An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 25, 2020

Flechner: Saint Patrick Retold

Roy Flechner, Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Máire Johnson (

As suggested by his title, Roy Flechner here revisits the career and context of Ireland’s most well-known saint, Patrick. As a focus of spiritual devotion, popular embrace, and academic fascination, Patrick has been analyzed by hagiologists, historians, Latinists, theologians, biblical scholars, and Christian devotees alike—and this list accounts for only a fraction of those who have dissected Patrick’s life and legend over the last century or so. Given this enormous amount of attention, it is pleasantly surprising when a study can add something novel to the conversation, and on this Flechner’s work delivers. He repeats the work of others in the service of explaining the complex and lengthy field of scholarship to date, and then he suggests potential new and genuinely original paths to tread. He explicitly writes for both an academic and for a popular audience (xvi–xvii), laying out his study in approachable prose while also providing a sufficient evidentiary footprint—primary sources cited in chapter endnotes, an annotated bibliography of relevant secondary works—for researchers (and others) to follow. Like many prior assessments of Saint Patrick, Flechner closely attends to the only two extant texts the saint himself left to us, his apologetic Confession and his polemic Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, to which he adds the commentary of some of Patrick’s contemporaries about Britain and Ireland and, where possible, the archaeology of both islands during the saint’s era. Flechner then goes further, however, and offers a fresh perspective on this data by including Roman law and Roman rhetoric. Flechner is quite open that his interpretations and suggestions have provoked controversy (xvi), but he asserts that it is essential to assess not only the portrait of Patrick from all available evidence but also the critical ambiguities within Patrick’s own testimony to obtain the clearest and most dimensional understanding of the man, his context, and his impact on Ireland’s conversion to Christianity (xvi, 1–2).

Flechner explains the nature and challenges of the evidence in his introductory chapter (1–28). He notes that Saint Patrick’s two surviving works were each composed for specific purposes and directed at specific audiences; to argue his points effectively, therefore, Patrick combined classical Latin and late antique Christian exegetical traditions in a rhetorical framework well in keeping with his own likely education and with the intellectual milieu of his day. Flechner observes that, as the son of an elite Romano-British citizen, Patrick probably learned the rhetorical technique of argumentum, by which a point could be presented without necessarily having all details of that point be strictly accurate. The saint’s compositional style would also have woven together the factual and allegorical, as evidenced by frequent biblical allusion, with the likely result that neither Patrick’s Confession nor his Letter can be taken as straightforward, thoroughly correct reports (25). Given that Patrick wrote to convince his readers of the righteousness of his own stance—on one hand defending himself in his Confession against accusations of corruption and insubordination (among other things) leveled at him by his British ecclesiastical colleagues, and on the other condemning a group of warriors for their unrepentant enslavement of Patrick’s flock in his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus—Flechner’s point deserves consideration. It is not that the saint was dishonest, Flechner argues, but rather that his rhetorical approach and his promotion of a higher Christian goal meant that his two texts need to be assessed with a greater eye to the allegorical layers than has generally been the standard. Use of that wider perspective, Flechner observes, also can detangle the “internal ambiguities” of Patrick’s accounts and further flesh out his portrait (xvi).

In Chapter One (29–60), Flechner assesses the sociopolitical context of the fourth- and fifth-century Britain within which Patrick was born and came of age. The saint testifies that his father was a decurion who owned a villa and a fair number of slaves, which Flechner points out would have been accompanied by the expectation that he serve on the local town council (curia); these details all suggest that Roman law and administration held sway for some—if not all—of Patrick’s childhood, and that the saint was, at the very least, born at some point before Rome officially withdrew its involvement from Britain in 410. Patrick’s comment that his father took clerical orders further indicates that Christianity was reasonably widespread; it also raises the possibility that he may have entered the clergy to evade the more onerous obligations of his decurionate, particularly the requirement that he make up shortfalls in the tax collection from his own resources. This form of debt flight, Flechner highlights, was a rising challenge of the later Roman Empire. Once his father became a cleric, which the saint recounts occurred when he himself was fifteen years old, Patrick himself would have been expected to assume both his father’s office as decurion and its associated seat on the town council very shortly thereafter. Flechner uses this data along with Patrick’s admission that he sold his nobility, and that the charges he later faced from his ecclesiastical superiors involved an offense he committed at age fifteen, to suggest that Saint Patrick’s captivity narrative may be allegorical. It is possible, Flechner speculates, that the sixteen-year-old saint was not abducted as a slave, but rather that he fled to Ireland to escape the official burdens he inherited from his father. If true, this could explain why the saint felt it so necessary in his Confession to prove to his superiors that his first sojourn in Ireland was entirely against his will. Flechner acknowledges that some of these possibilities cannot be corroborated, but he also asserts that Saint Patrick’s own words, his “inconsistencies”, “chance mentions”, and admissions of his controversial status in the eyes of his British contemporaries, together provide enough clues to plausibly support Flechner’s proposed reconstruction of the saint’s life and actions (58).

