British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Chapter 4.3: Muirchu and his sources

Fabio P. Barbieri


We must separate Patrician dates depending on the legend of Loegaire - and which, therefore, are certain to be legendary - from those that are not, and therefore have a chance of being historical.  One such group of data is that which places Patrick's death in the early years of Loegaire's reign, including the notorious 457 death date in the Annals of Ulster and the Chronicon Scottorum; others, found in various Irish annals, include Palladius’ landing and death, the death dates of some of Patrick’s collaborators (Secundinus, 446/7/8, 427 to 450[1]; Auxilius, 454/59/60; Iserninus, 465/68/69; Benignus, 467/8, in Rome according to one source[2]), and Patrick’s probatio at the hands of Pope Leo[3].  Other Patrician data are preserved in a hymn of praise attributed to his colleague Secundinus, and in the so-called Lives of the saint, which belong to a hagiographic genre so unlike our idea of biography that scholars tend to use the Latin name Vita, Vitae to underline their distance from an ordinary English “Life and letters of…”

The first of these to survive, and the one on which the others all seem based – especially in their “Palladian” sections[4]- is the Life of St.Patrick written in 683 by Muirchu, a Leinster churchman, on the orders of Aed, bishop of Sletty.  Writing Saints' lives may have been something of a family tradition, since Muirchu's father, or perhaps spiritual father, seems to have been the Cogitosus who was the author of a popular Life of St.Brigid. Brigid, however, was an obvious subject for a clergyman from Leinster, whose warlike and well-loved patroness the "Saint" was; Patrick, the great saint of Ulster, was a less likely subject, and it has been suggested that the book was part of a complex diplomatic manoeuvre to draw the still schismatic North into the Roman Catholic church by acknowledging the primacy of Armagh, the see of St.Patrick's successors and the North's greatest bishopric, in exchange for Armagh's adhesion to Rome.  Anyway, Muirchu was an outsider rather than a member of the Armagh succession with its Patrician claims, and may have suffered less from the lust to glorify Patrick at all costs.

For the first surviving biography of such a great saint, Muirchu's work is modest indeed, an introduction and 41 short chapters, some of them barely a paragraph long, occupying no more than 14 pages in a modern edition[5].  But its very size lends it credibility.  Muirchu leaves the impression that he really has restricted himself to existing accounts, and that even where his material is obviously legendary, it is not freshly made up.  The range of miracles attributed to the saint is far more modest than the nine men raised from the dead, nor his learning as awesome as the 365 alphabets, that Nennius thrust on him!  This, I think, really is what a conscientious outside investigator was able to find out about Patrick in about 685.

Nevertheless the vast majority of what he tells of the Saint is fantasy, whether or not dependent on any historical reality.  Luckily all his most determinedly unhistorical material is set in Ireland, and the only part of his account I intend to defend is the story of Patrick's life up to his consecration as Bishop, set overseas in Britain and Gaul.

Muirchu knew that Patrick was British; he had read the Confession, though not the Letter to Coroticus; and his account bristles with tempting material about Palladius, St.Germanus, Pope Celestine, Gaul and Britain, for which we have no other source (bar a number of later Lives arguably derived from him), but which seems to fit only too well with the few data known to us from Patrick, Prosper and Constantius.  We know from the unchallengeable contemporary authority of Prosper that Palladius was the first Bishop of the Irish, sent by Pope Celestine; Muirchu tells us that he achieved little and, within a year, died in Britain, and that Patrick, hearing of his failure, was consecrated bishop by "bishop Amatorex", a neighbour of St.Germanus of Auxerre (at whose feet Patrick had been studying as a priest for years), and came to take his place.

Do these stories have any grounding in history?  Without committing himself, Dumville leaves the impression of thinking not, and I think it is fair to say that most scholars would agree.  Nobody denies that Irish historical sources up to at least the late sixth century are thoroughly unreliable, and that even after that, dates and lines of descent were pawed about in what seems to us a most unscrupulous manner every time a new dynasty or an ambitious monastery wanted to assert a claim.  The burden of proof is on any historian wanting to use Muirchu, or any other Irish source, as factual evidence for anything whatever before the 600s; it is safer to relegate them to the dustbin marked "informative for the age they were written in, not for the age they describe", and in most cases I would do exactly that.  But in the case of Muirchu - and of the annalistic sources that seem to preserve other traditions about Patrick and Palladius - I intend to argue that the close fit with Prosper, however tempting and "too good to be true", is not misleading, and that Muirchu's account of Patrick's early years includes a considerable amount of history and derives, however huge its misunderstandings, from an ultimate historical source.

