Saint Patrick: a Paddy who wasn’t

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As an ancient celebrity and ongoing marketing brand, Saint Patrick is not in the same league as Saints Valentine and Nicholas, possibly because the historical figure behind the myths is inseparable from a particular time and place, not to mention old-time religion. I’ve been thinking about Saint Patrick again (see March 2013 post called Armorica) because of something rather obvious about his career, which has, nevertheless, only just occurred to me. (I owe this head-slapping moment to a riveting book about the history of Latin by Nicholas Ostler called Ad Infinitum.)

As every Irish schoolchild used to be told, Saint Patrick, the male patron saint of Ireland, was a true-life legend: as brave as he was good, a worker of wonders as well as a charismatic evangelist. According to his own self-deprecating autobiography, he was snatched by pirate-slavers from his boyhood village, thought to have been somewhere in northwest Britain, and sold into slavery in Ireland. After six years as a slave, minding his heathen master’s cattle, his prayers to the God of his childhood were answered and he managed to escape. He made his way back to his family in Britain and began training as a priest.

Gift of the Gab  

As a young priest, Patrick hoped to be appointed as a missionary to the pagan Irish, whose voices, pleading for his return, he still heard in his dreams. Although this job wasn’t an easy “get” – especially for a young man whose education had been so cruelly interrupted – eventually he did make the grade and return to Ireland as a fully licensed Christian missionary. Even if his conversion rate has been exaggerated (at the expense of the missionary work of less charismatic personalities) there is no doubt that when Patrick died, around AD 460, Ireland belonged to Christendom. Although he does report his life-changing visions and “voices”, Patrick himself doesn’t dwell on the miracles performed in support of his mission. These miracles are literally legendary: reported and embellished according to the conventions of hagiography (the literature of saintly lives). The Patrick of the hagiographical spin-doctors was a shape-shifting virtuoso who controlled fire, cured the blind, healed mad cows, banished snakes, turned water into honey and tamed wolves as well or better than his druidic rivals.

Another remarkable attribute of the “Apostle of Ireland” was his command of the Irish language. In my juvenile mind’s ear this was a big deal. When I imagined Saint Patrick, an Englishman, speaking our ancient teanga, I was inclined to hear the Beatles, the most famous Englishmen in the world, speaking Irish. And since an Englishman speaking Irish wasn’t something you would ever expect to hear in “true life”, this capacity of the first Paddy’s, if not quite as amazing as the snake-banishing and wolf-taming, was still a sensational one.

Duh! Even if he did hail from somewhere north of the Beatle Country, Saint Patrick wasn’t English like the Beatles, or any of my cousins. As a fifth-century Romano-Briton, his mother tongue is likely to have been an aboriginal British language, i.e. a Celtic one, so he wouldn’t have had much difficulty in making himself understood in Ireland, or Gaul for that matter. (Bua, for example, the Irish word for victory, is a recognizable component of the name of the insurgent queen Boudicca.) It’s still the same for speakers of Romance, Germanic or Slav languages: if one of them is your mother tongue, it’s relatively (sorry!) easy to understand other languages of the same family. Hence, Patrick’s ready success as a Christian missionary among the heathen Irish, which was replicated, nearly three hundred years later, by the success of the Frisian-speaking Briton known as Saint Boniface among the Germanic-speaking barbarians of Continental Europe.

It’s an irony of “progress” that pre-modern people were better at languages than most of us are today: better at listening and learning, and remembering things by heart. The printed word can block the connections between words and make them seem more “foreign” and difficult. I see examples of this all the time. Take seomra, the Irish word for “room”, which sounds so similar but looks so different from the French chambre. But I’m way out of my depth when it comes to the emergence and divergence of European languages, which deficiency brings me back to the expertise of Nicholas Ostler, author of the aforementioned “biography of Latin and the world it created” (Ad Infinitum, London 2007).

Rude Britannia

image2Nicholas Ostler considers the reasons why Britannia, unlike other former provinces of the Roman Empire, didn’t generate its own Latin-based vernacular.

“Preconquest Britain, to judge from the names of its leaders, had spoken a language much like continental Gaulish; yet there is little evidence that Latin ever trickled down to become the usual language of the common people in Britain, as it did in Gaul.”

One explanation is that the island province of Britannia, for all its economic importance, was always inclined to go its own way, and considered a cold and wet back of beyond by elite Romans. But while this insularity may explain why Latin didn’t put down roots as the basis of an everyday, majority language, it doesn’t explain the extinction of the Celtic language, or dialects, spoken by those natives of Britannia who lived in the area of present-day England (apart from Cornwall).

For late Victorian scholars, and contributors to the encyclopaedias and reference books of my childhood, it was a simple matter of the survival of the fittest. Left to their own primitive devices after the departure of the Romans, the ancient British natives were slaughtered, or pushed into the Celtic-speaking “fringes” of Wales and the West Country, by hordes of superior, all-conquering Germanic-speakers: Angles, Jutes, Saxons and assorted Scandinavians. But even if this simple-minded social Darwinist picture is set aside, we are still left with a scenario, confirmed by DNA evidence, in which much of sixth-century eastern and southern England was settled by new people. However much these newcomers may have despised or oppressed the natives, they are unlikely to have obliterated all trace of them because subject races make useful slaves (and wives!).

So what really happened? We will never know for sure, but it seems that parts of the Atlantic Islands were ravaged by a deadly plague of the middle decades of the sixth century, leaving a drastically reduced population in no fit state to resist an influx of healthy newcomers, or sustain their native language and culture. Another complication is the possibility that, far from being a case of armed mass migrations, the establishment of Anglo-Saxon communities in England may have been a gradual process: a case of established coastal enclaves growing and spreading, not always at the point of swords and battleaxes. This scenario fits with the Roman strategy of encouraging some barbarians to settle on their borders, the idea being that these relatively tame barbarians would provide the best defence against proper savages.

Hearts and minds

New kinds of evidence, and more accommodating attitudes on the part of historians and archaeologists, are making the ancient history of our islands more complicated, and even more interesting. Nothing about our stories is as straightforward as it was in the days when invading peoples and ideologies were given immediate, blanket coverage, consigning to oblivion everything that came before them. The first Christians made common cause with the common people of the Mediterranean world, but from the time of the Emperor Constantine onwards, it was also a prestigious religion, associated with the rich and powerful as well as the masses. Thereafter, a top-down strategy made sense for Christian missionaries in heathen parts. By concentrating their efforts on the hearts and minds of the ruling families, they hoped to get royal backing for the eventual conversion of their humbler subjects. The Venerable Bede wrote the history of this process in England. He describes how Saint Paulinus recommended Christianity to a group of Anglo-Saxon nobles, suggesting that their lives without the one true God were as transient and ultimately meaningless as the accidental flight of a sparrow on a winter’s night, into a long hall and then, after a few moments of warmth and light, back out into the cold and dark. This is such an unforgettable metaphor that I think it must have been inspired by the flight of an actual sparrow through an actual feasting hall.

Before Christianity went global, its evangelists were great improvisers, pragmatic and relatively generous in their approach to pre-Christian values and traditions. So long as the core beliefs of the new religion were accepted, the lesser old gods might be reconstructed as local saints; the old feast of the new year might become the new feast of all souls; the winter solstice might be celebrated as Christ’s birthday, and so on. Saint Patrick was a man of intense faith and extraordinary purpose, but the resounding success of his mission owed something to his sympathetic understanding of pagan Irish society. And so it came to pass that, just as the world created by Latin and Rome was in crisis on the Continent of Europe, it was finding a haven among the tribes of a peripheral island.

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