SSP: Other Historical Patrick Issues

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

SaintPatrickShamrockLess divisive than the issues of chronology and geography, but no less important, are claims surrounding Patrick’s possible monasticism, his Latinity, and the plethora of extant traditions about Patrick’s life and work. From time to time the question of Patrick’s monasticism has been raised. Some have argued that the episcopal evangelist was celibate and others that he simply inhabited a deep and simple spirituality.[1] The omnipresence of the Bible in Patrick’s writings—as well as his preference for the Psalter—might suggest he had a monastic background of some sort.[2] Yet Hanson’s judgment seems best, that “The question of whether Patrick was himself dedicated to an ascetic life is worth raising, even though it cannot be answered with any certainty.”[3]

The Latinity of the Irish saint (i.e., his familiarity and adeptness with Latin) has been a question since Christine Mohrmann took Patrick’s writing to task for its poor command of literary Latin.[4] It has been consistently noted that Patrick employed colloquial (vulgare) Latin overlaid with the ecclesiastical “book-language” of the Latin Bible[5] and Patrick himself notes the rustic (rusticus) form of his Latin on several occasions.[6] Yet despite the roughness of his style, Patrick’s writings became “an adequate medium for the grandeur of his theme, rises to the height of his great argument.”[7]

Early Medieval IrelandFinally, a number of other traditions surround the life of Patrick, perhaps most notably the legends of his ridding Ireland of snakes and his trip to Rome. Such traditions—and many of the others recorded in the seventh century biographies of Patrick—have generally been problematized by modern scholarship as hagiographical, mythological, or confusion with another historical figure.[8] Consideration of these issues — Patrick’s monasticism, Latinity, and other surrounding traditions — help paint our final picture of the historical Patrick, an evangelistic bishop committed to deep spirituality if not monasticism, employing colloquial Latin to supplement his command of ecclesiastical Latin, and whose work in Ireland was somewhat less mythical than many of the Patrician traditions would have us believe.


[1] Charles-Edwards, 224. Hanson, Life and Writings, 48.

[2] Isabelle Cochelin. “When the Monks Were the Book.” The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity. Edited by Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 61-62, 69. Cochelin reminds us that, “All in all, the omnipresence of the Bible in the daily life of monks was such that they generally knew it by heart—if not all, at least the Psalter—and their utterances were suffused with biblical reminiscences.” As a general rule, this description would fit Patrick well.

[3] Hanson, Life and Writings, 50.

[4] Christine Mohrmann. The Latin of Saint Patrick: Four Lectures. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1961.

[5] Bieler, “Place of Saint Patrick”, 84. Conneely, 206-207. Hughes, 305-6. Thomas, 308.

[6] Confessio 9-10, 12, 46, 49.

[7] Conneely, 212. There is also, as de Paor notes, the possibility that something was lost in translation: “Given Patrick’s manifest gift for oratory, it is likely that the rich and colourful British and Irish idioms found unique expression in his Latin, and that some of his phrases, which defy adequate translation and have baffled scholars from Mohrmann to Bieler and Hanson, may in fact be old Irish or British idioms wearing a Roman toga.” See de Paor, 20. Another possibility is that Patrick’s writings were dictated, see Lynch (126-128, esp. 128, n6) on this possibility.

[8] Bury, Place in History, 204. For an extensive survey of the development of Patrick studies, see Binchy, 7-173. For insights into the formation of the mythology of Patrick and his ridding Ireland of snakes, see Alexander H. Krappe, “St. Patrick and the Snakes.” Traditio 5 (1947): 323-330. On the legend of the trip to Rome, see Binchy (11), Egan (56), and Thomas (334). In the words of Binchy, “Doubtless most, if not all, Patrician scholars would now admit that these [aforementioned] and many other features of the seventh-century biographies are simply folklore and have nothing to do with the true history of the saint.” See Binchy, 59.

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