(…continued from Part 1)
Patricks Origins: In His Own Words
Which brings us (finally!) to the matter at hand. In the light of all the above considerations – what does the historical Patrick actually say about his origins in his own writings? As previously noted, Patrick uses the term ‘Britanniis’ a total of three times. One of those examples is not entirely specific as to his origins, although it does infer the location of his clerical background in later life, and the location where his family apparently pleaded with him not to leave – just prior to his setting off for Ireland. I include here anyway:
In relation to his ecclesiastical superiors finding him unsuitable for the rank of Bishop he states that (the formal case) occurred:
quod ego non interfui nec in Brittannis eram nec a me orietur ut et ille in mea absentia pulsaret pro me
…at which I was not in attendance, nor was I present in ‘The Britains’ , nor did the urging of it originate from me in my absence…
The second example is somewhat more specific: identifying his parents’ home and a place previously unspecified (in his dream of escape) as his homeland – to which he eventually returned, several years after making said escape:
Et iterum post paucos annos in Brittanniis eram cum parentibus meis,
And again after a few years, I was in ‘The Britains’ with my parents…
The third example is almost certainly conclusive. Just prior to it, Patrick expresses concern at the perils under which some of his recent converts in Ireland operate – along with his fears of leaving them for long periods. This is framed against the wider (implied) accusation from external critics that he is refusing to return to Britain to answer charges of wrongdoing:
Unde autem etsi uoluero amittere illas et ut pergens in Brittanniis — et libentissime paratus eram quasi ad patriam et parentes; non id solum sed etiam usque ad Gallias uisitare fratres et ut uiderem faciem sanctorum Domini mei…
Moreover, I even yet wish to be let go/released, so that I could proceed to ‘The Britains’ – and I was most willing and resolved to, as if to my fatherland/home country and my parents – not only that land/country/region, but indeed also further, all the way to ‘The Gauls’ to visit the Brethren in order that I would look at/perceive the faces of the saintly ones of my Lord…
‘Oops… I Did It Again’
In short, Patrick states his desire (if he could) to leave Ireland, not least for personal and familial reasons. Not only does he (again) identify his home country and that of his parents as being in ‘The Britains’, he also states his wish to go even further – all the way to (the equally plural) ‘The Gauls’ in order to see a group of ecclesiastical brethren. The two regional locations, both of which were collective/provincial Roman territories, are specifically separated in both subject matter, designation and distance. ‘The Gauls’ are – to his mind and perspective – further away from both Ireland and ‘The Britains’, at a distance which apparently involved a separate journey to get there. In other words, from Patrick’s perspective, being in ‘The Britains’ was not the same as being in ‘The Gauls’.
‘Inside Out’ – Patrick’s use of ‘Britanniis’ V Late Antiquity
As we can see then, Patrick’s Latin usage of both ‘The Gauls’ and ‘The Britains’ as overall designators of provincial and geographical units within the Roman administrative system in late antiquity, tallies closely with that of other independent, contemporary authors who also used ‘Britanniis’ in a similar fashion when referring to a specific insular British identity (made up of collective provinces) within the geographic island itself. Interestingly, there are also several further subtextual indications within his writings which – when viewed in their respective contexts – suggest not only the same, but also infer a deep awareness of, and personal conflict regarding, his own insular British identity and the conduct of other fellow Britons.
‘I’m a Slave 4U’
Patricks Epistola (Letter to Soldiers of Coroticus) is the shorter and perhaps less famous of his surviving documents – but it contains significant implications as to his conceptual understanding of his own identity. The Epistola is particularly interesting as it is a second communique, written in haste, and while nominally addressed to Coroticus and his supporters, is in actuality, an open letter to multiple Christian audiences in both Ireland & Britain.
Coroticus was the leader of a band of pirates/raiders who had just killed and captured a number of Patrick’s recent converts. The Epistola is Patricks angry remonstrating. The fact that this event had just occured – and as he tells us himself he had already sent a previous letter to Coroticus which had been scorned – indicates that Coroticus and his soldiers were relatively close by and ‘reachable’. Coupled with Patrick’s overriding anger at such treatment being meted out by (nominally) fellow Christians, his plea for other Christians not to accept alms or hospitality from Coroticus, along with the identification of his allies being Irish and Picts – strongly implies (before we even get into specifics) that Coroticus and his band were fellow Romano-Britons.