Chapter Two (61–93) then discusses Ireland’s sociopolitical structures in the first through fourth centuries and considers the island’s importance to and connections with Britain and the Roman Empire both before and during Patrick’s era. Flechner relies on the saint’s admittedly scanty mentions, on Iron Age archaeology for both islands, and on Roman descriptions of Ireland to reconstruct a rough outline of the Irish society, economy, and culture Patrick would have encountered. The Ireland that emerges is rural, agrarian, and inhabited by a kin-based society whose warrior elites created and maintained their status through rituals of gift exchange. This society was not ruled by Rome, though Ireland did trade with and raid Roman Britain, including the seizure and sale of slaves. Flechner acknowledges that this picture, too, is incomplete and not always free of controversy, but argues that it offers at least a sense of the context Patrick had to navigate. As a brief aside, Chapter Two also includes the only typographical error this reviewer observed: on page 90, line 28, the sentence would make much greater sense if “continence” were replaced by “countenance.”

Flechner delves into Saint Patrick’s account of his first arrival in Ireland as a captive in Chapter Three (94–118), a narrative primarily preserved in the saint’s Confession. Flechner points out inconsistencies, ambiguities, and biblical allusions throughout the story, and argues that Patrick not only had a vested interest in convincing his ecclesiastical colleagues that his initial journey to Ireland was not undertaken by his choice, and that his escape was therefore an act of bravery, but also that his later mission to Ireland fulfilled a biblical model of conversion. A fleeing slave, however, would have been extremely unlikely to successfully travel from one side of Ireland to the other without facing recapture or death, and there is no clear explanation of how, upon his return to Britain, the saint so easily re-entered his prior elite life years after he supposedly had been taken. Flechner notes that if Patrick was or was believed to have been abducted, Roman law would have permitted him, as an escaped captive, to regain both his property and his free status; the saint also could have used that claim to counter his superiors’ charges either that he fled to Ireland for personal profit or that he tried to avoid prosecution for his undefined teenaged misdeed—the sin which, as noted in Chapter One, may have been Patrick’s attempt to outrun his decurial obligations. Flechner asserts that the combination of legal references and scriptural allusion in the saint’s captivity narrative, to say nothing of the narrative’s centrality to his entire self-portrait and identity, strongly suggest that Patrick intended the story to be understood both literally and allegorically. Though Flechner acknowledges that neither Patrick’s narrative nor Flechner’s proposed interpretations of that narrative can be proven from the extant evidence, he also reiterates that a critical approach should not reject out of hand the possibility that the saint described that first Irish journey as an abduction into slavery to justify his own actions, preserve his status at home, and protect himself from the charges later laid against him for misdeeds in both Britain and Ireland.

Because so much of Saint Patrick’s story and tradition are concerned with the introduction of Christianity to the Irish, Flechner devotes Chapter Four (119–153) to trying to reconstitute the pre-Christian religion Patrick would have encountered. He first dismantles the evidence other scholars have used to argue for the existence of a universal “Celtic religion” shared across continental and insular Western Europe, and then looks to Roman descriptions of Britain and Ireland, together with the occasional hints Patrick himself provides and whatever scanty bits can be gleaned from Iron Age British and Irish archaeology—with the caveat that much of current interpretation of the archaeological data rests heavily upon much later medieval writings all produced by Christian authors in a predominantly Christian milieu—to try to reformulate Iron Age Irish paganism. Flechner is able to extract a few details, such as an adherence to polytheism, a likely solar focus, and the practice of votive offerings at ritual centers and watery locales, but on the whole he finds it essentially “impossible” to really piece together anything like a solid portrait either of pre-Christian insular religion or of the changes that Christianity wrought in its traditions. In the end, he writes, early Ireland’s conversion may best be encapsulated in the archaeological evidence that pagan ritual sites were reused for generations, even for centuries, following the arrival of the new faith. To Flechner, these data embody the “delicate and prolonged negotiations” of a lengthy and often complex transition from one religion to the next (152).

