17 March 2012

Leaving aside the Question of Whether there were Two Patricks...

Given previous posts arguing that Saint Patrick was a serious contender for the title of the Greatest Ever Briton, commenting on the impact he and other missionaries had on Britain and mainland Europe, pointing out that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn't get his legend quite right, and linking to a painting by the Brother of the mountain most closely linked with our first national saint, I was a bit of a loss as to what to say today.

Seemingly a Cambridge academic named Roy Flechner has announced that Patrick almost certainly fled to Ireland to shirk an inherited and unpopular career as a tax collector, and that while in Ireland, far from being a slave, he surely acted as a slave trader.  

It’s impossible to evaluate Flechner’s claims properly based on the various newspaper reports, as while they all say that Dr Flechner's published his research today, not one of them says where Flechner’s research can be found. I have no idea whether it’s in a journal or is a book in its own right. It seems that no journalists have done their job on this one. 

This Year's Fable
As much as it can constructed, Flechner’s thesis seems to be as follows:

Everything we can say with any confidence about Patrick is based on what Patrick himself told us; as such, we can’t take it at face value, not least because of the two extant documents written by Patrick – his Letter to Coroticus and his Confession –  the second seems to have been written in response to allegations of financial impropriety. 

(I'd also point out that the reference in it to spending 28 days crossing uninhabited country is most implausible, but let that go.)

The Letter says that Patrick’s father had been a decurion, an unpopular civil service position largely charged with tax collection, but the Confession refers to him as a deacon. Flechner argues that in Patrick’s lifetime Roman government was collapsing, which would have made it difficult and perhaps dangerous to discharge the duties of a decurion, and so became a deacon instead, passing on his decurial duties to his son.

Flechner takes the view that Patrick’s claim that he was kidnapped from Britain in his adolescence, forced to work as a slave, escaped after six years and returned to his home where he reclaimed his status should be regarded as fiction, an attempt at promoting and perpetuating his own image.

Escaped slaves, says Flechner, existed outside the law and could be killed with impunity or recaptured by anyone. What’s more, he says, ‘the probability Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely.'

Instead, he reckons Patrick actually left Britain for Ireland as he wanted to escape the ‘poisoned chalice of his inherited position in Roman Britain’, and that he probably brought family wealth – in the form of slaves – with him to Ireland, becoming a slave trader before becoming a priest and missionary in his own right.

Now, I agree completely with Flechner that his thesis has the advantage of being free from the hagiographic reverence that has often vitiated attempts to retell Patrick’s story over the years, but I can’t help feeling that his thesis doesn’t quite work.

Patrick's Journey Home
The reference to Patrick feeling from his place of captivity in western Ireland leaves me uneasy, for starters. There’s nothing in either of Patrick’s writings that says where he was kept as a slave, barring a reference in the Confession to the journey from his place of captivity to the port from which he set sail from Ireland being about two hundred miles. Tradition, for what it's worth, has always said that Patrick's place of captivity was at Slemish in County Antrim. Yes, that’d be in north-eastern Ireland, not in western Ireland.

Here’s a painting of it by the Brother, if you’re interested. Not a bad spot, eh? I can think of worse places to be forced to work as a shepherd, even in snow, in icy coldness, and in rain.

Look at the Brother's site to look at it in gorgeous colour.
As for the difficulty Flechner envisaged Patrick would have had crossing the country, well, even if we discount the possibility of miraculous assistance, we still have to recognise that much of Ireland at the time was a land of forest and bog; it would have been dangerous to cross, but such inhospitable terrain would have been ideal country for runaways. I'm not saying the journey would have been easy, but it'd have been far from impossible.

He could have made it to the coast, and once there, who would have known he was a runaway slave unless he had somehow been branded to that effect? If he got home, is it really tenable that his own people would have sent him back as he hadn't been redeemed? That, after all, seems to be the implication of Flechner's claim that:
'The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction: the only way out of slavery in this period was to be redeemed, and Patrick was never redeemed.'
I'm not saying Patrick might not have had to redeem himself to his former owner if he ever found himself in and around Slemish when he returned to Ireland as a mercenary, just that he says nothing either way on that subject; there's no evidence whatsoever to claim that Patrick was never redeemed.

The End of Rome
I’m also troubled by the assumption that in a situation where Roman authority and law was collapsing it would obviously have been the case that Patrick’s father Calpurnius’ decurial duties would have been passed on to Patrick when Calpurnius became a deacon. 

Partly I’m bothered by the improbability of such obligations being passed on to a teenage boy – for Flechner’s thesis to work, I think Patrick would have had had to have been an adult when his father became a deacon. That’s a change to Patrick’s chronology that wouldn’t be without repercussions.