Muirchu mentions the existence of several earlier Patrician texts, of which only two have come down to us: Patrick's own Confession and the seventh-century "Book of the Angel", Liber Angueli, a legendary account of Patrick's death whose main point is to place a summary of the claims of Armagh in the mouth of an angel, as a sort of inheritance from the dying Patrick to Armagh "the land he loved most in all the world".  Muirchu seems to have had a source somewhat like it – but not the same – for Patrick’s death.  His other Patrician sources are quite lost, and even Muirchu’s text we only have in a deplorable condition: only a few manuscripts survive, each of which - to simplify - lacks some considerable part of the whole, so that the complete Vita Patricii can only be reconstructed by fitting together the various parts.  I suppose we should be grateful for having it at all.

It can fortunately be reconstructed pretty accurately, falling into a clear structure according to the old Italian formula for hagiography - vita, morte e miracoli; "life, death and miracles", each of which is a separate and equally important stage.  By the standard of worldly biography, the life of any Saint tends to give a disproportionate amount of space to his death, to prove that the protagonist died in a state of Grace and therefore could be regarded as a Saint; and it is followed by a list of miracles performed post mortem, since those miracles are evidence of sanctity – the Church, to this day, requires evidence of at least two miracles for any process of canonization.

Now Muirchu’s story of the Saint’s death is a clear narrative that shows some points in common with the Liber Angueli, and whose internal consistency does not seem to demand more than one source (2.4-9).  Even more clearly, his first chapters (1.1-4,7) are lifted almost directly from Patrick's Confession, with no more alteration than is needed to rework the Saint's allusive enumeration of points into a continuing narrative.  The only independent statements are the identification of Patrick's home town, and the name of his mother Concessa.  The latter (unlike many other supposed members of Patrick’s family in other Irish sources) is a perfectly credible Roman lady’s name; the former is Muirchu’s own work.  He complains of the confused and dubious nature of his sources, but claims with some pride to have been able to establish his birthplace beyond reasonable doubt[6].

My point is that if we add what we have found out about the legend of Loegaire to the dossier, we come to the conclusion that three parts of Muirchu’s work come, in effect, from unified sources; and that they appear in the work itself as largely solid blocks.  The story of the Saint’s death (2.4-9) comes from a source similar to the Liber Angueli; that of his early years (1.1-4, 1.7) from the Confession; and now we find that the period from his taking sail to Ireland to his defeat of Loegaire (1.10-22) is also a unified story with a beginning, a middle and an end, which must count as a unit and almost certainly comes from one source, probably written, and perhaps with variants, but at any rate certainly not gathered from separate accounts.  And when we examine the whole book in the light of these findings, we also notice that the two areas left over show signs of substantial unity.  Before and after the story of Patrick’s death (1.23-29, 2.1-3, 2.10-12) we find a collection of miracle stories of varying origin and authority, one of which, in my view, may originate in the Saint’s actual lifetime[7], while another, that of Maccuill Moccugreccae, can be dated to the 580s (see Appendix 5).  The common feature of these passages is that, though they show signs of disparate origins and significance, they are all isolated miracle stories with no relevance to larger wholes (save for the story of the foundation of Armagh). All the miracle stories, apart from those which are pertinent to the duel with Loegaire and the Saint’s death, are gathered in these chapters; none are on record before the fire at Tara.  No doubt this reflects the existence of a collection of lesser Patrician mirabilia, possibly gathered from several sources for Muirchu’s benefit.

In other words, we have good grounds to believe that Muirchu worked, essentially, by welding together major blocks of information, derived from separate texts or groups of texts, with as much editing as was necessary to make one single narrative out of them.  For instance, he placed the vision of Victoricus away from the rest of his Confession-derived material, because it was chronologically to be placed in a later period.  The list of miracles sounds like it was assembled from several sources, but all the other items come from single major sources which can be identified with some certainty.

Now, just as the struggle with Loegaire with its antefacts, and the miracle collection, show signs of substantial unity, so too does the one group of chapters not yet covered, chs. 1.5-6, 8-9.  Featuring no miracles, they tell the story of Patrick from his return from slavery to his consecration as bishop.  They are close to the Confession-derived material not only in time but in character, to the point that Muirchu feels confident enough to edit them together; it is probably the case that, just as the story of Victoricus, derived from the Confession, is stranded among this group of passages, so the notice of the name of Patrick’s mother, placed at the head of the Confession-derived chapters, may come from it.  (In fact, if we take this group of chapters to have some grounding in history[8], there is no reason why there should not be some overlap between the source for these passages and the Confession, in such matters as, for instance, the names of Patrick’s relatives.)