At the very start, Patrick admonishes them by saying:
I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works…
Note the double use and the deliberate separation of ‘fellow citizens’. In Patrick’s eyes, he is denouncing both a shared Roman/Civilian/Provincial identity – and – a Christian identity. But wait, you say, surely he could be equally talking about fellow Christians/citizens in Gaul? (Well done on still being awake.) Hold that thought…
Further on, concerning the subject of the ill-treatment and prejudice accorded to him and his Irish converts he utilizes biblical echoes to ram home his point:
If my own people do not recognise me, still no prophet is honoured in his own country.
Immediately after that, Patrick castigates Coroticus:
…the evil-minded Coroticus. He is far from the love of God, who betrays Christians into the hands of Scots (Irish) and Picts.
Note the specific inferences. Coroticus was trafficking (Christian) slaves to pagan Irish and Pictish buyers. By implication, he is not of either background. There is no mention of him trafficking slaves to Britons. Coroticus himself would not have needed reminding of who he was selling slaves to. The section is squarely aimed at a Romanised audience who would presumably have shared Patrick’s horror of such transgressions – hence his motivation for writing it and channelling biblical echos for added effect. Patrick was not trying to shame Coroticus for enslaving Irish people – he was trying to shame him for enslaving ‘Christian’ Irish people. Worse, in his eyes, is that they were expected to be then sold on to Non-Romans/Non-Christian owners, i.e. people outside the umbrella of Romano-British identity. He is therefore appealing to the Christianised ‘Romanitas’ of his audience – as well as shaming any who may partake of alms, hospitality or any other dealings with him in the future.
That audience then, are of the same background as Patrick and Coroticus i.e. Patricks ‘fellow citizens’, his ‘fellow Christians’, his ‘own people’ from his ‘own country’ who do not recognise him, his mission, or the new Christianised status of his Irish converts. For any of this to even potentially work in Patrick’s favour, Coroticus needs to be (nominally) Christian and Romano-British. And if Coroticus was Romano-British… then so was Patrick.
But wait again, you say. Maybe he was talking to fellow citizens of Christian Gauls, in the same way as before? Well done. This is where it all starts to fall into place…
‘Don’t Keep Me Waiting’
Patrick uses a very interesting example to further shame both Coroticus and his intended Romano-British audience:
The Christians of Roman Gaul have the custom of sending holy and chosen men to the Franks and to other pagan peoples with so many thousands in money to buy back the baptised who have been taken prisoner. You, on the other hand, kill them, and sell them to foreign peoples who have no knowledge of God.
Lets say, for argument’s sake, that Patrick was a Breton or Gaulish person – and was talking to fellow Christians of Roman Gaul – would he have had the need to explain their own customs and actions, or indeed, identify themselves to themselves? Would he then have contrasted themselves with their own behaviour? Of course not. What Patrick is attempting here, is the further shaming of Coroticus, as well as his ‘fellow citizens’ and members of his ‘own people’ by holding up an example of Christian behaviour elsewhere i.e. Gaul. If he is informing them of customs from Gaul, then they have to be Romano-British. Both they and Coroticus have ‘knowledge of God’ and as Romano-Britons and nominal Christians, they are offending his sensibilities by selling his captured converts to those without i.e the pagan Picts and Irish.
By logic and implication alone, Patrick’s largest target audience in his letters – aside from his surviving Irish converts and Coroticus & Co. – are fellow Christians resident somewhere in Britain – not Gaul, or Brittany – and in particular, in regions likely to be in close proximity to Irish and Pictish activity. They are the same people he specifically identifies as fellow countrymen, fellow citizens and fellow Christians. They are the same people who he identifies as ‘our own’ when referencing the large number of descendants born to foreign slaves trafficked to, and within, Ireland (‘et de genere nostro qui ibi nati sunt nescimus numerum eorum’: Confessio 42). They are the same people to which he uses biblical rhetoric against – for their ‘unneighbourly’ behaviour towards Irish converts (Epistola 1, 9, 16).
For him, or them, to have been anything other than Romano-Britons involves making everything a hell of a lot more complicated, implausible, uneconomical, unrealistic and nonsensical – in addition to completely disregarding Patrick’s actual words specifying ‘The Britains’ – and that of the attested meaning and intention of independent contemporary usage of the same.
‘I Wanna Go’
Lets fast forward 200 years or so, to the earliest surviving Insular Irish hagiography of the mid-late seventh century when Armagh was successfully manipulating the cult, status, authority and ancient authenticity of ‘Saint’ Patrick as a vehicle for all Ireland ecclesiastical primacy. Contrary to those who believe in the popular misconception of some class of independent ‘celtic christianity’, the Early Irish Church was very interested in proclaiming and projecting its loyalty to, and succession from, the See of Peter in Rome. Armagh, in particular, was very interested in positioning itself as the national ecclesiastical mediator. By acting as disseminator of papal authority in Ireland, it hoped to cement its own national primacy. As part of the effort, it apparently sought out what were likely some of the earliest surviving evidence from the earliest Christian missionary period – that of Patricks writings – and started to project itself as the official ‘heir of Patrick’.