I’m also bothered by the fact that Flechner seems to be glossing over how Patrick claimed in the first lines of his Confession that not merely was his father a deacon, but his grandfather Potitus was a priest:
‘I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age.’
It looks as though the priesthood was very much a family business for Patrick, and I’d be wary of putting too much weight on the reference in the Letter that says ‘by descent I was a freeman, born of a decurion father’.

More troubling still is the fact that Flechner seems to think that Patrick left Britain for Ireland at a time when Roman authority was collapsing. Traditional dating being unreliable, modern historians generally think Patrick was active as a missionary during the second half of the fifth century and so it seems unlikely that he can have been born much before 400 AD. 

So what? Well, Roman rule ended in northern and western Britain in the late fourth century, and ended in Britain as a whole in the early fifth century. Patrick was almost certainly from western Britain, somewhere between the Severn and the Clyde estuaries, so the likelihood is that Roman rule had ended at Bannavem Taburniae before Patrick was even born. 

Think about that. During the late Empire, decurions were tasked with collecting taxes on a local basis on behalf of the imperial government, but if Roman rule didn't apply in Bannavem Taburniae during Patrick's youth, then why on earth would his father have been expected to collect taxes? For whom? And is it even vaguely tenable that Patrick would have inherited such a pointless duty?

The fact is that Flechner has no more data to go on than anybody else, and that he's reading more into the sources than is actually there.

Surely, the most natural reading of the two documents is that Patrick's family were minor local aristocracy – the so-called decurion class – but that, given the collapse of Roman administration, they abandoned their previous decurial duties and took up ecclesiastical roles instead. It's wholly plausible that Patrick was one of the many Romanised Britons who were captured in Irish raids on the British coast, and that he spent years as a slave, before escaping, making his way to the coast and somehow being able to board a ship away from Ireland, eventually returning to Britain.

Don't believe me, though. There are children you can listen to instead.


Catherine Stead said...

I confess, I saw this story in the press and laughed. 'Interesting theory, absolutely no basis in historical evidence,' was the thought that went through my mind. It's not as though the few sources that exist haven't been scrutinised over and over and over, and there's not a hint of it anywhere - and even the most revisionist theories need something at root. I may of course be overly influenced by Charles Thomas on the subject of Patrick, but I don't think I am.

That said, I'd be very interested to see the paper (or whatever it is), too: he must surely feel he has sufficient basis to defend the theory to have published it.

Éamonn said...

'Patrick’s reasons for leaving Britain', in F. Edmonds and P. Russell, eds., Tome: Studies in Medieval History and Law in Honour of Thomas Charles-Edwards (Woodbridge, 2011), 125–134 seems to be the relevant publication.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Thank you - though if that's dated 2011, why is everyone reporting that his research was published today? I'm bothered by this inexplicable journalistic silence.

Lmbsaflavin said...

I was about to give the same citation. The reference at the foot of http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/was-st-patrick-a-slave-trading-roman-official-who-fled-to-ireland/ would seem to establish conclusively that this is the original article (Am intrigued to know how Thomas, once my second supervisor, took the argument)

FrB said...

They're practising for Easter and their annual articles about:

a) How the people of the ancient world weren't all that hot in establishing whether someone who had been crucified was really dead or merely resting.

b) The latest scientific proof that the dead do not, in general, come back to life.

c) A controversial article by a 'leading theologian' that has 'enraged traditionalists' by casting doubt the authenticity of the gospels.

jaykay said...

Seems to be in the mould that we should be very used to, which is that everyone had an "agenda" and that written sources, especially primary ones, can't basically be trusted because of this - the "agenda", of course, in too many cases being seen as one of spreading the patriarchal/ misogynist/centralised/ caesaropapist (choose adjective to fit your particular prejudice du jour) model.

I'm not saying this man has that particular prejudice, but why is it that so often this type of cutting-edge research seems to distrust the testimony of those who were contemporaries - even if it's only "testimony by silence"? I mean, if Patrick (or the Evangelists, or whoever) were trying to pull a scam and pretend that things happened that didn't, then their contemporaries were more than capable of finding out the truth from those still alive who had been witnesses, who had spoken to people who knew or who would have been in a very good position to know about the basic truthfulness of a narrative etc. etc.

In other words, there were surely enough people around, in both Britain and Europe, who would have had (or who could have obtained) information as to conditions in Ireland and whether Patrick's story was reliable. After all, conditions in parts of early-to-mid 5th century Britain and Gaul were hardly all that stable, so there may well have been others with experiences not unlike Patrick's, of escape through hostile and/or barren territory - albeit without the sea crossing! Therefore Patrick's story crossed the first and - to me - most important hurdle, that of contemporary acceptance, by people who were far from being ill-educated or credulous. Why does this contemporary acceptance
seem to often to be entirely discredited, in this and in many other cases?