We have a marker for Muirchu's use of sources: his handling of Patrick's Confession.  And it is clear from comparisons between his source and his text that he was a most faithful transcriber.  He did not quite copy it out, since he was writing a straightforward narrative quite alien to its form; but he made use of words, expressions, sentences and groups of sentences virtually unchanged, and where he did, it was to make Patrick's expressions clearer.  Patrick describes his flight from his Irish owner: "Ecce nauis tua parata est".  Et non erat prope, sed forte habebat ducenta milia passus, et ibi numquam fueram...  This is Muirchu's version: "Ecce nauis tua parata est"; quae non erat prope, sed forte habebat ducenta milia passuum, ubi numquam habuerat iter...  He does nothing more than strengthen his connectives, change an expression, and alter the case of passus to a genitive plural; in every case, clarifying and improving Patrick’s Latin. For instance, Patrick's et non erat prope is insufficient; it might refer either to the bodiless voice or to the ship; so Muirchu quite rightly replaces it with the feminine nominative singular quae, which vigorously points to the feminine nominative singular nauis parata and away from the masculine accusative singular responsum.  In other words, these corrections and alterations are conscientious and rather necessary: far from pointing to any wish to monkey about with Patrick, they depend on a desire to make his words more intelligible (with which plenty of succeeding readers and translators of the Saint will sympathize).

What is more, comparison with the Confession shows that Muirchu does not embroider or add.  There is a touch of the charlatan in the way he suggests that he could say much more about Patrick's journey home, while in fact he only repeats everything Patrick himself had to say[9]; but he is faithful to his source point by point.  He only ever deviates either to include biblical parallels (often badly chosen) or because he misunderstood his source, or both.  He is not a clever man, and his religiosity is conventional, which leads to serious misrepresentations.  For instance, he calls Victoricus an angel, and he claims that he had visited Patrick in several visions in Ireland and Britain. Patrick; on the other hand, makes it clear that he believed he had experienced the presence of the Trinity in waking visions, and speaks of Victoricus as a “man” (if a “heroic man”, uirum) whom he had seen once, not in a waking vision, but in a dream.  This savours of a correction in the name of an emanationist philosophy like that of the pseudo-Aeropagite[10], in which God does not manifest Himself directly in this world, even when He seems to do so, but acts through orders of angelic beings; Muirchu seems to take it for granted that Patrick could only have seen angels – not God – and when he finds Patrick mentioning one individual by name, he assumes that this is the angel in question.

In the same vein of adequating Patrick’s views to his own, Muirchu comments that his escape after six years of slavery is more hebraico, according to Jewish law, alluding to the liberation of Jewish slaves on the seventh (sabbatical) year; not noting the small matter that this is a law for Jewish slaves of Jewish masters, not for a Jewish (Christian) slave of a pagan master: evidently, as a well-born Irishman whose family or tribe no doubt owned slaves, he is not very happy about Patrick simply cutting and running – bad example, tut-tut – and has to explain it away with a Biblical precedent, however ill-chosen.  When Patrick and his stranded pagan shipmates find swine and honey to eat, Muirchu mentions John the Baptist's feeding on wild honey, while he says that the swine (a base beast) were suited to the baseness of the pagan sailors; a comment that is not only unworthy of their kindness to Patrick, but also out of keeping with the fact that Patrick apparently ate of the pork but not of the honey, since it was the latter that was a heathen sacrifice!  Muirchu gets out of the difficulty by asserting that Patrick ate nothing all the way; not only a superhuman feat, but an unnecessary one.  Clearly, we are far from the power and pertinency with which both Gildas and Patrick himself use biblical imagery; to Muirchu, it does not matter how well an image fits as long as there is the slightest excuse to bring it into play.

But apart from this expression of flatly conventional religiosity and social ideals, a failure to come to grips with the real greatness of his subject which is at any rate not at all untypical of biographers of all ages, Muirchu’s faithfulness to the Confession is in fact quite remarkable, almost word-for-word.  We can, therefore, expect fidelity in such things as ethnic and place names; and in fact that is exactly what we find.  Bannauem Taburniae turns up just where we expect it, though the abstruse foreign name of St.Gemanus’ see of Autessiodorum (Auxerre) forces a misspelling Alsiodorum.

