Friday, May 11, 2012

Saint Patrick Left a Puzzle

It’s Thursday and TAG-5 didn’t meet today; this is a rarity in 3 years.  So I thought I’d go back to the middle of March and share one of the research items I brought to a meeting.  It’s a little long, but I promise it will get you thinking about the puzzle! 
            T ʹwas the day of St. Patrick and all through the house 
The smell of corned beef and cabbage was wafting about 
When all of a sudden to my mind came some chatter 
Thursday Art Group research should be on my platter 
I ran to my computer and was on a new mission  
“Who was St. Patrick” I typed in the question 
Then suddenly a phrase to my eyes did appear 
It shocked my whole being as I sat in the chair 
And read: St. Patrick wasn’t Irish―What??? 
What was I reading, what was this, faux pas???
It was like hearing ‘there’s no Santa Clause.’

Okay, I could have tweaked this forever, but one gets the idea―it was a fact I didn’t know! 

Puzzle Piece 1:

Image: Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light,
Oakland, CA.(Creative Comons: Att-NC-SA) 
As TAG-5 quickly discovered 3 years ago, there’s not a lot of separation between history and art history; they intertwine. This seems especially true of ancient history.  That said some background to the St. Patrick puzzle needs context.  It was the state of ancient Rome (Roman Empire), not its inhabitants, in charge of the state religion There wasn’t just one.  It wasn’t until c. 312 A.D. that Christianity was tolerated (accepted?) by the state of Rome. As Romans traveled, settled and conquered new territories, Christianity spread to larger parts of Europe.

According to The St. Patrick Centre  “After the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and this religion became the Official Roman Religion. In AD 391 the Roman Emperor Theodosius closed all temples in the Empire and banned all pagan cults endorsing Christianity as the official religion of the empire. This command would have eventually been acted upon in Britain - one of the remotest parts of the empire although Roman for over three centuries at that time.”

The first story is from Dr. Tim Campbell, Director of  The St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland who kindly gave me permission to reprint it.  It is a synopsis of St. Patrick’s life.
“Saint Patrick was born in a place called Bannavem Taberniae.  We don’t know exactly where that is.  Many people think he was Irish, but that’s not true.
            He was actually born in Britain.  He was a son and a grandson of clerics, but when he was a teenager, he was a wayward minister’s son.  And, he decided he wasn’t interested in his father’s faith.  He lived in a big estate and was abducted when he was 16 and brought to Ireland to a place called Slemish Mountain.
            Saint Patrick was a shepherd slave for six years on Slemish Mountain.  He began to hear voices in his head, which he supposed were God’s voice talking to him, and that gave him the strength after six years to run away from his master, probably to the southwestern part of Ireland, and jump onto a ship.
            Eventually he goes home to be with his people again, and he becomes a cleric because of his experience, and eventually a bishop.
            One night in his sleep the angel Victoricus comes.  I call him “Victor the Mailman” because he came with this great big bag of mail, one of which was addressed to Patrick, and it said, “Vox Hibernicus, the voice of the Irish.”
            More or less, “Dear Patrick, please come back and save us”, which he decides to do.”
Image: Slemish seen from Buckna (Northern Ireland). Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

Puzzle Piece 2:
My “prepared mind” now comes into play.  A few days ago, I came across this article and this tag line caught my eye:

“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."

—Dr Roy Flechner

Image: Celtic cross Credit: Andrea Raia from Flickr (Creative Comons: Att-NC-SA)

The classic account of St Patrick’s life tells us that he was abducted from Western Britain in his teens and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years before escaping, during which time his faith developed. However, a new article looking at Patrick’s own writings in their historical context argues that the saint may have in fact fled to Ireland deliberately to avoid becoming a ‘Decurion’ – a Roman official responsible for tax collection.
 “In the troubled era in which Patrick lived, which saw the demise and eventual collapse of Roman government in Britain in 410, discharging the obligations of a Decurion, especially tax-collecting, would not only have been difficult but also very risky,” says Dr Roy Flechner of the University of Cambridge.  Flechner’s article, “Patrick’s Reasons for Leaving Britain”, appears in Tome: Studies in Medieval Celtic History and Law in Honour of Thomas Charles-Edwards, edited by Fiona Edmonds and Paul Russell (Boydell, 2011)

The position of Decurion was hereditary, and by the time of St Patrick it was a far from desirable administrative post to hold in this part of the Roman Empire. As well as tax-collecting (for which any shortfall came from the Decurion’s own pocket), there was road maintenance and the recruitment of soldiers to contend with.  Patrick’s own father Calpornius exploited a bail-out clause in Roman law that allowed him to leave his post as a Decurion by joining the clergy – on the proviso that the role got passed to his son Patrick.

