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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Patrick - The Man Behind the Legend

Today there will be celebrations in many parts of the world in honour of St Patrick. The day is a public holiday in Ireland and in some other countries where there is a strong Irish Roman Catholic presence. There will, no doubt, be flags, parades and green beer among other things, including folk dressed as Leprechauns, Irish dancers and Scottish bagpipe bands. (The "Irish" or Uillieann Pipes (From the Irish and literally meaning "Pipes of the Elbow) are played seated with the drones across the legs. The bellows are operated by the players elbow to keep the 'bag' filled with air.) Many of those taking part will know a bit about the legendary figure they are celebrating - like his supposed driving the snakes out of Ireland - but not much more.
This is surprising in many respects since we actually know more about St Patrick than any other person of similar standing in Britain in his period. The reason is that we have two authentic documents, copies of originals written by him, still in existence. From their contents we are able to reconstruct much of his life and the society in which he worked. In recent years re-interpreters have been busy rearranging some of these facts to suit whatever their agendas may be. This seems to be an attempt to downplay and even discredit him and his life's work. 
It is a fate now befalling many other historic figures. The classic example is Dan Brown's abuse of history and fact in his Da Vinci Code. The "Priory of Sion" was the invention of a M. Pierre Plantard in 1956. It was not a remnant of the "Templars" or any other ancient crusading order. Nor was Leonardo da Vinci ever in any way connected to it or that other now infamous group, the Illuminati. A short-lived and rather predatory Masonic Order that was suppressed in 1756 and existed for a total of 56 years. It had nothing whatever to do with the Bilderberger Group. All of that is the figment of Mr Brown's imagination. But conspiracy theorists love it.
I recently came across a statement that St Patrick had been convicted in a British Court of "impersonating" a Bishop and that he was not in fact consecrated as one. This is apparently based on his "Confessio" - translated by his detractors as "Confession" when it actually means "Declaration" - which is biographical and was almost certainly an answer to his detractors in Britain. We know nothing whatever about what these "charges" were, since neither the names of his detractors, any record of their activities or ministry, nor of any "court proceedings" survived the Saxon, Pict and Danish invasions. What we do know is that the British Church was, at this time, under interdict from the rest of the Church for its adherence and practice of "Pelagianism." 
The charge about his "masquerading" as a Bishop is a spurious one, based on the mis translation and possibly misunderstanding of the statement in the opening paragraph of his "Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus" following a raid by the Welsh-Pict "King" - himself a noted Pelagian - in which he excommunicated the King and all his followers and supporters. The relevant salutation states - 
PATRICIUS PECCATOR INDOCTUS SCILICET HIBERIONE CONSTITUTUS EPISCOPUM ME ESSE FATEOR. 
This translates as -
I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. 
It is that final part of the sentence which some have seized on to claim he was a "self declared" Bishop and therefore an impostor. Two things must be remembered here, first that Cromwell probably destroyed the original copy of this letter when he burned what is known as the "Ogham Library" in his campaigns against Catholicism (And some would add Christianity itself) in Ireland. Patrick would have written his original on thin wooden "leaves" which were more durable than the Papyrus used in the Mediterranean. Vellum would have been too difficult to obtain and hugely expensive, so was reserved for things such as copies of the Gospels and other books of the Bible. Secondly, unfortunately, the copyists weren't perfect, and his handwriting probably wasn't that good either. He is likely to have been almost crippled by arthritis as a result of poor diet and abuse as a slave. In fact one story attested within a generation of his death, is that a Bishop named Cartan or Macartan carried him everywhere in the last years of his life. This speaks loudly of a man crippled by an arthritic condition.
As the late Archbishop George Otto Sims has written, Patrick's salutation to the Soldiers of Coroticus is a standard phraseology used in almost every document written by a bishop of that period. What stands out as unique is his use of the term, in reference to himself, as an "untaught sinner." It occurs again in the "Declaration." The letter predates the Declaration, which leads scholars to believe that the excommunication of Coroticus and his supporters led to an attempt to discredit Patrick. It failed, not least because his bishopric was not only valid, but successful. Archbishop Sims (Anglican) and Msgr Liam de Paor (Roman Catholic), describe him as "the first missionary bishop of the church since St Paul." They also point to the fact that, far from being "unlearned" Patrick knows his scriptures intimately and his writing is riddled with quotations from the pre-Vulgate texts in use in the 5th Century.
We know he was the son of a Romano-British official, his father probably a Decurion in Roman parlance, and his grandfather a priest. His full names were Magnus Sucatus Patricius, the first being his actual "nomen," the second the Family name and the third his "cognomen" or nickname. (Julius Caesar is actually Gaius Julius - Caesar means "Hairy" and was probably a derogatory nickname since he was notoriously hairless.) The Decurion class were landowning, usually held public service offices such as being magistrates, running towns and so on. 