Now Muirchu uses two nouns for Patrick’s fatherland, “Britain”, and two adjectives for his nationality, “British ”: the singular noun Britannia as well as plural Britanniae, and the adjective britannicus as well as britto.[11]  Both passages where he uses the noun Britannis are close and complementary to places where he uses the adjective Brito: Patrick is Brito natione in Britannis natus, and Palladius dies in Britonum finibus... in Britannis: that is, in Britanniis.  Patrick was "of the British nation, born in the Britains" and Palladius died "within the borders of the British... in the Britains".  We may assume that Britanniae and Brito go together as noun and adjective.

Now, as I pointed out, the use of the plural noun Britanniae for post-Roman Britain is a clear marker for the date of a Latin item; a few fourth-century writers speak of the Britanniae; practically all fifth-century writers - St.Patrick, Constantius of Lyons, the Gallic Chronicles – do so; but no sixth-century one does.  It follows that, where Muirchu uses this plural, he is using an archaic fifth-century form, and the fact that, unlike Gildas (and, for that matter, Procopius), he does not understand it, suggests that he is quoting, uncomprehendingly, fifth-century material.  Britanniae did carry on a sort of ghostly half-life in the writings of Constantius of Lyons and A.

We can reverse the argument for the adjectives Britannicus and Brito, which, disregarding the phantasmal Britannus, are the only words Muirchu uses to describe people or things from Britain.  Brito, as we have seen, is the counterpart of Britanniae and must share its fifth-century connotations.  Can we therefore say that the use of Britannicus signals a later source, closer to Muirchu in time?  Yes we can.  Britannicus is Muirchu's description of Coroticus, a person of whom Muirchu knew - in terms of historical knowledge - nothing at all except that he lived in Britain.  He reports an apparently simple-minded miracle story (1.29) in which the infaustus crudelisque tyrannus Coroticus is publicly transformed into an animal and never seen again.  The original author of the story (whom I do not take to be Muirchu) had never read the Letter, since he does not seem to realize, what every reader must, that Coroticus was not a pagan, but a nominal Christian whom Patrick wanted excommunicated for slaughter and enslavement of fellow-Christians.  That is, this chapter is an attempt to make sense of an event in the Saint's life of which the author only knew a couple of points, Coroticus' nationality, and the nature of his crime (enslaving Christians), and perhaps the curious title Rex Aloo, bestowed on Coroticus by the headings of Muirchu's book[12].

Evidently, this tradition developed quite separately from the Letter: I mean, in a quite separate place from where the Letter was preserved.  In the headings, the villain's name is given as Coirtech rex Aloo, and, according to Dumville. "the form Coirtech... is what would be expected in Old Irish if the name had developed naturally in Irish from the fifth century"[13]  Many scholars read Rex Aloo as King of Alclud (=Dumbarton, Strathclyde), and identify him with one Cerictic Gwledig, who turns up in an apparently reliable (at least up to the late 500s) genealogy of the kings of Strathclyde[14].  The identification, though not proven, is eminently believable, and it is certain that out-of-context names and titles are among the data that survived longest (as for instance in the case of Constantine III and Constans), and will be found time and again to be the one historical feature in unhistorical accounts.  The name and title of Coroticus survived where no narrative did; until, to make sense of these bodiless data, they were written into a miracle story by someone who had never read the Letter[15].

This miracle story fits into a clear frame of ideas about Britain that we have found not in Patrick, but in Gildas.  What animal is Coroticus turned into?  A little fox: in fact, a volpecula – the word is the same.  And before he is that, he is defined by the Gildasian words infaustus tyrannus.  We remember that, to Gildas, British tyranni as a category were descended from the perfidi who treacherously murdered the Roman envoys and were then hunted down like - exactly - volpeculae, little foxes; and that the infaustus tyrannus (not Coroticus, but Vortigern) was the worst of their descendants[16].  Clearly, whoever composed the fable had Gildas' categories - or, perhaps, A's - not only firm but clear in mind.  Coroticus is reduced to his essential component: a small, thieving animal, hated and hunted down by Britain's true masters.  Except that the Romans do not appear in this fable; their place is taken by Patrick and by his God.  The first Romans, by the power of their weapons, had reduced the perfidi to mean little foxes to be hunted down; Patrick and his God, by the power of sacred word and song, had done the same in an even more spectacular manner.  This seems closely connected to the fact that, as I have pointed out, A sees God taking up the semantic space of the Romans, offering the royal functions of protection and defence without the intolerable burden of Roman ius.  Here, God and St.Patrick occupy a part of the same semantic space, reducing  perfidi tumidi crudeles infausti tyranni - or at least one of them - to vermin.

