Patrick, Wilfrid and Rome

What an unusual Irish saint Patrick is! He is the only early Irish saint I can think of who was not a monastic, that is based from a monastery. Now there may have been other very early saints, possibly earlier than Patrick who may not have been monastic either but their hagiographers depicted them as such so that is how they are remembered. Ailbe is one of those southern Irish saints who is as early, if not earlier, than Patrick and it’s unlikely that the monastic model had made it to Ireland before Patrick. It was so new that monasticism wasn’t wide-spread anywhere before the mid-5th century. Yet, in the Voyage of Brendan, Ailbe’s monastery is depicted as being as close to perfect as anywhere in Ireland/ the known world. I don’t think Patrick was a fan of monasticism; he doesn’t seem to be a fan of conformity. I suspect that he had been exposed to monasticism while studying in Gaul, but preferred the then more traditional Roman style church organization of his youth in Roman Britain.

Patrick had more in common with Wilfrid of York/Ripon than Columba. In his Confessio, Patrick writes in a self-deprecating, pseudo-rustic style but he is clearly not humble! Like Wilfrid, he is a champion of Romanitas. We don’t know how much support Patrick really had from Rome because the British were not about to ask for arbitration, but Patrick certainly claimed his authority from Rome. Moreover in his Confessio abundantly shows his pride in his Roman citizenship. Like Wilfrid, Patrick didn’t see anything wrong about traveling with a retinue. Patrick travels with an armed retinue that he pays with gifts from the wealthy. Like Wilfrid, women give Patrick important support in his ministry.  I wonder if some of Wilfrid’s friendly contacts in Ireland were with Patrick’s people at Armagh?

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2 thoughts on “Patrick, Wilfrid and Rome

  1. Interesting post as always, Michelle.

    “I don’t think Patrick was a fan of monasticism; he doesn’t seem to be a fan of conformity. I suspect that he had been exposed to monasticism while studying in Gaul, but preferred the then more traditional Roman style church organization of his youth in Roman Britain”.

    Patricius was most definitely not a conformist, and as you say, was likely exposed to an early form of monasticism in Gaul (he desires to travel to see the brethren there, after all). But, I have to disagree with you regarding his apparent feelings towards monasticism. For someone who ‘may not have been a fan’ of an aesthetic way of life, he certainly seems to take great pride in mentioning the numbers of ‘sons and daughters of the Scotti’ who are openly ‘monks and virgins of Christ’. He also places great importance on his successes with both female slaves and noblewomen, and insinuates that their choice of aesthetic Christian lifestyle, (as opposed to being Christian in the first place) is what brings them disdain from their kindred and those around them.

    Is it really so surprising that on the surface, he doesn’t espouse what previous scholars would have liked to been obviously monastic? After all, he was working in a non-Romanised culture and environment. What good would setting up an ‘monastery’ have been in such a case, when there was precious little ‘secular’ or ‘established priesthood’ to compare it against, in the eyes of the contemporary population? I think we should be reading between the lines, with regard to monastic ideals. In his experience, and given the nature of fifth century Irish society, he comes as close as he can get to being ‘monastic’; not in any outwardly organisational lines, or theology, but an almost internalised, personal way of living. An aesthetic and celibate lifestyle that seems to have been certainly possible for people from different ages and status to have lived (albeit with difficulty) whilst remaining by and large, within the existing structures of Irish society.

    Likewise, I have to also disagree with the idea that he preferred a ‘Roman style church organisation’, for much of the same reasons as stated previously. Such a formal structure would not have been easily transferred to such a society, as well he would have known, given the difficulties he has with accessing his own ‘flock’. Patricius’ own experience of such organisation as a youth, certainly doesn’t seem to inspire his own confidence. As he says himself, the people were openly living alongside yet ignoring their bishops and wise men. This is the same Roman organisation (perhaps we would be more correct in describing it as late Romano-British church organisation) that not only refused him permission to be a missionary in Ireland, but after he had went, seems to have accused him of ulterior motives. If anything, he leaves us with an image of a very fluid and fledgling web of disparate communities, separated in space and time, and suffering to receive a visit or letter from him, from time to time. Very Pauline really!

    I also fail to see any indication of any desire of his to do so, despite his very obvious Romanitas pride, as you rightly say, and his stated desire for his efforts to be supported morally and spiritually by those back in Britain.

    “We don’t know how much support Patrick really had from Rome because the British were not about to ask for arbitration, but Patrick certainly claimed his authority from Rome”.

    I have to disagree here too. While he certainly follows Roman orthodoxy, even going out of his way to insert a rather long creed at the beginning of the Confessio (which I have always thought, seems to be put in to answer his ecclesiastical critics who may have been accusing him of being otherwise), he spends the rest of his two documents claiming authority from on high, as opposed to any earthly authority, either in Britain, or further afield. (“I am convinced, that whatever I am, I have received from God”). Such a man, under pressure from accusations of wrong doing and insubordination coming at him from left, right and centre, would surely have made a more concrete mention of any British or Roman authority, let alone blessing. It certainly would have made his life easier!

    “Like Wilfrid, Patrick didn’t see anything wrong about traveling with a retinue. Patrick travels with an armed retinue that he pays with gifts from the wealthy. Like Wilfrid, women give Patrick important support in his ministry. I wonder if some of Wilfrid’s friendly contacts in Ireland were with Patrick’s people at Armagh?”

    Indeed, the importance of his underlying female base and support is very much ignored by many scholars today. But at the risk of offending my northern Irish colleagues, I am compelled to reiterate the complete absence of any fifth-sixth century historical link with (the historical) Patricius (or any of his people) and Armagh.

    Sheesh! I only intended this to be a short comment! Apologies.

    1. Terry,

      Just to address a couple of the points here. First you can be ascetic without being monastic. Genevieve is a good example of this in early Gaul. She lived with a few other ascetic women but it was not a monastery. Likewise, there are no monasteries in Ireland that claim to be founded by Patrick. Rather odd if he really supported a monastic lifestyle. While Patrick may have been exposed to a monastic lifestyle in Gaul, it was a new innovation that had not widely caught on by the mid-5th century.

      On the other hand, I have to disagree with you that Ireland was not suited for monasteries. Within a century of Patrick, monasteries would be the primary organization of the Irish church.

      I don’t think Patrick would make much of his Roman authority in correspondence with Britain if he knows that it will only antagonize the British.

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