reasons for not naming a rival Christian leader who came armed with full authorisation from the pope in faraway Rome, in contrast to the local boy who had no such validating claims. Patrick’s writings bristle with both defensive bluster and aggressive accusations; they reflect a career affected by contention and controversy. Some of this may have been personal: he describes with obvious distress an accusation from his teenage years, after a friend had betrayed a confidence about some unnamed sin he had committed. In his later career, he laments, this information was being used against him, in his view out of sheer malice.

Yet beyond such specifics, the fifth-century Western Church was riven by a more squarely theological controversy with profound implications: it concerned human nature, the character of sin and their significance in salvation after death. One of the two chief combatants, Pelagius, was another argumentative British Christian. Was humanity so utterly fallen and corrupted by sin that only God could decide to damn or save, because no human achievement merited salvation? Pelagius vigorously denied this pitiless view, affirming God’s mercy – but he also thereby insisted that humans had a frightening responsibility for their successful passage into heaven. His opponent was Augustine of Hippo, a theologian who has assumed towering stature in the Western Christian tradition among both Catholics and Protestants. Despite arguably being less theologically mainstream than Pelagius on these matters of salvation, Augustine gained the approval of the authorities in Rome in the ‘Pelagian controversy’. Prosper of Aquitaine was a fierce anti-Pelagian partisan of Augustine, plus royaliste que le roi.

Although Patrick never refers to the Pelagian disputes, he is clearly anxious to prove his credentials as a universal or Catholic Christian, and so rehearses an otherwise unknown version of a creed to sum up his faith. This creed may represent a pre-existing fragment of British Church liturgy, but in any case it is intended to prove Patrick’s theological affinity with the two universal Christian creeds in circulation by the end of the fourth century (Apostles’ and Nicene). His two texts also make clear there was more to his troubles than either personality or Pelagianism: he deals with Irish suspicions that he has taken inappropriate gifts from Christian converts, and reflects on his opponents’ concerns about the way he persuaded suggestible young Irish aristocrats to embrace vocations as monks and nuns. He says directly that he had been threatened with death, even by Christians. Any Christian leader would face problems in importing the Church from the retreating Roman Empire – even there, ecclesiastical power was comparatively recent – into an utterly different society beyond the imperial frontiers. How would a Christian bishop negotiate the idiosyncratic social and economic tangles of Ireland to find an acceptable place for the new religion? The Christian Church made heavy demands on its adherents, and had a propensity to accumulate financial resources, including land, to sustain its cult and its structure. Landed families would need a good deal of convincing that belief in the Christian God was worth the investment.

Lacking similar literary survivals from Palladius’ hand, we cannot say who should get the main credit for negotiating these difficulties and founding one of the most distinctive and creative Christian cultures of the early Middle Ages. The sidelining of Palladius may have something to do with yet another dispute that went on to convulse Christianity in the Atlantic islands during the seventh and eighth centuries: how to calculate the movable feast of Easter from year to year. A new mission to the Anglo-Saxons arriving from Rome in 597 came up against existing British and then Irish Christians who were unwilling to give up their own long-established calculating system. The resulting bitterness pitted the Roman loyalists against a gradually diminishing band of local traditionalists, who found their last stronghold in Ireland and its outpost-monastery on Iona. In this confrontation, Palladius was an obvious historic symbol of obedience to Rome – and this encouraged the appropriation of Patrick by the other party. The antagonism can be savoured in the writing of Bede (c.673-735), who deals at length with the Easter calculation dispute from the point of view of the triumphant Roman party; he picks up the old story celebrating Palladius as a pioneer in Ireland, and says not a word about Patrick. Yet nowadays it is Patrick who parades every year down Fifth Avenue in New York, not Palladius; it is Patrick – a one-time slave – who is found in paintings in Vodou shrines across the Americas; it is Patrick who is often considered to be the patron saint of Nigeria.