It must follow that the story is later than Gildas, or at least than A, for this extraordinary mix of ideas and images must have had time to develop in the most unexpected ways.  It also shows that what is obscure to us may have been as clear as daylight to the great writer's followers, who may have developped their own interpretative literature.  By Muirchu's time, this literature may have become to some extent detached from its original, since he seems to take for historical reality what may have originally been some sort of apologue or illustration of specifically British ideas (its specifically British dimension is clear even in the form in which we have it).

Whatever the case may be, the story is much closer in time to Muirchu than to Patrick or Coroticus, and when we find it using the adjective Britannicus rather than Britto of Coroticus, this testifies to the date of its usage.  That Britannicus has a similar relationship to Britannia as Britto to Britanniae is harder to prove, but it can be demonstrated that they both are used in passages that must be later in time than the early chapters with their Brittones and Britanniae.  We can use another Muirchu miracle story as comparison: chapter 27, the story of Saint Monesan.

Monesan, the daughter of a pagan British king, refuses to be married (in spite of savage punishment) and asks to be told who it was who made the sun.  Eventually she is taken to St.Patrick in Ireland, sees God - Who, it seems, visits the saint every seventh day[17] - is baptized, and promptly dies; not a misfortune, this, but an instant transition to the joys of Paradise, as well as, on this earth, to the rank and power of a Saint.  Muirchu testifies that Monesan received cult in his time.

The connection between not wanting to marry and wanting to know "who made the sun" seems unclear to us, but it is clearly Patrician.  Patrick, who challenged the worshippers of the Sun with the news that the sun was a material object, perishable and doomed to die, created by another Power greater than itself, also fostered and favoured monasticism, and his prize nun was a king's daughter.  It is all in his writings (Confession 41, 42; Letter, 12).  He gives a clear hint of the violent pressures to which young women were subjected in the attempt not to let them give away their valuable marriageable status (...non sponte patrum earum, sed et persecutiones patiuntur et improperia falsa a parentibus suis... "not by their fathers' wish, but they suffer both persecution and false insults from their own parents..."), fleshed out in Muirchu’s account of Monesan being beaten and doused with cold water.  If arranged dynastic marriage could be forced on unwilling brides with such ferocity, this explains the popularity of monastic vows among royal women in early mediaeval Europe: they must have felt marriage and sex as vicious, violating, degrading, foul, and virginity, by contrast, as a clean, undegraded form of life.  But the connection between a thirst for virginity (or, at least, a revulsion against marriage) and the question "who made the sun?" is uniquely Patrician; it ties together two things of which he wrote with power and passion, and it is so peculiar that it seems difficult to attach it to any definite Church teaching.  It is orthodox but individual, and can only be traced back to the teachings of this one saint.  It seems to bear to his writings the same relationship that ch.29's story of Coroticus does to those of Gildas or A: a sort of narrative/figurative development or gloss of some of the writer's more typical ideas[18].

These two stories also have a similar and similarly unhistorical idea of Britain.  In ch.29, Coroticus is a pagan persecuting Christians; in ch.27, all of Britain is "frozen in the chill of unbelief[19]".  It is interesting that the fable removes the problems of Patrick's Irish princess, aspiring at once to conversion and to the monastic life, from their native soil in Ireland to a pretended British setting.  This is probably because the supposed St.Monesan was known to be a Briton; but it may be that the strange idea that Britain, in Patrick's time, was as pagan as Ireland, had been encouraged by the picture of Coroticus as a pagan British king, in which case the story of Monesan may be even later than that of Coroticus (and therefore later than a sixth-century writer like Gildas).  At the very least, it is its contemporary to it; it belongs in the same mental world, and is similarly ignorant of the realities of the Patrician fifth century.  Both stories may have been written in Muirchu's lifetime, and at least are closer to him than to Patrick, perhaps even Gildas - would anyone in Gildas' time have thought that "all Britain" was, only a century before, "frozen in the chill of unbelief?"  Gildas definitely does not; in fact, he believes that Christianity was the majority religion of Britain even before the Diocletian persecution (303-310AD).

Therefore - and this is the point I had been leading up to - when we find the story using the singular Britannia for Monesan's country, this confirms that the plural Britanniae was not a part of Muirchu's contemporary usage, and also strongly suggests that a similar difference existed between Britto, used in the earliest chapters for Patrick's nationality and the finibus within which Palladius died, and Britannicus, used for Coroticus in the other fable.  Now Palladius dies in Britannis (obviously in Britanniis) and in finibus Britonum; Patrick was Brito natione, in Britannis (Britanniis) natus.  These passages must originate in a period in which Britto rather than Britannus or Britannicus was the standard adjective for British, and Britanniae rather than Britannia the standard name for the country, specifically for its Roman part.  In other words, Muirchu is quoting fifth-century documents; his very blunders testify that he is, at this point, moving among realities he does not understand.  These considerations establish the probability, if not the absolute certainty, that Muirchu's account of Patrick's middle years has something to do with historical reality; and this even before we start considering the actual story Muirchu has to tell.