Imagine their surprise when they became aware of the continental roman account of a completely different fifth century bishop by another name, apparently dispatched by a pope, to fifth century Ireland. A significant retro-fitting ensued in order to fuse depicted dates, activities (and in Patrick’s case, a non-existent papal authority) into a pseudo-historical hagiographical framework that facilitated all disparate strands and avenues of a combined ‘saintly’ past.
A brief glance at the earliest patrician hagiography from this time, either Tírechán or Muirchú, illustrates the extent to which they went to in order to portray Patrick’s episcopal training, authority and mission as coming from both Gaul and/or Rome. Muirchú (I.6-I.9) presents Patrick as having intentions of travelling to Rome – but then somehow managing to get distracted in Gaul for 30-40 years – before conveniently hearing of the death and failure of Palladius in Ireland. The saint subsequently receives episcopal consecration and returns to Ireland to do battle with anyone remotely smelling of paganism and/or anyone who looked at him crookedly. Tírechán (1,6) has Patrick backpacking around Gaul and Italy for 37 years before charting a party cruiser and arriving off the Irish coast with a plethora of Gaulish support staff and hangers-on…
And yet, not once do they infer that he was himself either Breton or Gaulish.
Although having ample opportunity & significant ecclesiastical motivation to reinvent him as being from the continent (closer to Roman/papal sanction/authority/blessing) – not to mention removing at a stroke the stain of illegitimate authority from elsewhere, or indeed, nowhere – they do not even attempt to do so. Strange, considering that it would have made things an awful lot easier for their respective political and ecclesiastical purposes.
Muirchú is in fact very specific:
Patrick, also named Sochet, a Briton by race, was born in Britain. His father was Cualfarnius, a deacon, the son (as Patrick himself says) of a priest, Potitus, who hailed from Bannavem Thaburniae, a place not far from our sea.
‘Out From Under’
People in Early Medieval Ireland obviously had no reason to believe he was from anywhere other than Britain. Patricks British identity and origins (as reflected in his own writings) were apparently well established, well-known and well attested in both Irish tradition and early ecclesiastical history by the late seventh century – (his actual writings were known in some form or other to Tírechán, Muirchú and Ultán). So well attested, in fact, that the early Irish church did not even attempt to infer a Gaulish origin, let alone a secondary British/Breton diaspora resident in Gaul.
Patrick the saint – despite his portrayed lengthy hagiographical sojourns in Gaul – is and always has been, portrayed as Romano-British by his earliest hagiographers and by the vast majority of scholars who have applied serious historical analysis to the subject over the last century or so. Given the fractious nature of Patriciana in general – where every single inane detail and interpretation surrounding him has been argued over ad infinitum – this strange exception, accepted by almost all sides at the earliest visible historical horizon we can detect in early Irish history, looms large and somewhat a little too loudly to be shouted down from a distance of 1500 years.
Ignoring such evidence in favour of hammering much later versions into the equation is lazy, pedestrian and smacks of modern-day sensationalism of the Dan Brown variety. As previously mentioned, it does not do justice to many the relevant disciplines, credentials, abilities and expertise of decades of Patrician scholars who have previously looked at the theory and have found the Breton position entirely lacking. Nor indeed, does it do justice to the earliest insular sources, their contents, the historical individuals concerned, their respective contemporary contexts, and most of all, the original words of the historical Patrick himself, upon which all modern-day scholarly consensus is firmly laid upon.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all this, to those who actually take the time and effort to engage in serious study, is that everything presented above – sources, editions and their respective translations – are all freely available online in the last few years; retrievable within a few minutes by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of google, and an inclination towards historical first principles. Through open access websites and data repositories – such as the Royal Irish Academy St Patrick’s Confessio Hypertext Stack Project – anyone can search out such original texts for themselves, should they so desire. No need to have to resort to reading those ‘experts in Dublin’.
Speaking of which, that reminds me of Rev. Losack’s implication of possible academic conspiracies surrounding the ongoing mistranslation of ‘Britanniis’ and in particular the RIA ‘removing the plural form of the original and still referring to the island of Britain, exclusively’. While I certainly cannot speak for the RIA, I feel compelled to point out that the wonderfully clear, modern, concise and readable translation by McCarthy on the Confessio website was no doubt intended to be read by the widest general audience. In this it succeeds marvellously – its modern rendering removing many of the problems involved in translating the more obtuse arrangement, syntax and regularly disrupted flow of Patrick’s original text.