The heir of a Decurion would instantly qualify for the role, as they possessed by default the necessary wealth. According to Flechner, once Patrick was faced with the obligation to become a Decurion following the void left by his father, he chose to emigrate overseas. Ireland would have been a natural choice, given its proximity and links with western Britain.  Patrick would have had to find a way of retaining at least some of the family estate, in order to initially fund his way in Ireland. In the late-antique British Isles this normally came in the form of land.

Ireland did not have a monetary economy at this early stage, so exchanging land for money would have been pointless. Slaves, however, were a highly valued commodity and Patrick mentions that his family owned several, as did all aristocratic families in Britain at this time.  Slaves were also relatively easy to transport, and in the historical context it makes sense that Patrick would have converted his family wealth to slaves. So was St Patrick, the freed Christian slave of legend, actually a slave owner and trader?

“It may seem strange that a Christian cleric of Patrick’s stature would own slaves, but in late antiquity and the early middle ages the church was a major slave owner – early medieval Irish legal texts regulate the church’s ownership of slaves,” says Flechner.  “The only objections to slavery in this period were cases in which Christian slaves were owned by non-Christian masters. Patrick is known to have attempted to free enslaved captives, but only those that were Christians he had converted himself.”  “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. The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.”

Dr Flechner, who is a Research Fellow at the university’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, adds, “Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability that 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.”

“None of this is to say that Patrick was not a bishop or that he did not engage in missionary activity, but his primary motives for moving to Ireland were most likely to escape the poisoned chalice of his inherited position in Roman Britain.”
Source: University of Cambridge  

Following are a couple of comments posted after this article which brings up a whole new subject, but also adds insight to the time.
“Patrick could have had slaves; slavery was universal at that time. It was not based on racial aspects but "you lost the war, you now row the galley." Read the Bible; see how much Mathew (Levi) was hated by his fellow Jews including Simon Peter for being a tax collector for the Romans. And in Patricks time the decaying Roman empire (hint; think USA) was not what you wanted to work for.”
“A little too light a gloss on slavery: most slaves were raided, just like in Africa. Ireland became an entrepot for slavery until after AD 1000 - from all over Europe, not just the West Britain. The "racial" aspect you refer to wasn't the motive for later slavery. It started more because the cheapest supply of slaves happened to have a different skin color and that evolved onto a quasi-moral justification. Before that slave supply also typically came from abroad but in Northern Europe happened to be white. There was nothing nicer about slavery in Patrick's day.”

Okay, there you have it; two parts to the puzzle. Which way would you put it together? 

There’s lots of information in this post to do additional research.  I was very impressed with the information on The St. Patrick Centre website―definitely worth exploring all the tabs on this site.  Also, Burt Wolf has has great info on St. Patrick.  This link is to the actual script from his television show, and there's more at his website.

What does this have to do with art history?  The popes and their emissaries realized early on that if they incorporated the symbols of any Pagan religion into that of the Christian religion they would have more converts, therefore more control.  Control over reigning rulers of the Roman Empires conquests.  In Ireland, for example, one will see ancient Celtic art (knots, symbols, circles, etc.) on familiar items such as crucifixes, also in the Illuminated Manuscripts.  Happy researching!

Mary B.

Image: The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John. Creative Commons

Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned. Source:Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 a.D. : From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, & Trinity College, Dublin,Metropolitan Museum of Art & Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1977, ISBN 0394428072 . Creative Commons

1 comment:

  1. I adore your posts. I read through them with a cup of coffee and learn so much - awesome! :)