There is one last point I would like to make before I leave the subject, the thinnest, but also the most fascinating of all the strands of evidence for the existence of fifth-century material, other than Patrick's own writings, in Muirchu's time.  Muirchu describes Patrick with a singularly inartistic and unnecessary repetion: Brito natione in Britannis natus, so graceless that we cannot imagine Muirchu, a competent if fussy Latinist, to have composed it.  It repeats not only the content, but almost the words.  Natio comes from the same root as natus, and Brito from the same as Britannus (or Britanniae).  I think he was quoting from an earlier document, and it sounds as though in Britanniis natus was a gloss, a marginal note, explaining Brito natione.  This means that the document that reported his nationality was old enough to have its own marginal notes, which in turn were old enough to still use Britanniae as the standard word for Britain.

Indeed, we may go a bit further: the gloss in Britanniis natus on Brito natione is so elementary as not to count as a proper gloss, an explanation of the terms.  And what this suggests to me is that it has to do with the teaching of Latin at a fairly elementary level, one at which students should be made aware that it is possible to render the nominative plus ablative of origin brito natione with the preposition plus locative ablative plus past participle nominative in Britanniis natus.  Brito varies Britanniis (Britanniae) and natione (natio) varies natus: on these simple variations a few useful grammatical lessons may be taught on the nature of root and stem, on verb, adjective and noun, on inflection, and on preposition (in).  The simplicity of the grammar lessons involved, however, is not in keeping with the fine Latin scholarship found in Ireland by the time of Columbanus (580s).

What follows, I admit, is nearer guesswork than evidence: but I do not think that a record of someone as important as St.Patrick - a serious record, consulted by a serious researcher like Muirchu - would carry the signs of elementary Latin lessons unless it had been compiled and used at a time when Latin scholarship in the country was at a fairly elementary level, and there was little of it.  One does not expect to find the Latin of, say, Gildas or Thomas Aquinas or Samuel Johnson to involve this sort of schoolroom variations; no, not even that of Nennius.  I think it bears witness to a very primitive state of the Irish church, a frontier constituency tied to the Latin West by the thinnest of threads; a state we cannot imagine after the 550s,  when such refinements as annalistic traditions and knowledge of Greek are in place.

We know from our reading of the Confession that Muirchu would copy prose virtually verbatim, and we can therefore accept that the clumsy wording Brito natione in Britannis natus could be from a previous document.  He would not, either, have misread Britanniis, an archaic form, unless he had set out to copy verbatim an item he did not understand.  There is no reason to doubt he kept close to his original.

This has laid the groundwork.  Not all of Muirchu is reliable by any means, and most or all of what he says of Patrick's career in Ireland is purely legendary.  But the early chapters, full of telltale misunderstandings and of the archaic words britto and Britanniae, have a claim to our attention: the stories of Patrick's education by Germanus of Auxerre, his consecration by bishop "Amatorex", and Palladius' journey and death, must be regarded as far earlier in origin than the tales of his miracles, his confrontation with High King Loegaire, or his settlement of the site of Armagh.

What is more, there is no indication whatever that a legend of St.Patrick’s birth, youth and education existed.  Nothing of what Muirchu has to say about the Saint’s early days has anything to do with the well-known, one might almost say catalogued, Celtic features of the youth of legendary heroes and saints[20], even what does not depend on the Saint’s own account of himself.  We have seen that the legendary material begins with Patrick's encounter with Loegaire, or, to be precise, with his arrival to Ireland and his attempt to settle with Miliucc, a necessary prelude to the Tara episode - which is legendary from beginning to end. In other words, there was a legend of St.Patrick from the moment of his supposed arrival in Ireland shortly before Loegaire's feis Temro; but we have no evidence for any legend of St.Patrick before that moment. The data we do have, I will argue, are history.

Notes


[1]According to an imprecise entry in the Annals of Clonmacnoise – see note 3. This very high death-date would make it impossible for Secundinus to have written the hymn attributed to him – see next chapter – but is itself all but impossible on other grounds.