In so doing, it nevertheless imparts the correct identification and original meaning behind Patrick’s own words – in much the same way as anyone choosing to translate, say, a reference in an English text to “The States” into that of “l’amérique” in French. If Rev Losack would care to check some of the other well-known translations of the Confessio, he would no doubt find that many others have opted to render it in the same way. One only has to seek out the more critical translations with academic footnotes, or papers & articles intended for academic audiences, to find that yes indeed, it is occasionally given as that literally expressed.
And so, while not wishing to stamp on anyone’s hopes and dreams, especially those with an apparent penchant for over-dramatic, ‘celtic’ peddling, da binchy code-esque conspiracy claiming, quasi-mystical twaddle – of the sort dressed up as ‘lost’ arcane knowledge, conjured up by the likes of those who have listened to one too many Clannad albums – I fear I must deflate his impressions on this matter. Alas, there is no secret academic cabal hidden away in a dank dungeon in the depths of Dawson Street, flagellating themselves with copies of the Cathach after hours.‘Britanniis’, in the plural, has long been acknowledged, accepted and understood by the scholarly community. Forgive them for endeavoring to make things less complicated for the more general reader who is unfamiliar, and if we’re being honest, probably not all that interested in the exact minutia of fifth century Latin. Especially when the chosen translation is merely a modern rendering of the same thing.
Having gone through some of the main reasons why such a position does not add up, or even make sense, when you examine the actual contexts and sources involved – there is precious little more to add. Except, perhaps, to disagree with Dr. Johnston’s original critique: that ‘the place-name evidence, adduced by Marcus Losack, does not carry any historical weight‘.
It’s not so much a case of it having no historical weight; its more a case of it being so utterly enfeebled as to need a serious course of antibiotics, ahead of medical assistance, in order for it to even make it, blinking and wheezing, onto the page. There is more weight, depth, critical mass and insight contained within the whispy remains of a dead fart wafting through the hot air billowing out of an academic common room at closing time on the last day of term – than there is in the old Patrician ‘Breton Theory’ as rehashed by Rev. Losack.
I nevertheless wish him all the very best with his book and, perhaps more importantly, any spin-off tours that may come out of it. What a stroke of luck for all concerned that he happens to be in the pilgrimage giving and spiritual guiding business. Who knows, we may just be witnessing the birth of a new Patrician pilgrimage site; an Armorican encore, so to speak, with Rev Losack as a modern day Sir Tristram, preaching mishe mishe thouartpatrick to everyone elses tuff tuff on a scraggy isthmus of Europe minor.
+ + +
It seems only fitting to leave the historical Patrick with the last word:
I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people…
It may have taken 1500 years or so, but Patricks last plea has finally been fulfilled. Anyone and everyone can of course now read him online, in his own words, in a variety of languages (and a lot more besides) at the St. Patricks Hypertext Stack Project.
+ + + Addendum + + + (March 2014) + + + Addendum + + +
Please see comments section below for a very detailed, interesting and scholarly reply from Rev Losack to the above. I’d like to express my gratitude to him for taking the time to do so and – more importantly – for being a decent salt with regard to my penchant for (good-natured) irreverence and sarcasm within the original post. I was, of course, totally playing to the academic gallery. Just to re-iterate, the above posts were an irreverent academic reply to some slightly taunting letters on the subject which appeared in a national newspaper. I have not read the honorable gentlemen’s book in question.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bieler, L. (1979) The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Charles-Edwards, T. M., (2000) Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Dumville, D. N. (1993) Saint Patrick: A.D. 493-1993. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Rochester: NY.
Howlett, D. R. (1994) Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi. The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. Dublin.
Koch, J.T. (2003) ‘Celts, Britons and Gaels’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, New Series, Vol. 9, 41-56.
Koch, John T., and Carey, John (eds.) (2003) The Celtic Heroic Age. Literary sources for ancient Celtic Europe and early Ireland & Wales, Celtic Studies Publications 1. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications.
Koch, John T. (1991) Ériu, Alba and Letha: when was a language ancestral to Gaelic first spoken in Ireland?Emania 9, 17–27.
O’Loughlin, T. (1999) St Patrick: The Man and his Works. London.
Snyder, C. A. (2003) The Britons. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
St. Patricks Hypertext Stack Project; available at: http://www.confessio.ie/