Sunday 4 March 2012

The Rediscovery of Saint Patrick's Letters

I found Philip Freeman's summary of the use of Saint Patrick's writings by later writers very useful. It seems to me such a blessing that we have the actual writings of our 5th-century patron saint that it is sobering to reflect that it is really only in the last hundred years that they have been made accessible to the general reader:

Though Patrick's letters survived, they were never well known. The Irishman Muirchú, who wrote the first biography of Patrick about 650, had access, if not to copies of Patrick's letters, at least to some source that contained parts of them. In the writing of Muirchú, amid the fanciful miracles of a wonder-working Patrick and the comical transformation of the tyrant Coroticus into a fox as punishment for his evil raid, we see only glimpses of the real Patrick known from his letters.

Bishop Tírechán, who wrote soon after Muirchu, gives an imaginative and elaborate account in which Patrick arrives on the island accompanied by a vast entourage of bishops, priests, deacons, and exorcists. He travels the land founding churches, performing miracles, and ordaining hundreds of bishops, but little of the historical Patrick shines through in Tírechán's story either. Others - Nennius, William of Malmesbury, Jocelin of Furness - wrote of Patrick in the following centuries, but their work is fiction meant to inspire Christians to a heavenly life, not to describe accurately the labours of a fifth-century Roman missionary.

Copies of Patrick's letters did survive, however, and as they spread to France and Britain, they were occasionally read by a curious monk. Patrick was moderately well known throughout the Middle Ages, but only via the fanciful tales of Muirchú and similar stories. Almost no one knew the genuine writings of Patrick himself.

His letters were finally rediscovered in the seventeenth century by churchmen in France and the British Isles. The Irish bishop James Ussher, best known for dating the creation of the world precisely to 4004 B.C., consulted the letters. James Ware, a Protestant minister, produced the first scholarly edition of Patrick's letters in 1656, using the manuscripts from Ireland and England. The French Catholic clergyman Denis discovered the manuscript of Patrick's letters at Arras, and published them in 1668.

Patrick's letters were restricted to those who read Latin until the nineteenth century, when the first English translations appeared. In the last hundred years more than a dozen editions of the letters have been published. In spite of this proliferation, the writings of Patrick are poorly known to this day. Everyone has heard of Saint Patrick, of course, but the man most people know is little more than an icon who drove the snakes out of Ireland. This lack of knowledge about the real Patrick is truly regrettable, because he has such an amzing story to tell: a tale of slavery and brutality, pain and self-doubt, sorrow and constant struggle, but ultimately of perseverance, hope and faith. His letters, in the end, remain as a remarkable gift from an extraordinary man.

Philip Freeman, Saint Patrick of Ireland - a Biography (Simon and Schuster, 2005), 167-169.

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