[2]The death of Benignus seems close to the date I would assign to Ambrosius’ successful revolt against Britain’s Saxon overlords. It does not seem impossible that Patrick’s successor, already elderly, should have decided to take advantage of the Pagans’ downfall to visit the Continent and perhaps report to Rome about the progress of the Church in the long-sundered island – and died there.  Perhaps he took advantage of the powerful British hosting that went to Gaul in 468 to fight the encroaching Visigoths.  This, however, is merely a possible guess.  It is otherwise hard to imagine how someone like Benignus would travel to Rome among the storm and stress of the third quarter of the fifth century; and perhaps it is better to account for this item as a case of retrogression, a story attributing to Benignus a kind of saintly death popular in later days, when Anglo-Saxon kings like Cadwalla and Coenred were able to travel to die in Rome.

[3]All these data come from six Irish annals or groups of annals, conveniently tabled and discussed by Bishop Hanson, op.cit. 213-224.

[4]Dumville published the relevant passages of six Vitae including Muirchu’s, showing that, except for Tirechan’s, all of them were visibly dependent on Muirchu’s version, even in such matters as rephrasing known Patrician passages.  “A progressive elaboration of the story-line” [including the deliberate addition of episodes from the life of Moses] “and deterioration of the quality of the information transmitted may be noted.”  DUMVILLE et al., Saint Patrick op.cit., 65-84.

[5]Because of the problems involved in the existence of different, scattered and ragged manuscripts, most of which miss several chapters, I make use of two Latin texts, the one of A.B.E. HOOD in St.Patrick: his writings and Muirchu's Life, in J.MORRIS (ed.), Arthurian period sources 9, Chichester 1978, and the one in DUMVILLE: Saint Patrick: AD 493-1993, Woodbridge 1993, pp.206-219.  The former has three chapters the latter lacks, including the important chs.27 and 29; the latter has twelve the other doesn't, including an account of the Saint's death.

[6]Pity that his solution is just as obscure as Patrick's own statement: Patrick says he was born at Bannauem Taburniae, which Muirchu firmly claims to be Ventre - and where, pray tell, is Ventre?

[7]MUIRCHU, Vita Patricii 2.3, in DUMVILLE, Saint Patrick 217.  The story is said to come from Patrick's own chariot-driver, who kept it secret till after the Saint was dead.  This argues, though it does not of course prove, that it was first told in circles that were not absolutely ready to believe anything miraculous about St.Patrick, circles in which he was still remembered as a real person.  In other words, this may be the oldest, or one of the oldest, of the miracle stories.  The miracle itself - the finding of a much-loved team of horses lost in a storm - is not on the same level as the awesome wonders and impressive prophetic and lawgiving powers given the Saint in stories like that of Macuill; it can even be argued that all it amounted to at first - without the detail of the hand lighting up like a halogen lamp to illuminate the country for miles - was the Saint comforting the driver and encouraging him to look for his horses again.  There is a human and kindly colouring to this tale that one is not used to finding in Patrician hagiography, with the driver weeping desperately as he realizes that his beloved horses are lost, and the Saint comforting him in the Name that was all-powerful in Patrick's mind.  We have to remember that, to the driver, losing the horses also meant that he had let the boss down, and he might well have felt as a modern employee who smashed the boss' car during a business trip; in which case, Patrick's kindness and patience may well have come as a glad shock.  And there is something in this account that reminds us of the Saint's patience and faith as he and his pagan sea-going companions were dying of hunger in a deserted country - Confession 19.  In short, it is quite possible that the original of this story, without miracle, did in fact come from the Saint’s own driver.  If so, it might add a detail or two to our extremely scanty knowledge of Patrick's life and times: such as that he never travelled on a Sunday, that he employed a chariot-driver, that he might find himself caught in driving rain in a deserted field (hardly unlikely in Ireland, where "it always rains").  He would need a chariot-driver, both because it would agree with his rank as a bishop - the Irish, pagan and Christian, would hardly expect the new faith's chief druid to travel on foot - and because the chariot - more likely what we would call a cart - would help him carry luggage, books and ecclesiastical paraphernalia, to teach and celebrate Mass wherever he found himself.

[8] This is, in fact, the part of Muirchu’s story where some scholars, divining an essential unity within the data as well as a substantial incompatibility with the 493AD death-date, have suspected an Acta Palladii, a record of an earlier bishop transferred to St.Patrick.  That it comes from any Acta Palladii I, of course, reject; the point is rather whether it is trustworthy as an Acta Patricii.

[9]This suggests that his audience was not familiar with the Patrician texts; though he also implies that the facts of Patrick's enslavement, flight and journey home were known to everyone, magnas virtutes omnibus pene notas.

