Continued from Part One.
So what could have the historical Patrick meant when he said that he paid out ‘the price of fifteen men/persons’? And what could that potentially tell us about early Irish Christian communities in fifth century Ireland?
Here’s the original passage again:
Uos autem experti estis quantum ego erogaui illis qui iudicabant per omnes regiones quos ego frequentius uisitabam. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Non me paenitet nec satis est mihi: adhuc impendo et superimpendam; potens est Dominus ut det mihi postmodum ut meipsum impendar pro animabus uestris.
“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”
Confessio 53 (My Trans.)
Patrick rarely gives specifics in his documents and so one should probably sit up and take notice of the few occasions where he does. There is usually a fairly good reason on his part. It should also be remembered that at this point in his writings, he was addressing his Irish Christian converts. Such specific information would have made little sense to a British audience, unfamiliar and unconcerned with insular custom. So whatever he was imparting or implying was specifically intended to resonate with his Irish based Christians. The ‘price of fifteen men/persons’ was likely therefore, to be something that they would have recognized as significant. A key attribute of his statement was the qualification of the number fifteen. What significance could that number impart?
Well, a rather interesting parallel is to be found in some early medieval Irish law texts of the 7th and 8th centuries concerning lordship and status.
Academic Caution Klaxon…
Now, before going any further, I should naturally highlight the usual caveats. Of course, any attempt to extrapolate backwards from later historical sources carries significant problems. And I am in no way suggesting that what appears in the codified law tracts – which are heavily influenced by, and concerned with, later Christian perspectives – is in some way directly comparable to the social makeup and reality of fifth century Ireland. Yet Patrick’s references to ‘those who pass judgements’ nevertheless carries intriguing similarities to the later Brithem (>OI breth), ‘maker of judgements’ in the early Irish laws. If there were ‘judges’ in Patrick’s time, then there were presumably something approaching ‘laws’ that required them to make judgements on.
Whatever form they may have taken would of course have been different to that which is portrayed later. Yet, a look at the basic component parts of such legal tracts – at their underlying cognitive attributes – in terms of how base concepts were viewed and understood, can be a useful exercise. At a fairly simple level, what comes across in the law tracts is a highly stratified society of graded ranks carrying legally recognized/prescribed values, worth, honour ‘prices’ and, in the case of higher classes, base clients.
And interestingly, something akin to Patrick’s words i.e. a value of fifteen – is included.
A Noble Call
According to the main texts concerning noble status (Críth Gablach and Uraicecht Becc) there are several defined grades of higher nobleship which involved increasing wealth/value/worth/ as one moved up the aristocratic ladder. The three highest grades are given as aire ardd (‘high lord’); aire túise (‘lord of leadership’) and the highest noble (second only to a king) the aire forgaill (‘lord of superior testimony’). For a flavour of what I’m talking about, here’s how the aire túise is described:Aire túise cid ara n-eperr? Arindí as toísech a ceníul 7 dofet airign-ard. Vii. Céili .xx. la suide, cóic céili x. gíalnai 7 dá shóerchéle . x. lais. A chéili gíalnai, cetheoir baí cona timthuch dó húadaib 7 .v.colpdacha firenna 7 sé dartaidi cach gaimrid cona sambiud. The aire túise (Lord of Leadership) – why is he named? Because he is the leader (toísech) of his kindred and he takes precedence over the aire ardd. He has 27 clients – 15 clients of hostageship and 12 free clients with him. His clients of hostageship – 4 cows with their accompaniments to him from them and 5 two year old bullocks and 6 male yearlings each winter with their summer food.
(Swift, 2013, 45; after Binchy, Críth Gablach, ll.386-91)
Now, the interesting thing about all three grades (even with some discrepancies/scribal errors between CG and UB) are the relative values which occur in relation to both honour price and numbers of clients/vassalage.
Crith Gablach specifies:
- aire forgill: honour price of 25 séts / 20 clients
- aire túise: honour price of 20 séts / 15 clients
- aire ardd: honour price of15 séts / 10 clients
While Uraicecht Becc gives:
- aire forgill 30 séts
- aire ardd 20 séts
- aire túise 15 séts
Ready, Sét, Go…
The Sét was one of the standard units/terms of value in early Irish laws, used particularly for those grades below the level of kings and, interestingly, also used in terms of fines – with the value/unit of 5 séts being particularly common. Note the above increases in steps of five. It seems singular units of five was a underlying base concept with regard to the above. (I’ve always favored ancient currencies and numeric systems based on five as being far more reliable – five digits on hand – easy to count!).
Séts (séuti, seuta, seda) in early Irish literature are understood to mean ‘an object of value, a chattel, a unit of value’, and most likely derives from OI ‘Sét’ – literally meaning ‘treasure, jewel, valuable’. (NB. modern Irish seoid/seod: ‘jewel’). Now compare that with Patrick’s original Latin term used to qualify ‘fifteen’: ‘pretium‘ (‘worth, price, value’) and we have comparative expressions which wouldn’t be a million miles away from each other, despite the intervening centuries between them.
A Noble Status
In terms of clients and vassals, the primary basis underlying noble status in the laws seems to have involved reciprocal relationships of exchange based on contracts between lords and clients. Advancing up the ranks involved gaining higher numbers, each receiving benefits from each other – the lord providing capital/support and the client providing regular provisions/shares/service. Interestingly some of the later law tracts give some additional details regarding noble status and some potentially wider roles/duties/rights of office:
“The law texts imply that at least some ranks of lords did not owe their status entirely to their clientele, but to duties on behalf of their kin and túath. They acted as spokesmen for their kindred and some even for the túath in their dealings with the king, the Church or other territories.