In Chapter Five (154–181), Flechner once again focuses on the words and deeds of Saint Patrick himself rather than on his context, and analyzes both Patrick’s missionary activities and the ecclesiastical structures that he established. Flechner highlights how the saint’s Confession and Letter suggest that Patrick not only considered his mission the fulfillment of a divine command but also that his labor was critical for ushering in the End of Days. Patrick is scarce with details about his conversion methods, however, and he likely exaggerates at least some of his successes. Flechner notes that Patrick’s inability to ordain bishops or archbishops indicates that the ecclesiastical hierarchy in conversion-era Ireland was rather incomplete. That the saint focused his work on elite sons and daughters may further suggest a top-down conversion strategy that would have given Christianity a toehold in Irish society while Ireland’s rulers could preserve their status and sovereignty by remaining pagan. Flechner offers evidence that receipt of payment for performing ordinations or baptisms was not unusual in Late Antiquity; that Patrick explicitly insists upon his refusal of jewelry or other moveable valuables, therefore, does not preclude the possibility that he may have accepted parcels of land that he then used for ecclesiastical foundations. Where Patrick’s Confession offers glimpses of Patrick’s baptismal creed, however, his Letter describes his abducted converts as catechumens but does not shed light on the nature of the catechumenate itself. The saint’s accounts also say nothing about any other contemporary missions to Ireland—even the papally-dispatched work of Palladius attested in other sources of the day—nor does Patrick write much about pagan sites, the building of churches, the existence of other saints or their cults, or the veneration of relics, all elements that become extraordinarily prominent in Patrick’s medieval hagiography.

Flechner examines Patrick’s image in those later works in Chapter Six (183–217). He observes, as have other scholars, how medieval hagiographers often deployed the elements missing from Patrick’s reports, such as relic veneration, in the service of property and primatial claims in the seventh century and thereafter. This portrait of Patrick thus fleshes out the somewhat terse historical figure of Late Antiquity with the miracles, interactions with other saints, and many additional details so familiar to the saint’s legend. Over the course of the Irish Middle Ages, Flechner observes, the Patrician dossier continually accreted more and more components to it, especially as Patrick’s cult expanded outside of Ireland into Britain, Brittany, Gaul, and well beyond. It is thus in these medieval texts that Saint Patrick truly becomes Ireland’s premier saint.

Fletcher concludes his study with an epilogue (218–225) in which he brings the transmission of Patrick’s legend and veneration up to the twenty-first century. Flechner especially focuses on how the saint’s cult was at first restricted and then claimed by both Catholics and Protestants from the sixteenth century forward; while Catholics promoted Patrick to advance the Irish church and, eventually, an independent Irish nation, Protestants—with the noted exception of the oppressive legislation in force from 1695 to 1822—asserted that Patrick’s presumed distance from papal orthodoxy was proof that Ireland’s church had always looked away from Rome. Today, Flechner observes, Patrick’s popularity not only persists but encompasses both spiritual and secular concerns, contributing significantly to “the shaping of identities” both personal and national (233). Flechner ultimately reiterates that the reconstruction of Saint Patrick’s historical and religious contexts is critical for a more complete understanding not only of Patrick’s activities but also of the motivations for and intended audiences of his written works. This type of reconstruction, he argues, can resolve apparent inconsistencies in the saint’s narrative, such as his identity either as a missionary who also owned (and perhaps sold) slaves, or as a man whose youth may have been radically different from the devotional, faith-centered adult he became. Flechner concludes that a critical and objective assessment in which fact provides the foundations for plausible educated speculation can, within reason, “humanize a personality who is too often mystified by the distance of time and reverential deference” (234).

There is little question that Flechner’s approach provokes controversy, as he himself notes (xvi). Those whose spiritual devotion for Saint Patrick is formulated upon a deeply beloved portrait of him, for example, might find it difficult to consider the suggestion that Patrick could have claimed an experience of abduction to sidestep accusations that he fled inherited governmental obligations, or that he could feasibly have maintained his financial resources as a missionary in Ireland by selling his family’s estate slaves. Flechner’s forays into speculation, moreover, could prompt some scholars to raise their eyebrows solely because they are educated imaginings. Yet Flechner’s work is consistently informed by the evidence of Saint Patrick’s own historical, social, and religious milieu without much reliance on his later medieval hagiography, in and of itself a departure from much of the Patrician field of study. As a result, even Flechner’s guesswork is grounded in reasonable interpretations both of the extant data and of potential relationships for which the data is, as yet, incomplete, missing, or unknown. Flechner could have easily engaged in much wider flights of imagination, but he does not; instead, he emphasizes a critical and objective approach and encourages his audience to follow suit. In Saint Patrick Retold, Flechner does suggest some original possibilities about a saint who has been studied from a seemingly infinite number of angles. At the very least, the ideas he proposes herein should fuel new and fruitful directions for the Patrician debate.

Máire Johnson
Emporia State University