[10]An unknown, probably Syrian, Christian philosopher and mystic, who lent the prestige of St.Paul’s Athenian convert, Dionysios (a judge from the Aeropagos court) to a system of philosophy which married Christian theology and angelology to an essentially Greek emanationism (hence the attribution to an Athenian), probably derived from the neo-Platonism of the mighty Egyptian philosopher Plotinus.  His work became hugely influential throughout the Christian world.  He may have been a younger contemporary of Patrick himself, but their philosophies were scarcely compatible.

[11]The adjective britannus does appear, but only as a misunderstanding/misspelling of Britanniae.  Once, quoting from the Confession, Muirchu correctly says that Patrick went back ad Britan[n]ias, to the Britains; but twice he uses a masculine plural ablative ethnic noun [adjective] Britannis - "among the British, Britanni" – which is much more comfortably read as a feminine country noun - Britanniis.  Patrick, he says, was Britto natione in Britannis natus; if we read this as "British (Britto) by nationality, born among the British (in Britannis)", it would be repetitious almost to the point of incoherence.  It makes far more sense to add an i and read Britto natione in Britanniis natus, British by nationality and born in the Britains.  The second case is clearer: Palladius dies in Brittonum finibus… in Britannis, “within the borders of the British [Brittones]… among the British [Britannis]”.  Not only is the repetition inartistic in the extreme, but it seems more natural to specify the place where a character died – as in Britanniis would give us – rather than the tribe among whom he died – which would be the meaning of in Britannis.  Altogether, there is no need to believe that such a word as britannus was used in Muirchu's sources: Muirchu never employs it except in these two phantom britannis, where it is not only likely to be a misreading but the better for being so.  Anyway, to have not just two but three words for "British" - Britto, Britannus, Britannicus - would be pushing it.  It could be argued that Britto was be an ethnic name, and Britannus an adjective; but in fifth-century usage, Britto was both noun and adjective, as for instance in Ausonius' distichs against Silvius Bonus.

[12]Preserved in the ancient manuscript called the Book of Armagh, these headings are written in a different hand from Muirchu's text, and the inclusion of Rex Aloo shows that the transcriber knew information not reported by Muirchu.

[13]DUMVILLE et al., Saint Patrick, 115

[14]DUMVILLE et al., Saint Patrick, 107-115, is rather positive - if doubtful - about the value of this particular pedigree.

[15]Which is very interesting.  Since the headings to Muirchu's text were written in Armagh, and Muirchu's own information does seem to have come from that area, can we say that the Letter, in his time, was not known in Armagh?

[16]Coroticus' transformation is preceded by sudden music, sung by invisible voices and taken up, by a sort of magical contagion, by his whole court; a scene which, I believe, has much to do with Patrick's and Gildas' attacks on the "flatterers" at Coroticus' and Maglocunus' courts.  These "flatterers", in Gildas' account especially, were quite clearly bards, singing the praises of their warrior lord; and the miracle of the invisible voices that prelude to the villain's reduction to his essential components seems like a reversal of the process of semi-magical building-up of a king's legitimacy and prestige, which is what Celtic bardic praise songs amounted to.

[17]An obvious allusion to the celebration of Mass, with the Real Presence of God in the Host, and to the holiness of the first day of the week. It is curious that the story should present these as in some sense the peculiar blessing of the Saint, since they are in fact accessible to all baptized Catholics, and are considerably earlier than Patrick. The belief in the Real Presence can be found fully operative in the Apology of St.Justin the Martyr, addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161): and the magnificent study by G.B.BOWERSOCK, Fiction as History, Berkeley 1994, shows, I think, beyond doubt, that it was well enough known to affect the Pagan literary imagination as early as the reign of Nero!

[18]This may be kept in mind when studying the development of miracle stories in medieval Ireland, since it may well have been a regular constructive principle for apocryphal stories about individual Saints. Dumville - St.Patrick op.cit., 54-57 esp.57 - has identified a theme of letter-writing and prophecy to do with the sixth-century St.Maucteus or Mochta, which might be one such case of legend-making.

[19]An image which seems to owe something to Gildas' chapter 8: glaciali frigore rigenti insulae et uelut longiore terrarum secessu soli uisibili non proximae, uerus ille... de summa etiam caelorum arce, tempora cuncta excedente uniuerso orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens... radius suos primum indulget... Christus! (...to the island that ice freezes stiff and that is as if hidden away from the visible sun farther than any other land; that true Sun indeed... from the highest royal fortress of the heavens that go beyond all time, Whose bright shimmering rays stretch across everything that is... first made a gift of His rays... He, Christ!). The idea is almost the same, and there might be some direct influence, though the main ideas of the fable are Patrician rather than Gildasian.

[20]Lovely summaries of typical features in A.&B.REES, Celtic Heritage, London 1962, 213-258.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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