Aire tuise, cid ara neper? Arindí as toísech a ceníul … .lánchongna, i túaith do aidbdenaib, do noillechaib, do gi[u]llm do gíall, do cahirdiu tar cenn ceníul tar crích 7 i tech flatha.
(CG ll. 386–7, 411–3, translation McLeod 1987, 42).
The aire túise, for what reason he is [so] called? For the fact that he is a leader of people… [he is of] full assistance in the kingdom for representations, for oaths, for a pledge, for a hostage, for treaty on behalf of a people across the border and in the house of the Lord.
Also MS (Míadslechta) claims that aire túise represents kindreds and pleads their cases to the king. It also states that the rank called aire ard or aire forgaill, which is second only to the king, represents the territory. Aire ard was elected by the free men of the túath and was involved in the making of cáinand cairde laws which concerned the túath and its neighbours. High status lords also had special powers of protection: aire ard for instance could provide a sanctuary (ardneimed) for the people of his túath
(Ritari, 2005, 75)
Taking Account of Cash Fow
Now, bearing all that mind, lets look at Patrick’s original passage again:
“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen persons/men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”
Confessio 53 (My Trans.)
You can perhaps see where I’m going with this.
Bearing in mind the caveats and cautions mentioned previously, it is nevertheless tempting to see similarities. The legal depictions of noble leadership involving representation and negotiation with kings and across borders on behalf of specific kindred groups/people – with some recognized powers of protection – reads very much like a later version of what Patrick describes. The qualified value of ‘fifteen persons/men’ that he paid to ‘those who judge’ in several territories could parallel the same concept behind the depicted minimum honour value/clientship requirements of the higher noble grades as expressed in the later law texts. It should also be pointed out that Patrick specifies that his price/value of ‘fifteen’ was a minimum number – implying that at times he spent even more, when necessary.
If this holds any water, then we may just be looking at a fascinating fragmentary depiction of fifth century Ireland on Patrick’s part. One which implies that an earlier base version of the later noble lordship grade was potentially available to him. Paying his way, or rather, paying the prescribed minimum, may have been done to secure public recognition/status within an insular proto-legal framework. If we can presume that the later law tracts contain some underlying remnants or cognitive elements of fifth century social division and custom; then Patrick’s efforts could reflect an attempt on his part to publicly ingratiate himself – and his Christian ‘kindred’ – within the bounds of insular social norms.
In order to be recognized as a bishop/leader to his Christian ‘clients’ within a pagan society, he needed to be (outwardly) considered and treated as a member of an elevated noble rank – with all the privileges and rights which accompanied it. Something akin to a proto-aire ardd or aire forgiall – a high lord, or leader of his own Christian ‘kindred’ – representing, protecting his flock and negotiating with kings in multiple territories and across borders on their behalf.
Which sounds pretty ‘episcopal’ to me, should one wish to harness it.
Of course, as a recognized noble ‘lord’ in Irish society he would presumably have needed to be seen as acting as such – and as we have seen in the later laws – one of the qualifications of such grades were the numbers of clients in service. As part of that arrangement, a lord was expected to receive his rightful portion of their shares and profits…
To Be Concluded…
For a fascinating illustration of how early medieval ecclesiastical authors perceived Patricks own words in Confessio 53, see Tírechán’s Collectanea – a hagiographical text written by a late seventh century Irish bishop from North Mayo. Tírechán may have been writing as a Patrician propagandist, but he was also a sapiens, a learned ecclesiastical scholar, and much of his text contains formulaic legal motifs and symbolism expressly designed to appeal to, and resonate with, high status insular Irish minds.
In one of the main sections of his text, where Saint Patrick is portrayed as concluding a ‘foedus’ ( a treaty, agreement, contract) with King Loíguire at Tara, Tírechán overtly refers to the historical Patricks own words in Confessio 53:
et extendit patricius etiam praetium xv animarum hominum, ut in scriptione sua adfirmat, de argento et auro ut nullum malorum hominum inpederet eos inuia recta transeuntes totam hiberniam…
and Patrick also extended/paid the worth/price of 15 live men, as he affirms in his writings, in silver and gold so no bad/evil/wicked men would prohibit/obstruct them traversing/crossing the whole of Ireland…
LA, fol.10v; Collectanea 15 (4-5)
This is a very important witness to how the early medieval Irish interpreted Patrick’s own words. Tírechán was working from Patrick’s own writings at a time when the early Irish laws on nobility and status (above) were being codified and written down. In other words, they were a real entity in the contemporary political and ecclesiastical climate of his time. Tírechán makes a direct connection between Patrick’s Confessio 53 statement and his own portrayal of a saintly treaty/contract with a king that promises non-interference and security of travel/access across all of Ireland.
Leaving aside hagiographical propaganda, it supplies us with an early insular interpretation of Patricks original meaning. In the late seventh century, some two hundred years after Patrick, an early Irish author seeking to underline and cement hagiography with early Irish legal metaphor saw no problem with presenting and equating Patrick’s fifth century words within seventh century insular legal terms. In doing so, he seems to have been somewhat confident that his audience would make the same connections.
Charles Edwards, T. (2000) Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge Univ Press.
Doherty, C. (1980) ‘Exchange and Trade in Early Medieval Ireland’. JRSAI 110, 67–89.
Kelly, F. (1988) A Guide to Early Irish Law. DIAS, Dublin.
Latvio, R. (2005) ‘Status and Exchange in Early Irish Laws’, in Studia Celtica Fennica 2, 67-96
Swift, C (2013) Pictish Brooches and Pictish Hens: Status and Currency in Early Scotland. Groam House Museum. Ross-Shire.