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Whoever is seen as the real apostle of Ireland – Patrick, Palladius or some other now unknown missionary – it was crucial for the future shape of British and Irish Christian life that for all its reservations about the pope’s power to decide the date of Easter, the infant Irish Church nevertheless followed the lead of its neighbours in Britannia and Gaul in a more fundamental respect. The Christian Church was the first island-wide Irish institution. It built up its literature and liturgy in Latin, by then the sacred language of the Catholic Western Church, as well as the high road to cultural contact with a wider world. Ireland had only marginal links with the decaying empire, and no memory of or aspiration to any such central authority as Rome represented. British Christians already tied in to the Western Latin-speaking Church provided the bridge between Ireland and Rome, and gave Ireland enough Christian cultural apparatus to make the transition possible. That does suggest the real importance of a British Patrick in the island’s surprisingly rapid passage to Christianity. Significantly, borrowings in the Irish language for churchy things, such as the early word for ‘priest’, cruimther, appeared via British Latin-speakers, who had turned Latin presbyter to premiter before Irish lips formed the sound in their own way.

Flechner’s study of Patrick is ‘retold’; what is in the retelling? He is informative on the background of Roman, Romano-British and Irish society in the elastic era of Patrick’s life, though much of this information is in the cause of his conjectures about the meaning of the saint’s writings. These musings spring from his sensible observation that historical texts in the early Christian era were often as much theological as historical, and were shaped by the memory of earlier texts. The New Testament itself is full of such echoes of resonant situations in the Jewish literary past, borrowed by Christians for their own purposes, even while they were crafting their new identity. Very often, occurrences in the four gospels are crafted simply to make a theological point in relation to earlier stories. Flechner rightly emphasises the rhetorical nature of Patrick’s texts and their place in a long Christian tradition, but then he applies that insight to one of the most specific and fundamental parts of the story: the young man’s capture by Irish slavers and subsequent escape. ‘Whereas Patrick’s version is not impossible,’ he says, ‘to a sceptic it is nevertheless improbable.’

If you don’t believe that, then you might as well not believe anything in Patrick’s texts. You will enter a world of total relativity; it’s a hermeneutic of suspicion gone mad. Flechner’s postmodern enthusiasm for doubt extends to his disbelief that an early medieval slave was capable of escaping his captivity, travelling across Ireland and making it back to Britannia and an honourable free life. Tell that to countless thousands of people today who have made their way across deserts and through near-certain death to end up in a scarcely welcoming Europe. The migrations that have so convulsed our own society should make us sceptical of Flechner’s scepticism, yet he goes on from his initial insecure propositions to erect a large and fragile alternative edifice in place of Patrick’s slavery narrative. The teenager, he posits, was actually escaping legal obligations that he was due to inherit from his decurion father for the collection and underwriting of taxes, ‘until finally, by feigning righteousness, he was able to return to Britain and seek to regain his property under the protection of the law’. Speculation spirals: if the streetwise young decurion-in-the-making Patrick needed to raise funds for his extended Gap Year Abroad, he could have sold parts of the family estate to finance himself – but that would have required an active land market, which implies a date for his escapade before 410, since the land market would have collapsed after the departure of the legions. All Flechner’s material in this vein is richly undergirded with ifs, might-haves and would-haves, and so on and so forth, until we disappear down a hole as dark and mysterious as St Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island in Lough Derg.

Flechner’s unquestionable expertise in early medieval history, and his well-informed exploration of Roman and Celtic legal assumptions about slavery and much else, make it easy to lose sight of just how fantasy-laden so much of his ‘retelling’ turns out to be. A story like this distracts from the useful enterprise of looking for an authentic early Christian leader. Anyone making a serious and scholarly attempt at recovering Patrick deserves praise for their courage, since any comprehensive analysis of the manuscript and archaeological evidence inevitably has to squeeze blood out of a stone. Flechner simply overdoes the squeezing, straying into hypotheses and methodological scepticism. His book affords excellent glimpses of a real Patrick amid the early medieval mist, but his readers are left in peril of stumbling off the visible path. Consider the many corpses recovered from the peat bogs of Ireland, and beware.