St Patrick Retold: The legend and history of Ireland’s patron saint, by Roy Flechner

by
15 March 2019

Nicholas Cranfield considers a historian’s study of the evidence

THE received legend about St Patrick, a fifth-century well-to-do Romano-Briton, is widely known, much of it drawn from his own writings, the Confessio, and a letter he wrote to another Christian, Coroctocus.

He claimed that he was abducted as a teenager to Ireland by pirates, and six years later fled captivity to find his way back to his family in western Britain, before returning much later, as a bishop, to preach and convert the populations of Hiberniae, as the Romans called Ireland.

Dr Flechner examined this classic account for his Oxford D.Phil., and has now produced a book in which he first discusses the state of Britain and Ireland in Patrick’s lifetime, after the withdrawal of the Romans (in 410).

After a third chapter on the nature of slave ownership, both in Roman society and among early Christians, he surveys the religious scene of the period and then tries to establish how wide Patrick’s mission might have been. A final chapter shows how much of the legend is the result of medieval myth-making.

As a former journalist, Flechner has a good eye for a story. The portrait that emerges is of a canny merchant who chose to emigrate to preserve the financial prestige of his family, who were part of the slave-owning elite.

Since runaway slaves had no legal status and could legally be put to death or sold, Patrick’s own “captivity” may be simply an account harmonised with the biblical pattern of the suffering prophet and the wilderness years.

Flechner argues that Patrick’s flight would allow him to escape the hereditary responsibilities that devolved on him to become an imperial tax-collector, as his father and grandfather had been. These decurions were responsible for making up any shortfall in tax revenues from their own income.

A decurion could escape this burden by becoming ordained, which may have been why Patrick’s father (and grandfather) are reported as serving clergy. With the economic downturn in the fifth century of the Roman province of Britain, the job of tax-collecting would have become much more difficult and even more disliked.

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From his own writings, Patrick emerges as the sole bishop in Ireland who went about ordaining hundreds of priests. He never mentions deacons as a separate order, and, in a land where there were many existing religious sites associated with native deities, he gives them no attention.

Nor does he mention churches; the word “ecclesia” appears only twice in his entire writings, where it is taken to mean “The Body of Christ”, not a building or parish.

Such an account will not prove popular in some quarters of the Emerald Isle, as dethroning heroes usually upsets the devout, and Flechner is necessarily cautious about simply filling the gaps in the record by mere speculation. But in a year when the Common Worship calendar suppresses the feast day itself (Lent II), this book does its subject justice.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

St Patrick Retold: The legend and history of Ireland’s patron saint
Roy Flechner
Princeton University Press £22
(978-0-691-18464-7)
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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