SSP: The Confessio

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

Saint Patrick of Ireland
Saint Patrick of Ireland

The Confessio was remarkably preserved, having circulated since at least the seventh century, and remains at least partially extant in eight early medieval manuscripts.[1] As for when the Confessio was written, it appears to have come near the end of the saint’s life (“This is my confession before I die.”), after he had spent appreciable time in Ireland.[2] Patrick’s lack of personal names and dates provides little information for an exact dating. Following a general timeline of his life, however, we may safely date the final form of the Confessio to between 455 and 461 CE. The genre of this writing has been a somewhat debated topic, for its contents do not seem uniform in nature.[3] As John Morris writes, “His [Patrick’s] writings were not autobiographical, not arranged chronologically, but are tracts written for specific purposes.”[4]

The contents and tone of the Confessio have led many to categorize this writing alongside that ‘other’ piece of late-antique/early-medieval literature bearing a similar name, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions.[5] Indeed, Conneely appears to be correct in arguing that, given the thematic and literary parallels between Augustine and Patrick, it would be “surprising if Patrick could use the word confession so frequently and explicitly without any awareness of the great tradition of the genre within which he is writing….”[6] Concerns about why Patrick penned his Confessio are connected with the genre he used to publish his autobiography/defense. As Bury writes, “The express motive of the Confession is to declare the wonderful dealings of God with himself, as a sort of repayment—retributio—or thanksgiving.”[7] More specifically, however, Patrick clearly addresses a number of criticisms throughout his narrative—often pausing his narrative for extended periods to discuss an issue.

Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine

Four major issues clearly weighed on Patrick’s mind as he wrote: initial resistance about appointment as bishop, the British reaction against the Epistola ad milites Corotici, the adolescent sin revealed by a friend, and doubts concerning the legitimacy of some financial transactions.[8] In response to these criticisms, Patrick confesses his reliance upon God and attempts to correct the false opinions of others surrounding his life and the reasons for his actions. But to whom was Patrick responding with his Confessio? Although some have posited a single, particular audience for this writing, the variety of Patrick’s concerns, the lack of particular persons and events and the widespread popularity of the Confessio suggest that Patrick wrote with a broad British and Irish (and possible Continental) audience in mind.[9] To summarize the Confessio, then, it constitutes a pastoral autobiography/defense of Patrick’s life and actions, written for a wide audience in the style of Augustine’s Confessions toward the end of his life.

[1]Ludwig Bieler. Codices Patriciani Latini: A Descriptive Catalogue of Latin Manuscripts Relating to St. Patrick. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1942. 1-3. Bieler, “Libri Epistolarum”, 6. For descriptions of these manuscripts, see Bieler, “Libri Epistolarum”, 7-10. Of these manuscripts, the Book of Armaugh (D) inhabits a different textual form than the other seven (PVRFCG), though both families are ultimately connected through a common second-level ancestor. According to Bieler’s textual reconstruction, D and archetype φ are not identical, but are related through their common exemplar ω. See Bieler, “Libri Epistolarum”, 11-29.

[2] Confessio 62. Morris, “Dates”, 361-2. E.A. Thompson. Who Was Saint Patrick? Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1986. 106.

[3] Bieler, “Place of Saint Patrick”, 97-8. Conneely, 131. de Paor, 9. Mohrmann, 4-6.

[4] Morris, “Dates”, 359.

[5] Conneely, 136. de Paor, 9. Conneely offers a superb discussion of the “double strand of development, the biblical and the classical” which influenced Augustine’s Confessions and the subsequent Christian genre of confession literature, including the Confessio. See Conneely, 136-139. de Paor’s mathematical and literary analysis of the Confessio  attempts to connect the overarching structure of the letter with a variety of historical models, including the fivefold divisions of the Hebrew Pentetuech, Psalms, and Gospel of Matthew (See de Paor, 11). Additionally, she argues the following; “Written some time before Patrick’s death, it is also in the tradition of the great biblical Farewell Speeches, those of Jacob (Gn 49) and Moses (Dt 32-33), to name two of the seven from the Old Testament; Christ’s Farewell to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 13-17) and Paul’s to his friends at Miletus (Ac 20:7-36) in the New. It is no coincidence that Patrick quotes Paul’s unrivalled pastoral testament at Miletus six times in his writings, three in the Epistola (E 5, 10, 12) and three in the Confessio (C 43, 48, 55).” See de Paor, 10.

[6] Conneely, 140. We will revisit these connections in Part Two below.

[7] Bury, 160.

[8] Demers, 22. Lynch, 118. Thompson, 106-108.

[9] Bury, 163-164. Charles-Edwards, 219. Thompson argues for a particular audience, namely, British Christians living in Ireland, either as clergy or slaves. See Thompson, 112-123.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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