Apostate Picts

I was thinking about early references to baptisms in the British Isles which led me to Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. As far as I can recall, Patrick’s letter is the earliest reference to baptism (yes / no?). Patrick’s letter is written to a Christian society in Britain, and he further claims that Coroticus is an ally of the Scots and apostate Picts. Keeping in mind that Patrick is writing in the second half of the 5th century, say c. 475 this  is very interesting. Oddly Patrick doesn’t actually make a statement about whether or not the Scots are Christian, although grouping them with apostate Picts may suggest pagan. Scots here probably means Dalriada and they are apparently an ally of Coroticus, who is believed to be a king of Strathclyde. According to Patrick, Coroticus is also an ally of the “apostate Picts”. What does this mean in c. 475? At the very least it means that Patrick is aware of the ebb and flow of evangelism among the southern Picts.

The main Christian center in northern Britain seems to be around Whithorn in the Rhinns of Galloway  north west of Carlisle around the bay (quite close to Ireland across the bay). There are archaeological remains of a large Christian center that go back to the 5th century. More information about Whithorn can be found here. This Saturday, September 13th will be the annual Whithorn lecture, more information can be found here, and its sounds very interesting.

It was not the only Christian center in the region. Remains of Christian churches have been found along Hadrian’s Wall. Patrick’s knowledge of Coroticus and his allies has suggested that he knew the area and may have lived in this area.

Getting back to what apostate Picts means in c. 475… the southern Picts are usually said to have been converted by St Ninian. Traditionally Ninian is dated to right after Martin of Tours based on Bede’s account of his life, placing him it c. 400.  Modern historians tend to push Ninian forward in time to match that of St Finian of Moville, after Patrick in the first half of the 6th century. It is quite possible that earlier evangelism had occurred and ultimately not lasted. It is also possible that Ninian was credited with evangelism that occurred before his time, but clearly Patrick knows about some evangelism that has gone on presumably before he came to Ireland. Does Patrick’s knowledge of missionary work among the Picts support an early Ninian? I don’t know, probably not.

Who the Picts are is another question. I think we could probably say the southern Picts, in part because they are assocaited with the Scots. Given the early Dalriadans are associated with the area along the Firth of Forth, I would guess Picts living near Britons and Scots on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.

So what do you make of Patrick’s claim that Coroticus’ allies are apostate Picts?


6 thoughts on “Apostate Picts

  1. I have to say, I’ve never spotted that. I wonder if late Roman policy on the border involved baptism of foederati

    Otherwise, though, I think there must have been many missionaries of whom we just don’t know anything. The requirements for being a historically-renowned missionary include founding a durable Church or a Church adopting your cult, after all. Patrick has his importance mainly because of Armagh; Columba’s successors made his renown last; what about the Christians living la vida apostolica and spreading the good news who never bothered with the bricks and mortar bit?

  2. Well, I don’t know of the Romans using Picts as foederati. The Britons as far north as the Antonine wall may have been on the Roman payroll but people keep telling me that they couldn’t be considered Picts. These Britons were Christian, as is Coroticus. I suspect there were missionaries from British territory. Whithorn seems to have been the primary training center for them.

    If Ninian = Finian of Moville then it is remarkable that he had multiple locus of his cult. Interesting too that Uinniau (Winnin, Ninian, Finian) was a correspondent of Gildas (letter or fragment survives) who according to British legend also came from the north, son of Caw of Pictland! Maybe we should take Gildas son of Caw of Pictland more seriously? Hmm… I haven’t thought about ole Caw of Pictland in a long time.

    Anyway, I would think that there were missionaries north of the Forth and the discoveries at Portmahomack suggest as much. Its quite possible that Columba replaced some existing saints or moved into their churches. Besides most of these churches would have been slight wooden structures unlikely to leave much of a distinct archaeological footprint. Whithorn was exceptional for being made of stone.

  3. Gildas’s location is troublesome, isn’t it? I think there’s a paper in Bammesberger & Wollmann’s Britain 400-600 that suggests there might even have been two of them, one the northern son of Caw who’s in the genealogies, and the other our monastic writer who’s somewhere else, in the South-West perhaps, and not related. The author, as I remember, suggests south-west because of the way that Gildas winds up with a cult in Brittany. Yup, Michael Herren, “Gildas and Early British Monasticism” in A. Bammesberger, & A. Wollmann, A. (edd.), Britain 400-600: language and history, Anglistische Forschungen 205 (Heidelberg 1990), pp. 65-78, though I haven’t gone so far as to fish out my notes and see if I remember it correctly.

    As for Portmahomack, there’s no suggestion as yet that the monastic site is anything like this early, is there? I thought Carver was contending for an eight-century date. So it’s post-Columba even if, as is quite likely to me at least, its actual foundation might have little enough to do with Iona.

  4. On Portmahomack, I think I’ve heard Martin Carver suggest that it was earlier than 8th century in talks give at Kzoo. I thought he was suggesting that it was roughly contemporary of Columba. Still Portmohomack is what I would expect from a fairly developed church, not a missionary enterprise. My point is that it is a fairly developed early complex that, as far as I know, doesn’t have direct links to Iona or Northumbria.

    NJ Higham has also wrote about Gildas being a southerner.

    There is no reason why a northern Gildas could not have been active in Wales, Ireland and eventually travel to Brittany. It is likely that Wales or the West Country (Somerset, Devon etc) continued to be the area where most Britons were educated (influencing Gildas’ Latin). We have to remember that the Irish sea was the primary travel artery, not land routes. Ninian/Uinniau traveled at least to Tours, if not all the way to Rome. Of course Patrick himself traveled widely.

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