SSP: On Patrician Geography

This post is part of an ongoing series on the Scriptures of Saint Patrick of Ireland.

Dioceses of Roman Empire, c. 300

Dioceses of Roman Empire, c. 300

A second part of “The Patrick Problem” involves geography: the question of whether Patrick was trained in Gaul. As with Patrick’s chronology, there are three basic answers to this query: first, that Patrick visited Gaul but did not train there; second, that he never visited or trained in Gaul; third, that he was trained in Gaul.

The first perspective—that Patrick visited Gaul for a brief period but was not in any way trained there—is held by Patricia Colling Egan.[1] Binchy and Hanson hold the second viewpoint, that Patrick never visited (and therefore, never trained in) Gaul.[2] For Hanson, Patrick’s use of vulgar Latin problematizes any claims that he spent extensive time on the continent.[3] The third argument—that Patrick was trained in Gaul, possibly in Auxerre—is affirmed by Muirchu’s Vita of Patrick, Bieler, Morris, and Thomas.[4]

patrick21Particularly important for this final viewpoint are Patrick’s words in Confessio 19, where he writes “after three days” his escape made landfall. As Charles Thomas notes, “With only a moderate sea and winds, an average speed of 3-4 miles an hour—reasonable for a small sailing vessel—would bring a boat to Leon, the north-west peninsula of Brittany, in those 72 hours.”[5] It thus seems likely that Patrick’s escape from Ireland led him straight to Gaul and (eventually) theological training of some kind at Auxerre or Tours.[6] As for Hanson’s critique of Patrick’s lack of fluency in Latin, it seems rather unfair to expect Patrick (who, lest we forget, had his Latin education interrupted by kidnapping) to quickly acquire literary Latin skills while in Gaul, let them stagnate for close to thirty years while he evangelized in Old Irish, and the resurrect them in perfecto forma whilst composing his pastoral Confessio. As will be noted below, the Latin which Patrick was clearly most comfortable inhabiting was that of the Bible, which would likely have been the only Latin source he had regular access to as a missionary bishop serving in Ireland.[7]

In answer to “The Patrick Problem,” then, I argue that Patrick lived c. 390-461 CE and was trained in Gaul.


[1] Egan, 56.

[2] Binchy, 30-1. Hanson, Life and Writings, 1.

[3] Hanson, Life and Writings, 28-30.

[4] Bieler, “Patrick and the British Church”, 125. Ludwig Bieler. “The Place of Saint Patrick in the Latin Language and Literature.” Vigilae Christianae 6, 2 (1952): 66. Morris, “Introduction”, 3. Thomas, 328.

[5] Thomas, 321.

[6] Thomas, 324. Bieler argues that the reason that the Corpus Martinianum appears along with Patrick’s writings in the Book of Armagh is because Patrick brought those materials back with him to Ireland from Tours. See Bieler, “Place of Saint Patrick”, 70. Bieler also has a rather clear theory concerning Patrick’s movement from Auxerre to Ireland and his subsequent friction with the British Church, writing: “I take it, then, that Patrick, while residing in Auxerre, became a candidate for the head of the Irish mission, but was rejected by a ‘board meeting’… that was held in Britain. There is only one known event that meets the case i.e., the delegation of Germanus and Lupus to Britain against the Neo-Pelgaians in 429. It must have been in the course of this mission that the creation of an Irish episcopate was contemplated, and that Auxerre’s candidate, Patrick, was passed over in favour of Palladius, whom he succeeded after this premature death.” (Ibid., 126) Later, then, the British Church continued to oppose Patrick’s career, especially after he succeeded the deceased Palladius (Ibid., 130). Bieler concludes that, “The fact that Bede does not make a single mention of Patrick – although he records, from Prosper, the mission of Palladius (HE i.13) – has always been felt to be rather strange. It would be all the stranger if Patrick had been an emissary of the church of Britain.” Ibid.

[7] On this, see Confessio 9 and Conneely, 207.

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