Patrick's parents were obviously of this class, having both a "town" residence and a villa somewhere near the shore. Most recent examination of both the clues in his texts and of the history of the period, suggest his most probable "home" to have been along the southern shore of Wales near the mouth of the Severn Estuary or on the north shore of Somerset and South Gloucestershire. It is generally agreed that the copyists got the name of the town wrong - probably because they couldn't read his original - sionce there is nowhere in Roman Britain named "Bannavem Taburnia." There are, however, a number of "Bannaventas" which meant "Market of ..." and several such towns are known in the area I mentioned, several with names easily corrupted by bad handwriting to "Taburnia."
His birth was probably in 385 or 386 AD and he appears, from his own account, to have been a victim of a major raid on the Severn Estuary, South Wales, Somerset and Devon in 401 AD. It is also important to realise that the Irish tribes lived to a law different from the rest of Europe. Rome enforced a system of "manumission" which allowed a slave to be freed or to buy his or her freedom. The Irish did not. Under the law of the Brehon, a slave was a slave, was a slave. Male slaves had a lower value than females and ranked somewhere below the beasts of burden or the owner's hunting hounds. A slave was bought naked and lived that way unless his owner clothed him, and if he was sold, he was sold naked and without any tools, no matter if he had made any to help in his work.
Patrick tells us it took two days sailing to reach Ireland following the raid, with a pause while other raiders assembled at a resting place probably near St David's in West Wales. This is an important clue to his home, since the Irish raiders used light fast craft with an extremely efficient rig. A raid on the coast anywhere further north, say in Cheshire, Lancashire or Scotland, would not have required a two day passage to reach Ireland. He also tells us that he had committed some heinous "sin" which had resulted in his being "rusticated" to the family villa, presumably while his father dealt with the fallout. Since sexual license was fairly widespread the "sin" is unlikely to have been sexual, although that may have been the incentive which some scholars speculate involved a death. Whatever it was, it haunted Patrick for the rest of his life. He saw his period as a slave as a just punishment for his crime, though it took him a while to come to this conclusion. After his escape he tells us he returned home and he then "vanishes" for some 20 years. Again, later monastics tried to claim he'd become a monk during this time, but if this was true, he would certainly have mentioned it and he doesn't. 
Another favourite argument I have seen concerning his bishopric is that his name does not appear in the lists of those consecrated by the Bishops of Rome at this period. This ignores the fact that Rome was not the only "authority" at that time, almost all the Diocesan Bishops were consecrating other bishops, appointing and ordaining priests and sending them on various missions. Monasticism was in its infancy, Lerins, near NIce, being the earliest established and recognised community living to a "Rule."
Historically another man, Palladius Patricius was sent by Rome to Ireland, probably to the area now called Leinster and we also know, from other sources, that he took Magnus Sucatus with him. At some point Palladius and Patrick parted company, the latter returning to Gaul shortly before Palladius unexpectedly died. The Gaulish bishops, then busy dealing with the Pelagian heretics in Britannia didn't waste any time and sent the former slave straight back. The evidence suggests that Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, Lupus of Troyes and the bishop of Paris all had a hand in it. Germanus was the appointed leader of the anti-Pelagian mission, a well documented event.
What makes Patrick unique is that he never made any exaggerated claims and he never forgot his "sin." His humility and the effort he put into his ministry shine like a light in the darkness to those who look for it. He took his life in his hands returning to his former master's tribal lands. The Law of the Brehon prescribed that an escaped slave must be either returned to his master or killed. So how did Patrick escape that fate?
Quite simply, he described himself as "The Slave of Christ" and when challenged always told the challenger that he "served his Master, his God." There were several attempts on his life and on his person. He survived them all and he was always released when taken into slavery again. 
Rather than trying to "re-interpret" documents and evidence we should look more closely at the life and the man. Here was a man who foreswore everything, life, birthright, comfort and home, to serve God. In his latter years, according to a medical professional who has studied the accounts of his "assistants", he should have been bedridden by his late 50's, yet continued working into his late 70s even though he was probably crippled. Among the things he will have suffered from as a result of his years as a slave, are malnutrition (critical in later life if suffered as a teenager), probably deformity of his legs as a result of being used as a beast of burden and malnutrition, damage to his joints as a result of labour and poor diet in his late puberty, possible infertility, and disease associated with parasites in the bowel. There may well have been other injuries due to abuse, punishment and even sexual abuse. That he survived to a possible age of 76 years is almost miraculous. That he remained steadfast in his faith is indisputable.
I will mark his feast day properly, with an act of worship to God and thanks for the life and example of Magnus Sucatus Patricius, Saint, Bishop, Missionary and exemplary Christian.  

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