17 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Historical (St) Patrick

Image: Author

St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us again. To celebrate, here’s an flagrantly shameless click-baity 17 point listicle (I like to think of it as a ‘histicle’) on aspects of the historical (St) Patrick which are not widely known or usually discussed in modern media. His two surviving documents (and their respective manuscript versions) can be read in a variety of languages here.

1 – Recorded Irish History Starts With Patrick

Before being grossly inflated to within an inch of his hagiographical life by early medieval authors, the man we call ‘Patrick’ was an actual historical person. He lived sometime in the late 4th/early 5thC AD. Copies of two documents written by him survive. They are the earliest known texts known to have been written within Ireland. As such, recorded Irish ‘history’ (the study of the written word) starts with Patrick. There’s absolutely nothing earlier. Nor indeed, anything after him, for more than a century. The very fact that his writings managed to survive at all is pretty feckin’ amazing.

2 – Growing Up, Patrick Was A Spoiled Little Shit

St. Patrick didn’t call himself ‘Patrick’. Or ‘Saint’. He identified himself as ‘Patricius. His father was both a deacon and a type of Roman Town Councillor. His grandfather was a priest. His family’s villa estate had servants. In modern day parlance, Patrick was a totally spoiled little shit. With a maid. Despite the families ecclesiastical connections, he didn’t have a very religious upbringing at all. He says himself that he didn’t pay much attention to priests in general. Too busy gallivanting and drinking Frappuccinos probably. There’s a good chance his father only took on the role of ecclesiastical deacon in order to help mitigate the families imperial tax liabilities. ‘Tax avoidance, your honour. Not evasion. That money was just resting in my account’.

3 –  Rude Britannia

Many people, past and present, have laid several modern nationalist claims on Patrick’s ethnicity; despite the fact that Patrick clearly identified himself and his family as being Britons from the island of Britain. This means he would have considered himself British (in the late antiquity sense of the word). His native language would have been Brythonic. Despite this language being the precursor of Welsh, he would not have considered himself as such. He couldn’t have. A coherent welsh identity didn’t yet exist.  They still had all their own vowels for fecks sake. His (unidentified) home town was, in all likelihood, somewhere in North West Britain, not far from the Hadrians Wall frontier zone. Despite living near the (modern day) Scottish border, he did not identify with the inhabitants there either. In fact, he expresses a particular hatred for the insular peoples of Scotland, i.e. ‘The Picts’, essentially calling them worthless, unworthy, blood thirsty, evil thieving bastards. Seriously. He couldn’t stand them blue arsed pagan feckers.

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Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas

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Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.

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Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 2]

(Continued from Part One…)

‘The Britains’ and the ‘Britons’ in Patricks Writings

In his writings Patrick makes it clear that as someone whose homeland was in ‘the Britains’, he not only considered himself a foreigner in Ireland, but also that the people he  lived among were, in turn, considered foreigners/strangers from a Roman perspective: inter barbaras itaque gentes habito proselitus et profuga, ‘I live among barbarian foreigners, as a stranger and exile’ (Epist 1); ubi nunc paruitas mea esse uidetur inter alienigenas, ‘It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was’ (Conf 1); denique seruus sum in Christo genti exterae, ‘Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people’ (Epist 10).

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